NATO’s role in the Ukrainian conflict: what is the future of NATO-Ukraine relations?

As the one-year mark of the Russian invasion of Ukraine approaches, the role of Ukraine’s allies has been closely monitored. What are neighboring countries doing to help Ukraine counter Russian forces? What are the best possible outcomes, with this type of support in place? Though many Western countries have sent equipment and firearms directly to Ukraine, actions have also been taken at the institutional level, through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Indeed, Ukraine has been one of the organization’s Enhanced Opportunities Partners (EOP) since June 2020, by recognizing that Ukraine’s “commitment to Euro-Atlantic security” is primordial.

In this context, what has NATO done concretely to restore peace in its area of action, and what will its relationship with Ukraine in the future look like? 

The Ukrainian conflict as a game changer

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has evolved into an armed conflict like no other. Three factors help explain why this conflict has taken a new form, and in turn why Ukraine’s allies have reacted in unpredictable and sometimes ambiguous ways.

First, the unprecedented role of social media in this conflict has contributed to what is now called ‘modern influence’. Few individuals on the planet have been spared the images of explosions and burnt buildings and vehicles in Ukraine, on platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. The multiplicity of these platforms has increased the number of witnesses, through all types of (mobile) devices. On top of that, President Zelensky’s many speeches and interviews on national televisions (Italy, France, Germany notably) and in universities (including Sciences Po!) have helped him gain more traction and therefore more allies: a tactic that had never been used at that scale before in such a wide-range conflict.

Furthermore, dual technology is playing a great role in this warfare. While the technology used by troops used to be for military purposes only, there are now civilian companies working as main actors on the battlefield. An example of this is Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite constellation, which has helped Ukrainians remain online during the conflict. More small-scale companies have also played a role, such as Quantum-Systems, a drone company which massively received funds during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Initially providing drones capable of aerial surveillance to border patrol agents, mining companies, and other civilian enterprises, their use has become dual. Indeed, in 2022, Quantum-Systems supplied 42 drones to the German forces, which were in turn used by the Ukrainian army.

Finally, this indirect conflict, with a long distance implication of European allies in a 1 vs 1 confrontation, could be described as a contemporary form of the Cold War. The underlying conflict is that of Russia against the Western world, with Ukraine acting as a proxy. The best way to describe this situation is that of ‘being at war, without being at war’. Though most of the world has already suffered from the consequences of this conflict, no more than two countries, Russia and Ukraine, have officially declared war. It is now up to NATO and its members to adapt to this new form of warfare in order to restore a situation of peace.

NATO’s intentions and added value to the conflict

Though NATO has faced criticism over its passivity toward Russia, there is no legal ambiguity here. Indeed, the Fifth article of the North Atlantic Treaty comprises the principle of collective defense, applicable to all NATO members, among which Ukraine is, as a reminder, not a part of. Therefore, there have never been proper NATO intentions during this conflict.

However, this does not imply that NATO has had a passive role. First, NATO provided stability to the Eastern European area, to avoid a spreading of the conflict, and with a deterrent effect. In this context, France was among the first allies to send its troops to the Baltics, with 500 soldiers deployed to Romania in what was called NATO’s Rapid Reaction Force. Furthermore, and as previously mentioned, Ukraine has been one of NATO’s EOP’s since 2020. Previously, and since 2014, American and British forces have been training their Ukrainian counterparts. During the conflict, France sent 24 Caesar howitzers to Ukraine, as part of their 5th strategic objective for the upcoming years, that of being an “exemplary ally in the Euro-Atlantic area” (National Strategic Review 2022 41). In the planning and training areas, the United States and the UK have been practicing wargaming with Ukraine in order to predict potential outcomes, and train local authorities facing difficult crisis scenarios. Therefore, burden-sharing and interoperability could be considered as NATO’s true added value to Ukraine.

Though Ukraine is not a member, it was able to participate in NATO events and implement interoperability principles to build a national decisive capability. Some of these events and conferences are held by NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT) Headquarters based in Norfolk (Virginia), whose commander is a French General since 2008, when France fully reintegrated the NATO military structure. The biannual Think-Tank for Information Decision and Execution Superiority (TIDE) Sprint or the annual Coalition Warrior Interoperability Exercice (CWIX) showed the real-life added value of connected systems developed in accordance with NATO standards. During the 2022 TIDE Sprint, Ukraine presented its new Delta digital system, which provides live battlefield information. This system had actually helped stop a 40-mile mechanized Russian convoy at the beginning of the invasion. Therefore, NATO’s interactions with Ukraine have helped its armed forces increase their level of performance, as well as develop and use modern warfare systems. Their armed forces were able to manage the support they received from member states thanks to this cooperation with NATO.

Future of NATO-Ukraine relations? 

While Ukraine remains an “Enhanced Opportunities Partner” with NATO, its relationship with the latter may be subject to change. While some may predict that Ukraine will soon become a member of NATO, the most likely outcome, in the near future, is that Ukraine will maintain its status, while furthering its implication at the institutional level. To do so, three steps may, and most likely will, be taken.

First, Ukraine forces must join training schools more often, such as the NATO School Oberammergau (NSO) in Germany, to become more aware of NATO procedures for their potential membership.

Second, Ukraine should participate as an observer in more exercises and training alongside NATO forces. For instance, Ukraine could join the Joint Warfare Center (JWC) in Norway, part of Allied Command Transformation. This center works to develop operational level warfare capabilities and “overall warfighting readiness” , and therefore directly supports NATO ACT’s missions. Another NATO training center, under NATO ACT as well, is the Joint Force Training Center (JFTC) in Poland, which Ukraine could also join during training and exercises to increase the overall readiness of NATO members forces.

A third, and more ambitious step for Ukraine defense, would be to host one of NATO’s Centres of Excellence (COEs). COEs are “international military organizations that train and educate leaders and specialists from NATO member and partner countries”. There are currently 28 of them in the world, focused on fields such as military medicine, human intelligence, cooperative cyber defense, and more. France is in the process of creating the new Space COE in Toulouse. A new COE on cyber influence operations, with the role of social media in warfare, for example, could be an initial step for Ukraine to become an integral part of NATO, as Finland did1By hosting a COE then applying to become a NATO member..

Let us remind ourselves that NATO’s goal has always been to maintain a stable global order and keep nations content, or, as some would say, equally unhappy, so long as there is global stability. Though there are many ideas which could further the NATO-Ukraine partnership, these could rapidly reignite tensions between the latter and Russia, thus running counter to these goals. Putting an end to the conflict remains the main objective, and must occur before creating any new structures or partnerships.


The Russian invasion of Ukraine has revealed a new set of challenges, due to its unique features. Social media has made the conflict visible at all levels, delivering new effects, attracting more allies to the Ukrainian side, while many tech companies have become involved, thus morphing into dual technology. Never has the role of civilian parties been so prevalent in a conflict, which uses Ukraine as a proxy to expose more long lasting and embedded geopolitical issues between Russia and the West. Though neither Russia nor Ukraine are members of NATO, the latter has proven efficient in training Ukrainian troops and supplying them, keeping their intentions of world stability in mind. It is likely thanks to NATO’s partnership with Ukraine that it has been able to increase its level of performance, its ability to receive support, and more generally make progress on the battlefield. The future of NATO-Ukraine relations is looking bright, with Ukraine most probably becoming more involved than ever in NATO exercises and think tanks, conducted in part by NATO ACT. Who knows? Ukraine will certainly bring lessons learned to NATO to win the conflicts of tomorrow. NATO has thus become an actor of great importance in the resolution of this conflict, and will benefit from it. An EU-NATO cooperation is nonetheless necessary, in a “complementary, coherent and mutually reinforcing” (Joint Declaration on EU-NATO Cooperation) manner, in order to continue “supporting international peace and security” (ibid).

Article written by Capucine Ratier, 3rd-year student in double degree Sciences Po x University of Hong Kong



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