Ukrainian servicemen carry a fragment of a rocket outside a building in Kyiv on March 24, 2022, after it was destroyed by Russian shelling.

Ukrainian servicemen carry a fragment of a rocket outside a building in Kyiv on March 24, 2022, after it was destroyed by Russian shelling. AFP via Getty Images / SERGEI SUPINSKY

A Proposed NATO Peacekeeping Mission to Ukraine Could Deepen the Conflict

NATO should continue to support peace talks, while staying out of the war.

As Russia continues to prosecute its war of aggression against Ukraine, shelling power plants, hospitals, and military targets with seemingly indiscriminate artillery rounds, Poland has called for an armed peacekeeping mission to Ukraine to stop the bloodshed. The proposal, bound to dominate the discussion at Thursday’s emergency NATO summit, is no doubt born of a noble desire to help a neighbor in need. But no matter how noble the intent, no humanitarian outcome can warrant the risks of sending a nuclear-backed NATO contingent into the line of Russian fire.

Poland’s most influential politician, Jarosław Kaczyński, made the appeal for a NATO-led peacekeeping mission during his visit to Kyiv on March 15. In Kaczyński’s words, a humanitarian mission at the invitation of Ukraine, a sovereign state, “would be admissible under international law and would, under no circumstances, constitute a casus belli.” The peacekeeping mission should be backed by armed forces, but with no intention of engaging the Russian side, said Kaczyński, who leads the ruling Law and Justice party. The logic seems to be that so long as an armed intervention has a clearly stated humanitarian objective, it will not invite Russian retaliation or risk a wider war with NATO.

The cold response from NATO allies suggests they do not share this optimism. Asked point-blank about the Polish proposal to send troops into Ukraine the following day, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg dodged the question. Instead, Stoltenberg articulated the official position of the alliance that military and material support for Ukraine should be a means of strengthening its negotiating position in peace talks with Russia––the only lasting solution to the humanitarian crisis.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, restated President Biden’s unambiguous refusal to involve the United States in a direct conflict with Russia. Should NATO members decide to send peacekeeping forces to Ukraine, American troops would not be among them. Even the Polish Ambassador to the United States, Marek Magierowski admitted in a CNN interview that Poland was not willing to send its own troops to Ukraine under the NATO banner. Even so, the ambassador was adamant that NATO should seriously consider all options, including the peacekeeping mission, at the upcoming summit in Brussels.

The Polish government tiptoeing around its own proposal to put boots on the ground in Ukraine is as good an indication as any that the policy is ill-considered. Sending peacekeepers to Ukraine may not violate international law, but if nothing else, Putin’s unprovoked aggression against a sovereign state has demonstrated that he is far beyond the constraints of law and public censure. Whether NATO leaders like it or not, they must contend with the reality of Russian power and weigh their options to help Ukraine against the risks of escalation.

Targeting NATO troops on Ukrainian soil, especially without U.S. participation, would present Putin with an all too convenient opportunity to test the unity of the alliance under the most favorable circumstances, outside of NATO territory. Putin might choose to respond asymmetrically, for example by punishing Poland with a debilitating cyberattack for “instigating” the intervention. NATO leaders would then face irresistible pressure to show resolve and respond in kind. In the fog of war, Russian troops could accidentally fire on NATO peacekeepers or vice versa, setting in motion a chain reaction that could escalate the proxy war in Ukraine into a standoff between two nuclear superpowers that neither one wanted or foresaw. With risks of escalation so high, NATO must guard its red lines jealously while resisting the temptation to probe for Russia’s.    

Still, the mounting humanitarian crisis calls for intra-alliance solidarity. Poland has already taken in 2 million Ukrainian refugees, amounting to more than 5 percent of the entire Polish population. In addition to arming Ukraine to improve its fighting prospects, NATO working in concert with the European Union should ease the burden on frontline states like Poland, Romania, and Moldova by assisting Ukrainian refugees. But for as long as the war rages on, avenues for humanitarian relief inside Ukraine are limited. Ensuring that NATO does not get involved in the conflict and supporting Ukraine’s peace talks with Russia should thus remain NATO’s overriding objective. 

Jan Gerber is a Research Associate at Defense Priorities.