NATO leaders (seen on screen) attend a video summit on Russia's invasion of the Ukraine at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on February 25, 2022.

NATO leaders (seen on screen) attend a video summit on Russia's invasion of the Ukraine at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on February 25, 2022. AFP via Getty Images / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD

NATO Deploys Response Forces; Warns Russia ‘We Will Defend Every Inch’ of Alliance

Rare emergency summit produces unprecedented order to activate a wide range of ready capabilities.

NATO leaders agreed on Friday to immediately deploy elements of the alliance’s emergency military forces, adding troops and firepower to bolster defenses along its Eastern front. 

The unprecedented deployment is meant to deter Russia—whose military is currently invading Ukraine—from attacking NATO members and to prepare alliance forces to respond quickly should an attack occur. 

“We are deploying elements of the NATO Response Force on land, at sea, and in the air,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, at alliance headquarters in Brussels, immediately following the summit. NATO leaders had agreed to activate the force on Thursday. 

Stoltenberg said the alliance has never before collectively deployed such a force. 

“We have over 100 jets at high alert operating in over 30 different locations. And over 120 ships from the High North to the Mediterranean, including three carrier strike groups,” he said. “There must be no space for miscalculation or misunderstanding. We will do whatever it takes to defend every ally, and every inch of NATO territory.” 

NATO officials provided no further details about the newly added capabilities. 

“We have met today to discuss the gravest threat to Euro-Atlantic security in decades,” NATO leaders said in a joint NATO statement. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, enabled by Belarus. We call on Russia to immediately cease its military assault, to withdraw all its forces from Ukraine and to turn back from the path of aggression it has chosen.”

“The world will hold Russia and Belarus accountable for their actions: Russia as the aggressor, Belarus as the enabler,” Stoltenberg said. “President Putin’s decision to pursue his aggression against Ukraine is a terrible strategic mistake for which Russia will pay a severe price for years to come.”  

Alliance members had already sent extra forces to NATO’s easternmost countries in the weeks before the full-scale Russian invasion that began on Wednesday. The United States has tapped roughly 14,000 additional troops to respond to Russia’s buildup: on Thursday, deployment orders were given to the latest 7,000 from Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, and Fort Stewart, in Georgia. Those troops had not left the United States by noon on Friday, Eastern Time, a senior defense official told reporters at the Pentagon.  

“These are also very much European troops,” Stoltenberg said, noting that France has the lead of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, a component of the NRF that stands ready to deploy within 48 to 72 hours.

“We are now employing elements of the NATO Response Force,” U.S. Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, NATO supreme allied commander, said in a statement. “This is an historic moment and the very first time the Alliance has employed these high readiness forces in a deterrence and defense role.” Wolters said the measure will “shield and protect the one billion citizens we swore to protect.”

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At Friday’s summit, NATO heads of state and government discussed what weapons and equipment they were sharing or willing to share as the alliance built up its deterrence force. Stoltenberg said the gear includes air defense systems, weapons that critics have argued Ukraine badly needed to clear the skies of Russian aircraft and missiles. The group collectively committed to continue to supply Ukrainian forces to fight back the Russian attack. 

Officials from the U.S. and other member countries continued to say they will not send troops to face Russian fighters directly. “We admire the courage and tenacity of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and citizens in defending their country,” Wolters said in his statement.

Yet the potential for direct NATO-Russia conflict grew in the past 24 hours. Military leaders have warned that Russia could provoke or unintentionally spark a confrontation with NATO member forces already on high alert. Russia’s foreign ministry warned of “serious military and political repercussions” on Friday after Finland’s president suggested his country may reconsider joining NATO. 

Wolters “is very focused on the need to deconflict” with Russian military operations, “to make sure that we don't have incidents—accidents—that can spiral and get out of control and create a very dangerous situation,” Stoltenberg said.

NATO leaders have frequently restated their Article V commitment to consider an attack on one member as an attack on all. “We are clear on this distinction because it is important to make sure that we don't have an even bigger crisis in Europe” said the secretary general.

“This goes far beyond Ukraine. This is about how Russia is actually challenging and contesting our core values for security, and demanding that NATO should withdraw all forces and infrastructure from almost half of our members.” 

Stoltenberg also called for additional support for non-NATO countries Georgia, Moldova, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. “There’s no security in Europe without a strong transatlantic bond.” 

Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who had massed 190,000 Russian troops along the Ukraine’s border and within Belarus, has sent about 50,000 of them into Ukraine since Wednesday. On Friday, an amphibious force began landing troops “to the west of Mariupol” on the Azov coastline, the official said. Officials expect more to come. U.S. officials believe Russia’s assaulters met more Ukrainian resistance than they expected, but also Russia has appeared to hold back, by not targeting Ukraine’s command-and-control networks, nor overwhelming the country with land forces. Putin’s stated goal is to take Kyiv and replace the Ukrainian government. 

“We call on Russia to stop this senseless war, immediately cease its assaults, withdraw all its forces from Ukraine, and turn back to the path of dialogue and turn away from aggression,” said Stoltenberg. 

“The Russian people must know the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine will not make Russia more secure. It will not make Russia more respected in the world. It will not lead to a better future for your children.” 

At a press conference after the NATO summit, Stoltenberg said that “Russia has walked away” from the NATO-Russia Founding Act—officially, the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security—in which Moscow agreed to respect territorial boundaries. Putin has “constantly violated” the agreement since invading Crimea in 2014, he said. 

“So what we see is Russia shall show no respect for the NATO-Russia Founding Act. If you have a Founding Act between two partners, NATO and Russia, and one partner does not respect that agreement, the agreement doesn't work,” he said.