What would trigger Nato involvement in Ukraine war?

Airstrikes near Polish border prompt warning of ‘full-force’ response from military alliance

A man injured in the Yavoriv attack is assisted by medical personnel
A man injured in the Yavoriv attack is assisted by medical personnel
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Russian airstrikes on a Ukrainian military base around 12 miles from the Polish border have prompted warnings that Nato will respond with military force to any aggression levelled at a member state.

The attack on the Yavoriv base killed 35 people and injured 134, with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan declaring “that any fire, even accidental, on a neighbouring Nato country would trigger a full-force Nato response”, The Guardian reported.

The UK described the strikes as a “significant escalation” in the conflict. The base has long been “viewed with suspicion by Russia”, the paper added, with state media claiming “falsely that in the past the facility was a secret Nato base in Ukraine”.

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‘Aid way-station’

The Ukrainian base, situated between the border with Poland and the city of Lviv, was being used by “western volunteers” at the time of the Russian strike, according to The Times’ Middle East correspondent Richard Spencer.

The “volley of missiles” that landed near the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre were heard “for miles around”, he said, “shaking windows and lighting up the pre-dawn sky”. The decision to attack a site used by volunteers has seen “the war in Ukraine moved to the frontiers of the European Union and Nato”, Spencer added.

Simon Shuster, a Time magazine reporter who was near the site of the airstrikes, tweeted that Russia “had to assume Americans were likely to be killed or injured” in the attack. A coordinator based at the site told him “the base was a hub for 1000s” of volunteers who were “coming from all over to help Ukraine”.

When The Times’ Spencer visited the site a week ago, he said it was “being used as a way-station for all sorts of aid, including food”. Lviv, the nearest major city, has also become “a gathering point for people displaced across the country, and hundreds of thousands have passed through on their way to western Europe”.

According to The Guardian, “there has been speculation” in the Russian media that the “area has been used to receive incoming weapons shipments for Ukraine’s military and in the training of the large numbers of foreign volunteers flocking to the country”.

The Times added that “in peacetime the base was used by Ukrainian troops and western trainers under a Nato scheme to improve the army’s capabilities”. After the attack, the alliance repeated that there are “no military personnel from member states” in Ukraine.

Conflict escalation

The strike on the base “is thought to be the westernmost carried out by Russia in 18 days of fighting”, The Guardian said, and came just 24 hours after Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that Western aid shipments to Ukraine were “legitimate targets”.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an address shortly after the attack that “it’s only a matter of time” before Russian aerial attacks hit the homes of people living in Nato member states unless a no-fly zone is enforced over Ukraine.

“Nothing was happening there that could threaten the territory of the Russian Federation,” he said of the base attack. “And only 20 kilometres away are Nato borders. Last year, I made a clear warning to Nato leaders that if there were no tough preventive sanctions against Russia, it would start a war. We were right.

“If you do not close our sky, it is only a matter of time before Russian missiles fall on your territory, Nato territory. On the homes of citizens of Nato countries.”

Western leaders have repeatedly ruled out the possibility of a Nato enforced no-fly zone, arguing that it could require member states to engage Russia militarily, a move that could trigger a global war.

Echoing the warning by US National Security Adviser Sullivan, UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid this morning told Sky News: “If there was an attack on any Nato country, even just a single toe cap of a Russian soldier steps into Nato territory, it will be a war with Nato and Nato would respond.

“There would be a significant response from Nato if there was any kind of attack from Russia, we've been very, very clear on that.”

Balancing act

Ukrainian authorities have denied Russian claims that the 35 people killed in the strike included “members of the ‘foreign legion’ of international recruits that include British, American and other western volunteers”, The Times reported. Moscow had claimed, without evidence, that the strike killed up to 180 “foreign mercenaries”.

But “the attack so near a Nato member-country” has “raised the possibility that the alliance could be drawn into the fight”, Associated Press said. The assault “was heavy with symbolism in a conflict that has revived old Cold War rivalries and threatened to rewrite the current global security order”.

The news agency added: “The site is a potent symbol of Russia’s longstanding concerns that the expansion in recent years of the 30-member Western military alliance to include former Soviet states threatens its security – something Nato denies.”

That Russia would strike a target so close to the military alliance’s border sent a “stark message” to Nato leaders, the Financial Times said. If “Putin felt he had not been clear enough that Nato’s continued support for Kyiv risks making it a combatant in the war in Ukraine”, the strike near Poland’s territory “made the threat brutally direct”.

For member states’ military officials the air strike is “the latest in a growing list of provocative steps towards Nato by Moscow, from nuclear readiness to chemical weapons allegations”, the paper added.

“It emphasises that the US-led military alliance faces an increasingly difficult task in avoiding conflict with Moscow while also encouraging its members to provide Ukraine as much support as possible.”

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