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No, the U.S. is not obligated to intervene in Ukraine

VERIFY: Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so the U.S. is not required to provide help.

WASHINGTON D.C., DC — As Russia launches an invasion of Ukraine this week, the U.S. has played a key role in trying to avoid conflict between the two countries. 

After Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into parts of eastern Ukraine and then launched a full-fledged invasion, the U.S. and its allies have continued to impose sanctions on Russian assets in an effort to reverse the country's advances. 

The move has left many wondering what part would the U.S. play militarily if the aggression continues and Ukraine cannot defend itself.

THE QUESTION

Now that Russia has launched a mass invasion of Ukraine, does the United States have an obligation to intervene?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

No, the U.S. does not have an obligation to intervene in Ukraine if Russia launches a full-fledged invasion, despite political pressure and a feeling of responsibility, since Ukraine is not one of the 30 countries in NATO.

WHAT WE FOUND

NATO was formed after WWII to prevent aggressive escalation by any world power, and Article 5 of its founding treaty binds the members to help each other if it happens: “The parties agree that if an armed attack occurs, each of them will assist, including the use of armed force.”

“We are sending more weapons to Ukraine,” Koenig explained. “But that is not at all the same as sending troops or actually posting American forces in Ukraine.”

In his address to the nation on Tuesday, President Biden said, "The United States, together with our allies, will defend every inch of NATO territory"

That clarifying phrase “of NATO territory” was not accidental. While 30 countries are in NATO, Ukraine is NOT one of them.  It’s technically a “partner country” – which does NOT give it the same benefits as full-fledged members, like, say, Canada or the Netherlands or Romania.

“We do not have an obligation - like we have with NATO allies - to defend Ukraine,” said Koenig. “And that's an important point. It's a point that is made all the time by President Biden and others in various ways, to make clear that we have a treaty obligation to allies that we do not have with Ukraine.”

Koenig explained that the ethical responsibility is different from the codified requirement to step in. “We need to do what is in our national interest and what is right,” he said. “This is already an outrageous violation of international law, especially in Europe since the end of the Cold War. So we need to react very, very firmly. And we're already doing that.”

It’s important to note that the United States can intervene militarily if it chooses, through Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, which essentially gives any nation the right to defend any other U.N. country that is illegally invaded. 

However, Koenig believes it is highly unlikely President Biden would send troops into Ukraine. “Russia has a tactical, operational advantage in Ukraine, even if the United States were to become more deeply involved. That's one reason why countries don't want Ukraine in NATO, because we cannot defend Ukraine from Russia.”

“The risk of escalation would be very, very high,” he added. “And (with) Russia, the high end of escalation is nuclear war. So, we have got to proceed with a lot of caution with regard to direct military engagement. I don't think that's what we would choose. We would try to find more and more non-military inducements to get Russia to change its behavior.”

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