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Russia, NATO, and Article V

By Will Richmond

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is the most important military alliance in the World. It underpins U.S. foreign policy from Washington D.C., to Islamabad, and beyond. The U.S. signed the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949, and after all parties’ treaty ratified it, the treaty came into force on August 24, 1949.[1] Article V of the Treaty generally provides that an attack against one organization member is an attack against all members.[2] Recently, Article V has been a significant source of speculation and contention amongst NATO member states, especially those in Eastern Europe.

Over the past year, Russia has re-entered the forefront of European politics and NATO with a bang. After annexing Crimea nearly a year ago, Russia has initiated and supported the armed revolt of Pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.Several days ago, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges claimed that there was approximately 12,000 Russian military personnel in Ukraine, and that is not including the additional 29,000 troops stationed in Crimea.[3] Russia’s justification for their actions is centered on the policy that they have an obligation to protect Russian-speaking persons everywhere in the world. Fortunately for the U.S. and NATO, Ukraine was not a member state. However, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, collectively known as the Baltic States, are NATO members, and each of them has two things in common. First, they have large Russian-speaking populations, and second, they share a border with Russia.

Seeing how quickly Russia was able to plunge Ukraine into a state of war, and watching the impotent response from the International Community, the Baltic NATO members have recently sought assurances that NATO, particularly the U.S., will invoke Article V and come to their aid. Although President Obama has repeatedly professed that the U.S. will stand by its Baltic allies, they may still have cause for concern.[4] The relevant part of Article V says that NATO members “will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”[5] In fact, this is the same language that the U.S. used to create a coalition and coax NATO members into participating in the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11.[6]

Unfortunately for our Baltic allies, the language in Article V hardly guarantees that the U.S will offer direct military assistance if Russia were to attack or stir up trouble in the Baltic. Rather, NATO members are only obligated to take action that they believe is reasonably calculated to restore order and bring about the cessation of hostilities. The reality is that the U.S. and its NATO allies do not have sufficient forces in Europe to repel a sudden Russian attack on the Baltics without the conflict escalating into a much wider European ground war. Thus, the relevant legal interpretation of Article V in the event of a Russian attack would primarily be a balancing of two interests. Would a NATO vs. Russia military confrontation restore and improve the security situation in the North Atlantic area, or would NATO members see the costs of such action as being too high and prefer to grudgingly accept Russia’s action?

With WWII a mere seventy-five years in the rear view, it hard to contemplate that another general European war could plague the continent, however, the signs are there. Throughout the past several months, hundreds of thousands of Russian troops have conducted numerous “surprise” military exercises near the Baltic States.[7] If Russia does decide to attack, the Baltic States will need to provide a stout enough defense to convince the U.S. and other NATO allies that their intervention is necessary and that the cost and security of not intervening militarily is unacceptably high.

[2] Id.

[5] See footnote 1.


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