President Joe Biden has stated repeatedly that the US will not send troops to fight Russia in Ukraine, but has vowed to defend NATO allies.
“As I previously stated, the US will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power,” he reiterated in a Thursday address.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1949 with the primary objective of fostering mutual assistance in response to the Soviet Union’s expansion into Europe. Article 5, a critical provision of the treaty, covers “collective defence,” which means that an attack on one ally is treated as an attack on all allies.
In the midst of the current crisis, Article 5 may require the US and other treaty members to take a more direct response if Russian aggression extends beyond Ukraine.
NATO announced last week the formation of its response force, which will consist of approximately 40,000 troops tasked with providing land, air, and naval assistance throughout the alliance. This is the force’s first deployment in a “deterrence and defence role,” according to a NATO spokesperson.
According to Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Georgetown University professor of international affairs, it is possible that Article 5 could be invoked while the US and its allies provide military assistance to Ukraine.
“Suppose Russia succeeds in overthrowing the government. And then it attempts to annex and pacify Ukraine. If the US and its allies attempt to supply arms to a Ukrainian resistance movement, there is a not insignificant risk that Russia will attempt to disrupt the supply. And that an artillery shell, a missile, or a bomb could land in Poland or another NATO country, whether on purpose or by accident,” Kupchan said.
“And then there is the possibility of an attack on NATO territory, which would trigger the Article Five collective defence guarantee, raising the prospect of military conflict between NATO and Russia,” Kupchan explained.
All participating countries agree to the article’s definition of solidarity, making it a critical component of the alliance. While Ukraine is not a NATO member, it shares borders with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania, all of which are.
Ukraine has been moving away from Russia and toward the West, attempting membership in both NATO and the European Union. According to Kupchan, its geographic location could be advantageous during this conflict.
“At the moment, Ukraine’s border with four NATO members provides it with two significant advantages,” Kupchan explained. “One is that refugees can seek asylum in NATO countries, which explains why hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing to the west. And the other is that, with Russia dominating Ukraine’s airspace, the long border between Ukraine and NATO provides an opportunity to continue funnelling weapons and other forms of assistance to Ukraine.”
Article 5 was invoked for the first time following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In 1999, the alliance identified terrorism as a threat to its security. NATO intervened in the fight against terrorism in response to the attack, launching its first operations outside the Euro-Atlantic area to patrol the skies over the United States.
NATO appeared to open the door to Ukraine’s membership in 2008, declaring that it would join the alliance despite a lack of consensus among members, Kupchan said. NATO made no mention of a path or timetable for Ukraine’s accession to the alliance.
“In 2008, the Bush administration sought to implement a Membership Action Plan for Ukraine and Georgia. And European partners were hesitant, in part because Ukraine and Georgia were not ready to join NATO and out of concern that NATO’s enlargement to Georgia and Ukraine would be viewed as provocative in Russia,” Kupchan explained.
“In light of the lack of consensus within NATO, the alliance agreed to issue a generic statement stating that Georgia and Ukraine would join the alliance, but without specifying a timetable or a pathway,” Kupchan said.
In a video address days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin linked the current crisis to Russia’s NATO demands, including a guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward. Putin accused the US and NATO of ignoring his demands and laid the blame for the Ukraine crisis squarely on the shoulders of the West.
“[Putin] has stated explicitly that he desires a reduction in NATO’s military presence on the eastern flank, which includes the three Baltic states, Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia,” Kupchan said. “He desires to see NATO reclaim its capability.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a news conference following a virtual summit of NATO leaders in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 25, 2022, following Russia’s launch of a massive military operation against Ukraine.
“One of the conflict’s tragic dimensions is that the Russians were fully aware that Ukrainian membership in NATO was not being considered. It was not an option. And NATO governments have been quite candid about it. Putin, however, chose to invade the country,” Kupchan stated.
Putin is unlikely to attack a NATO ally because he would face a “full-scale war,” he said.
“I’m guessing he realises this is a non-starter,” Kupchan said.
NATO also announced the deployment of a quick response brigade of 3,500 troops that could deploy on short notice while the larger unit assembles troops from various member nations.
“Our measures have been and will continue to be preventive, proportionate, and non-escalatory,” NATO stated last week.
According to Kupchan, it is still unknown how far west Russia will venture into Ukraine.
“It is conceivable that Russia will not attempt to seize a rump in Ukraine, and Western Ukraine has historically been much more integrated into Europe than Russia,” Kupchan said.