The Article 5 Paradox: Collective Defense or Fractured Alliance?

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

The probability of the Russian Armed Forces striking targets in NATO countries has been the subject of discussion among experts from Western countries. This discussion has been initiated in response to the news that many alliance member states have authorized the use of weapons furnished by these countries for attacks that extend into Russian territory.

The Sunday Times, a British publication, recently shed light on the logistics of the conflict. It suggested that the Polish airport of Rzeszow and the English Channel are the primary centers for the transfer of weapons to Ukraine. Other publications also reference the Greek port of Alexandroupolis, which serves as a crucial hub for cargo transshipment and subsequent transportation through the Balkans to Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine.

Therefore, Western analysts are attempting to figure out the potential Russian response to the actions of the West. In particular, they believe that it is doubtful that Russia will attack the Greek port. However, the likelihood of military targets in Rzeszow or maritime “transports” transporting weapons in the English Channel and the North Atlantic as a whole is not zero, particularly if the conflict escalates.

The Russian President has been unequivocal regarding his intentions. On March 27, in response to a query concerning the transfer of F-16 fighter jets from Western nations to Ukraine, he stated that Russia would strike any location where the planes are stationed.

“Of course, if they are operated from airfields of third countries, they become a legitimate target for us, wherever they are,” Putin said.

It implies that Russia will strike at any location if its interests are significantly impeded. That’s how the Ukraine war began. Russia also has a history of the use of military force in response to perceived threats, including the invasion of Georgia and the annexation of Crimea.

Of course, striking a NATO territory will invoke the infamous Article 5. According to Article 5 of the NATO Charter, any armed attack against any member state must be regarded as an attack against all members. As such, all members pledge to aid the attacking state or states.

So, it is important to understand the implications of invoking Article 5.

Invoking Article 5 does not mean that all the NATO members will put on their helmets and shoot at Russia. A specific military response is not mandated by Article 5. The appropriate level of assistance, which could include military force, logistical support, or other aid forms, is at each member state’s discretion. By definition, NATO’s help to Ukraine already mimics Article 5.

Ultimately, the decision to invoke Article 5 is a political one. Each member state is responsible for determining whether or not to respond to an attack and in what manner. The interpretation of Article 5 can be intricate and nuanced, and specific circumstances can always generate new questions and considerations.

There is no automatic military response. Therefore, despite the principle of collective defense, there is no absolute guarantee that each member state would inevitably agree to a full-scale offensive. Since the treaty was signed, Article 5 has only been invoked once after the 9/11 attacks. In that case, all NATO members provided some form of assistance to the United States.

Nevertheless, all NATO members are united in their desire to prevent and respond to aggression. The collective security of the entire alliance is enhanced by assisting an attacked member. The political and diplomatic repercussions of failing to provide assistance to an ally that has been attacked would be significant. It has the potential to damage NATO’s credibility and result in a fracturing of the alliance. Even though Article 5’s primary objective appears to confront Russia, NATO has never engaged in combat with Russia. NATO is, however, fighting a proxy war in Ukraine. NATO’s logic is if they can use Ukraine to fight Russia, it can avoid invoking Article 5.  

A NATO-Russia war is unimaginable right now.  

The combined forces of NATO significantly outstrip Russia’s conventional military capabilities. The Russian economy is significantly smaller than that of NATO’s collective economies and is largely reliant on energy exports. NATO’s members would also experience substantial economic disruptions. Russian cyberattacks and prospective attacks on energy infrastructure pose a threat to NATO countries. They are at risk of the conflict becoming nuclear if Russia employs tactical nuclear weapons. A protracted, high-intensity war would result in a significant loss of life for both parties. Global trade and supply channels that are essential to NATO economies would be disrupted. A protracted, violent conflict could compromise the unity and resolve of the 30 NATO members. The immediate and smaller member nations may perish. Some members may attempt to withdraw or advocate for negotiations to conclude the war, which could result in the alliance becoming splintered. NATO’s global power, influence, and legitimacy could be significantly diminished following a destructive conflict against a major power such as Russia, even if it emerges victorious militarily.

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