19 December 2019

Will NATO have a united response to Russia’s threats?

Sergiu Medar

Collective defense is NATO’s main mission and the main binder of the alliance’s member states. In conformity with the Washington Treaty’s article 5, if a NATO state is attacked, the Alliance’s other states are obligated to intervene with everything needed. This intervention could vary from military participation, to diplomatic or financial. There are a lot of factors which influence the decision of states which take part in support of the attacked state, both with regards to their nature and magnitude. A RAND study analyses the willingness of NATO states to military intervene in case one of the Baltic states is hypothetically attacked by Russia.

Image source: Mediafax

The US Department of Defense, wanting to analyse the willingness of European NATO member states to enforce article 5 in case of a hypothetical Russian attack, requested the RAND corporation to make a study which would answer questions posed on the subject.

One of the causes for which some states are reticent to grant military support is caused by the perception these states have regarding the threat Russia poses to their national security. The manner in which the states perceive Russia’s objectives and motivation is essential in their process of deciding how they will intervene to support the hypothetically attacked state.

In case Russia would attack and even occupy regions of a non-member, or even partner state, NATO states would not be too willing to take part in a military intervention. Article 5 cannot be invoked in this situation. The conflictual situation between Russia and Ukraine can be included in this category.

The manner in which NATO member state see Russia’s objectives has changed in time. For example, immediately after Russia’s invasion of the Georgian territory of South Ossetia, in 2008, a group of 22 intellectuals and former prominent Central European leader stated that “Russia is turning back into a revisionist power”. In 2015, the United Kingdom’s Chief of Defence commented that “Russia’s expansionist ambitions could become an existential threat to our entire national being”. In June 2018, participants at the Bucharest Nine format (eight presidents and one president of the Parliament) pleaded for a closer military cooperation, as a response to “Russia’s aggressive threat against a free and peaceful Europe”. During a 2018 interview, the chief of the Supreme Allied Command in Europe, Gen. Scaparotti, mentioned that Russia, through its aggressive foreign police, is “the main threat to Europe’s security”.

But not all states and personalities have the same opinion. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, currently chairman of the board at Rosneft, a Russian petrol and gas company with mostly state capital, publicly stated that “Russia has many internal challenges and no one in Moscow has any interest in international military conflict in Europe.

The level and nature of a NATO state response in case of a Russian aggression against a non-NATO member also depends on Moscow’s reasons for such a decision. A positive perception of member states, which leads to a consistent allied participation, be it military or not, happens when the Kremlin’s decision is based on opportunism. For example, Russia’s invasion in Georgia or the conflict with Ukraine. In the case of an aggressive attitude of Moscow against a non-member state, when Russia’s national security is threatened, the willingness of NATO states becomes moderate. Even in the case of an ally, such as the Baltic states, it is considered that a military intervention in its support would lead to a rise in Russia’s insecurity and, from there, to an unwanted escalation of the conflict.

A series of analysts consider that, in the current situation, a rise in Russia’s aggressiveness could be generated by some NATO actions which amplified the Kremlin’s sentiment of insecurity. NATO’s extension process is considered by Russia a threat to its national security. NATO presence in its nearby vicinity, in the Baltic states, Poland or Romania, strengthened by the presence of allied troops and weapons in these countries, is already akin to a military commitment of NATO states towards ensuring their security. Russia considers these as security threats to it. If we add to this NATO’s intervention in Libya, its anti-missile program, drills with real weaponry carried out in the immediate vicinity of Russia’s borders, all these made Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister Frank Walter Steinmayer – Germany’s current president – to state in 2016 that “what we are doing now is heating up the situation with a lot of noise”. His deputy with regards German diplomacy decisions, Gernot Erler, also warned about the fact that NATO’s military actions “could lead to a situation that gets out of control until it escalates to a war”.

In European states, you must alto take into account the ruling party’s colours when assessing a states willingness to take part in a military intervention in case of a hypothetical Russian military aggression against another member. Generally, left-wing and centre-left parties are more open to having a tolerant attitude towards Russia’s aggressive manifestations, than those with a centre-right or right-wing orientation. This is also one of the reasons for which Russia is secretly funding the parties favourable to it.

It is a known fact that Angela Merkel, a member of the Christian Democratic Party, criticized Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and supported economic sanctions against the Russian state and some organizations involved in the conflict, as well as restraining the travel rights of some individuals who had or still have an important role in Kremlin’s decision and its enactment.  This stance taken by the German chancellor contradicts that of the social-democrat foreign minister and its affiliates, which have a higher favourability level towards Russian than their coalition partners. At the same time, Angela Merkel openly supported Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 project, meant to construct the second pipeline connecting the natural gas provider, Russia, to the consumer, Europe.

Regarding Russia’s aggressive attitude on some European states, a PEW Foundation poll carried out in several European states showed that the decision to military intervene against a Kremlin aggression towards a NATO member state is easier to take in states which perceive Russia as a current threat. 57% of Polish responders, 44% of French ones and 40% of British ones accused Russia for its intervention in Ukraine. 70% of Polish responders, and only 38% of Germans of 40% of Italians consider that Russia is a military threat for NATO states in its immediate vicinity. Responses to the question regarding the necessity of a military intervention to a hypothetical Russian aggression showed that Germany and Italy are the less inclined to take part, while the US, Canada, the UK and Poland head the list.

In their national security policy, European NATO member states have certain priorities regarding the field. For the states which are in Russia’s vicinity, as well as for those who had historically tense relations with the Kremlin, their national security priority is the threat from Moscow and, from there, their availability to military intervene against the aggressor.

The states which are geographically situated further from Russia’s territory and which do not feel military threatened by Russia, or those which have major economic interests depending of the Kremlin’s decisions and which, from this point of view, are vulnerable to Moscow’s blackmail, are less willing to stage a military intervention, in case of a Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. We can consider the example of France, which is fighting against terrorism in Sahel, the Middle East or even on its own territory, or the fact that its interests in Mali and Algeria take priority over a hypothetical Russian aggression against a Baltic state. The same can be said about Italy, which has security interests tied to North Africa or the Middle East. With limitations of financial or military resources, these states and other European states will direct these resources towards national security priorities.

Another important argument which European states consider when deciding a possible intervention against Russian aggression is their vulnerability against an eventual military reaction from Russia. The Baltic states, Poland and Romania are the most exposed, with Moscow capable of making an immediate impact both with land and air forces. Germany, for example, could only be attacked with intermediate-range missiles. This state is, however vulnerable to Russia’s threat regarding the reduction of gas deliveries.

Eastern European states supported the presence of NATO troops on their own territory also in the idea that, if they would be attacked, this would be interpreted also as an aggression against the NATO states who sent the troops.

The military intervention to support an attacked NATO state depends also on the history and culture (in a large sense) of the specific nation. States such as the US, Canada, the UK, Poland, Romania, Spain, which proved their willingness to take part in NATO missions, will have a military participation in support of the aggressed states. Strong evidence in this regard is the fact that Romania and Poland were the two European states which accepted the presence of NATO anti-missile systems on their own territory.

The joint drills carried out by European states, be them NATO members or not, are designed to grow trust between these states and tie professional relations between the participants. They can give an additional impetus for decision makers to intervene in support of an aggressed state.

Applying the Washington Treaty’s article 5 is obligatory for NATO states. Support for a state which is under armed attack will definitely exist. Its form and consistency depends however on its power of negotiation and position on the map.

Translated by Ionut Preda