Photo courtesy of Russian-produced MiG-29 jets courtesy of Peter Gronemann.
The successful Russian annexation of Crimea, and the threat of aggression in eastern Ukraine, have left smaller NATO members in the ex-Soviet sphere of influence worried.
Even Poland and the Baltic nations have raised concerns, despite their recent membership in NATO, which guarantees protection against outside aggression.
The former has called for the deployment of 10,000 NATO troops in its territory to protect against potential Russian aggression, while the Baltic nations have committed to boost their defense spending.
Russia, on the other hand, feels encircled by the recent expansion of NATO (see the alliance’s growth in the image below), and has accused the West of using the crisis to boost its appeal.
NATO expansion since 1949, courtesy of Wikipedia.
But what would actually happen if a NATO country is attacked, as unlikely as it seems?
All for one, one for all
By the text of the treaty, “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”
If such an attack happens, all parties will assist the country being attacked through “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.”
The article has only been invoked once before, however, after the September 11 terrorist attacks. And that operation was limited to NATO assistance with surveillance flights above the U.S.
In other words, the willingness and ability of the alliance to mobilize troops in the face of aggression has never really been tested.
Neither does the treaty guarantee the use of force to assist an ally under attack, although a U.S. pledge to do so has been at the core of the alliance, according to the Congressional Research Service.
But amidst a drawdown of both U.S. and European defense spending, U.S. fatigue after Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. pivot to Asia, some analysts worry that the alliance is at a historically weak point
Of course, NATO still accounts for about 58% of the world’s military spending, according to Stars and Stripes magazine.
It also has a total of 3,370,000 service members, most of which are stationed in Europe compared to Russia’s 766,000 which are scattered across its massive landmass and four military districts.
And despite the sweeping modernization that Russian forces have seen over the last decade, and particularly in the six years since the Georgian War, few believe Russia could stand up to NATO in a conventional fight.
Some worry that Russia is keeping the option of limited nuclear strikes open as a way of “de-escalating” or deterring aggression towards Russian interests.
But most recent changes in Russian doctrine, reserve that possibility only in “existential” threats against the Russian state.
More likely, Russian efforts would focus on more subtle methods of war, like “information warfare” through propaganda, in order to project its interests.
But for NATO, if Russian tanks start rolling cross an ally’s border, it will come down to the willingness to use force to protect its latest members – and the legitimacy of the alliance itself.