View from Washington: Will NATO Fight?

8:57 13.04.2024 •

In 2014 I wrote the article asking the question, ‘Will NATO Fight, Talk or Trade?’ That was well before the Russian military operation in Ukraine that started in February, 2022. It was also before Europe, the US and others imposed heavy sanctions on Russia. It was before Germany lost its cheap natural gas from Russia and willingly sacrificed its investments and trade as well, notes Stephen Bryen, a former US Deputy Under Secretary of Defense.

Even so, most of the article describes what could be called the "ambiguities" of the NATO alliance, which was supposed to be a defensive alliance.  Today NATO runs an aggressive military operation well beyond the borders of its member states.

Beyond that, NATO has put its members at great risk by significantly depleting its stocks of weapons including air defenses, tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, and ammunition. Reports say that if the Germans or the British got into an actual war, their supplies would run out in 10 days.  For the purpose of reference, the Ukraine war has been raging for two years and two months.

That has not dampened the enthusiasm of some in Europe, Macron takes center stage, calling for NATO troops to be injected in Ukraine. NATO troops, of course, would have no particular advantages over their Ukrainian colleagues. In combat NATO would have to expect high casualties.

There has been a lot of press recently that Ukraine's big counter-offensive failed because the Ukrainians did not follow the guidance of their NATO big brothers. Had they done so, Ukraine would have been successful.

Yet the US-NATO plan was nutty from the get go. To fight a war without air cover and with spotty air defense systems which the Russians liquidated is not a plan that lends itself to success. The US and Western criticism also is an insult to the Ukrainian army that fought hard and sustained massive casualties.

In a conventional war in Europe, the US would need to hope that its stealth jets and bombers can "win" against the Russians (a capability Ukraine, of course, never had).  That presumption overlooks Russian efforts to detect and shoot down stealth platforms which have been ongoing and it also underestimates Russian combat aircraft capabilities. Even more realistically, air power by itself is not going to win a land war.  What the Russians may lack technologically, they have large stores of missiles and glide bombs while NATO lacks defenses against most of these weapons.

The key for NATO is to rethink its ability to defend Europe rather than focusing on operating on territory outside of NATO's boundaries. The waste of vital resources in Ukraine, for example, is undermining NATO's credibility to the degree that the public will lose confidence in the alliance and may seek to retreat from it.   Ukraine too, however slowly, is starting to see that the NATO arsenal is empty and that NATO won't really fight when the chips are down, mostly because it cannot.

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the NATO alliance could have folded, and maybe should have folded with its raison d’etre gone. But not only did the alliance continue, it aggressively pursued an expanded membership base and broader non-member relationships under the Partnership Action Plan. Attempts to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, and partnerships with Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova caused considerable angst in Russia where they were seen treading on the Russian sphere of influence.

But as NATO has become wider, it has become shallower and less able to meet its own standards for the defense of its members. And a weak NATO may in fact be worse than no NATO at all, inviting aggression against it. Russia, for all its bluster, still fears NATO encirclement and does not trust the United States. Leaving NATO in a posture where it lacks any real ability to fight is the worst of all possible worlds.

No one can say what NATO would do under conditions of an actual attack. We do know that when the U.S. was attacked on September 11, 2001, it asked NATO to consider it to be an attack under Article V. NATO agreed that the United States was attacked but did not determine that the attack was directed from abroad.

Therefore NATO did not see the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. as qualifying under Article V. Since 9/11 there have been a number of attacks on NATO member countries by terrorist organizations with clear foreign connections. NATO has remained inert.

Article V, furthermore, presumes that it is a state actor that leads the attack. As the Russians have amply demonstrated in Ukraine, non-state surrogates can always be used to accomplish state goals. While Russia’s backing of these non-state actors is clear, would that be enough to trigger a NATO response were Ukraine a NATO member? If the precedent of 9/11 is any guide, the answer is that such a surrogate attack would not qualify.

This is only one of the weaknesses in NATO’s collective defense agreement.

Another is that Article V allows for member states to decide what response is appropriate, whether military force or short of that. This is particularly important because presumed front line states, such as Poland or Estonia, could be exposed to political-military subversion, some of it involving armed violence, which under NATO rules would not trigger an Article V reaction.

A cyber attack on critical infrastructure, even when the source is known (as it surely was in Estonia), is apparently not an attack under Article V because it is not what is conventionally thought of as an “armed attack.” Suppose, instead, the Russians decided to use an EMP attack (electro-magnetic pulse)? Would that be actionable under Article V? The truth is that NATO has never tested the definition of “armed attack,” while demonstrating a strange variability when it came to protecting the United States after 9/11.


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