In the latest turn of events regarding the evolving crisis in Eastern Europe, Ukraine called on NATO to help protect its territorial integrity and Poland invoked Article IV of the founding Washington Treaty, calling for consultations. The North Atlantic Council (NAC) – including representatives of all 28 NATO member nations – will meet tomorrow (Tuesday) to discuss the developments in Ukraine.
Russia’s movement into Crimea and the escalating tensions in the region are seen as threats to nearby Allied countries, many of whom retain a sensitivity to the security menace represented by their former communist master. A dramatic announcement of NATO action following this meeting is both unlikely and undesirable given the fact that Crimea appears to be a lost cause, that any such action would likely only escalate tensions, and that the U.S., at least, has no desire to intervene militarily. Indeed, one Pentagon official noted that despite Putin’s charge through President Obama’s latest set of red lines, “there has been no change to [the U.S.’s] military deployments.”
And yet, Poland’s request is not an insignificant step. While Article 4 merely calls for consultations and is distinct from the infamous “one-for-all-and-all-for-one” collective defense article (that’s Article 5), it has still only been invoked 3 other times over the course of 63 years (by Turkey, following concerns emanating from wars in Iraq and Syria).[i] This is the first time the Article has been invoked in response to Russian actions, which is significant given the amount of effort NATO has expended over the past decade to illustrate that it perceives Russia as a partner (see the NATO-Russia Council’s website, for example). With friends like these, who needs enemies?
So what is Poland hoping to accomplish by calling for the NAC to meet? It’s not exactly clear, but what is evident is the need for NATO to tread carefully. The Eastern European and Baltic members view the Alliance as an essential component of their ability to resist Russian dominance. One interesting possibility may be for Poland to try to accelerate plans to install missile interceptors as part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense program (currently, these are scheduled to be in place by 2018). Alternatively, Poland may ask for NATO to temporarily reinforce certain capabilities, much as the Alliance supplemented Turkey’s air defense systems back in 2012 following the shooting down of a Turkish jet by Syrian forces. Or Poland might make no requests, simply relying on the significance of the invocation to communicate a political message.
You might remember that, under the original plans for a missile shield in Europe, Poland would have had 10 interceptors in place by 2012 – President Obama scrapped this program back in 2009, in what some perceived as a concession in the effort to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations. Particularly ironic in this situation is the fact that the first of four U.S. Navy ships that will act as the centerpiece of NATO’s ballistic missile defense effort – the USS Donald Cook – arrived in its new homeport in Spain less than a month ago. While great for NATO, this probably won’t do much to reassure Poland or the other Eastern European allies. Importantly, if NATO fails to reassure its Members now, the future of the Alliance will be bleak indeed. This means that NATO must do everything in its power to reinforce its commitment to its Eastern members.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s plea for NATO assistance is nowhere near as interesting as the potential for it to call upon the 1994 Budapest Memorandum between Ukraine, the U.S., the U.K., and Russia. Under this agreement, Ukraine dismantled all of its nuclear weapons and sent them to Russia in return for recognition of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. If ever a situation arose where some aspect of the memorandum was violated (i.e. Russia occupied part of Ukraine), the parties would “consult.”
There is no promise of U.S. or British military (or other) commitment in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine contained in the language of the Memorandum, and yet a refusal to intervene by these two nations may have some unexpected consequences on NATO’s future as well. It must be kept in mind that Article 5 of the Washington Treaty no more obliges military intervention in the event of a territorial attack than does the Budapest Memorandum. The risk, then, is that the Eastern European Allies will look at a failure to respond vigorously (especially by the U.S.) in Ukraine as a sign of NATO’s fading commitment and effectiveness. The ramifications for a variety of issues, from coalition warfare to nuclear proliferation, could be unpleasant. [ii]
NATO is still very much the backbone of security in Europe. And yet the fear that, when it comes down to it, the Alliance will not come to the defense of its members against a major power such as Russia remains. NATO’s path through this crisis is fraught with difficult decisions and limited options. This author only hopes that the Alliance finds its way through without losing its credibility and its soul.