Kenton White, lecturer in strategic studies and international relations at the University of Reading, examines what could happen if the Ukraine war spills over into a NATO country.
The closer Russian military activities get to Ukraine’s NATO border, the greater the potential for a direct confrontation between Russia and the alliance. On March 13, Russian planes reportedly fired rockets at the Yavoriv International Center for Peacekeeping and Security, 20 km from Ukraine’s border with Poland, a NATO member.
The possibility of a unit from Russian or Belarusian Military stumbles across a border is also high. Mistakes happen in all military organizations, which was clearly demonstrated in the last few days when India accidentally fired a missile at Pakistan – two nuclear-armed nations in a state of high tension. The possibility of retaliation by Pakistan was significant, but unlike in Ukraine, there is no open conflict to confuse the situation. For example, had such an event occurred between Poland and Russian forces in Ukraine, the Polish government probably would not have been convinced that the missile launch had been a mistake.
Concern about Russia’s intentions is at a higher level in eastern countries NATO than those in the west. On March 15, the prime ministers of Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic risked a train trip to Ukraine to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv. These countries risk being next in line if Russian expansionism continues – as some expect. Vladimir Putin’s statements seem to be threaten the Baltic States, and he seems intent on restoring Russia’s dominance over other neighboring states that was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. These states have sizeable minorities of ethnic Russians and have experienced civil unrest in recent years.
The potential for escalation increases when we look at the actions of the rank and file soldiers on the ground who are cold and frightened. A single shot across an otherwise calm but tense border, or a young corporal misunderstanding of a particular situation and acting aggressively, could trigger a battle that quickly escalates beyond the control of local commanders.
Zelenskyj has repeatedly called for NATO enforcement “no-fly zone” over Ukraine. But NATO leaders have understandably concluded that this poses a direct risk military confrontation between Russia and NATO forces, potentially leading to rapid escalation. The same seems to apply to another request made by Zelenskyy – the supply of planes to support the Ukrainian Air Force. But if NATO were to supply planes directly to Ukraine, Russia could very well conclude that these are offensive rather than defensive weapons and take action to halt the supply of planes. This may include strikes at airports where the planes are based – for example in Poland – before they are transferred to Ukraine.
There is a possibility that Zelenskyy called for a NATO-sponsored no-fly zone precisely because he knows it would be impossible, allowing him to distance himself from the idea of Ukraine’s NATO membership. This could give him negotiating scope to finalize a deal with Russia. But at the same time, in his speech before the US Congress, he reminded America of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Selenskyj warns of the consequences of NATO’s continued inaction.
NATO membership allows a nation to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to enlist the support of the other members of the alliance. This article has only been used once in NATO history – by the US after the attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001.
But Article 5 does not guarantee that all other NATO countries would deploy armed forces to counter an attack, only that military action is an option that can be included in the alliance’s principle of “collective defence”. Given public statements from Westminster, Britain would be expected to live up to its commitment to fight a Russian attack. As UK Health Minister Sajid Javid, said just a few days ago in an interview on LBC: “If a single Russian toe cap enters NATO territory, there will be war with NATO.”
On February 25th, one day later Russian troops invaded UkraineNATO heads of government met in Brussels. They issued a statement regretting the invasion and pledged to help Ukraine. The Alliance pledged to “continue to take all actions and decisions necessary to ensure the security and defense of all Allies.” Accordingly, NATO has deployed both land and sea resources in its eastern regions and “activated NATO’s defense plans to prepare to respond to a range of contingencies and to secure Alliance territories.”
my Research on NATO has held informal discussions with several officers from different member nations. This has led me to believe that some NATO countries further from the conflict zone may be reluctant to deploy combat troops – even if Article 5 were triggered. In addition, the question arises as to whether the political leadership of NATO would be prepared to carry out attacks on Russian soil, which would mean a significant escalation of the conflict and would harbor the additional risk that Russia could react with an escalation nuclear or chemical weapons.
Deterrence – whether conventional or nuclear – requires rational calculation on both sides. Like I already wrote, Putin’s rationality different from that of Western leaders, which is part of the reason why this crisis and conflict arose in the first place. So far, Putin has not been deterred by NATO. Instead he has threatened the alliance with “episodes you’ve never seen in history”.
In the meantime, any concessions Russia wins in the peace talks are likely to lead to more demands. this particularly worries the Eastern European members of NATO. It is unclear whether more distant NATO members see the threat in the same way. United action is vital for NATO – not only now, but also in the coming weeks and months.
https://www.theweek.co.uk/news/world-news/956152/what-is-natos-article-5 What is Article 5 of NATO?