What constitutes as 'armed attack' on NATO if Ukraine was to join? - opinion

11 months ago 21

On Sunday, July 9, President Joe Biden departed the US to attend a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Immediately before boarding his aircraft, Biden was asked if Ukraine should “now” be admitted to NATO. Biden’s response was intriguing. 

Biden opined that Ukraine should not “now” be granted NATO membership. He reasoned that since Ukraine is at war with Russia, if Ukraine was now admitted to NATO, that would “require” NATO to proactively join that war, since that existing attack on Ukraine would then be deemed an attack on NATO. That begs the question: What constitutes an armed attack on NATO?

What constitutes an armed attack on NATO?

First, Russia’s wanton war in Ukraine is complex, complicated, convoluted, and even contradictory. That beclouded scenario is exacerbated by the flood of lethal weapons that NATO nations are continuing to pour into Ukraine. With Biden’s controversial approval, those weapons will now include cluster bombs provided by the US. Putin angrily asserted that Russia will respond in kind.

Indeed, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned that the arms provided by NATO nations have “directly involved” NATO in the conflagration engulfing Ukraine. As a result, Putin has increasingly threatened to retaliate against NATO. Those heinous cluster bombs lend further justification for, and credence to, Putin’s warnings.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg shake hands as they meet, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine April 20, 2023. (credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS)

That said, the increasingly grave and sobering issues surrounding the question of what constitutes an Article 5 “armed attack” on NATO is a daunting, yet largely unexamined issue. This matter is brimming with extremely worrying, potential consequences not only for NATO nations, but also for Israel, the Middle East, and the wider world.

A seriously beclouding issue in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (which established NATO) is that it expressly uses, but does not define, the words “armed attack.” In fact, the treaty is remarkably silent on the matter.

That silence perversely recalls the “strategic ambiguity” intentionally drafted into The Taiwan Relations Act enacted in 1979 by the American Congress. That Act sets out America’s obligations to Taiwan in the event of an attack (presumably by China). But that is quite another terribly sticky – and potentially incendiary – ball of wax that is also not readily explained.

SO, BACK to attempting to decipher what is an “armed attack” on NATO. A concrete example may best illustrate the intricacies implicit in Article 5’s pithy verbiage. A veritable flood of Ukrainian refugees felt compelled to flee the warfare, bloodshed, and trauma afflicting their nation. Putin unquestionably knew that Russia’s attacks on civilian targets would prompt that exodus. Given that scenario, how might that flood of refugees who fled Ukraine into Poland (and into other NATO nations) constitute an armed attack on NATO?

Since that cascade of refugees from Ukraine was caused by Russia’s wholly unprovoked attack upon Ukraine, can the cost of feeding, housing, and caring for them be deemed, by extension, to be an armed attack on Poland as a member of NATO? 

Somewhat similarly, and by way of example, should the flood of needy refugees into NATO nations resulting from Syria’s long-standing internal warfare be deemed an attack on NATO? Should Russia’s significant involvement in Syria, which led to this appalling situation there, be deemed a Russian attack on NATO? Should the millions of needy Syrian refugees, still being housed and cared for in Turkey (a NATO member), be deemed an attack on NATO by both Syria and Russia? 

EVEN MORE intricate and perplexing scenarios present themselves. For example, should Afghani refugees who fled into NATO nations as a result of the US’s (and NATO’s) miserably botched war in Afghanistan be seen as an attack on NATO itself by its fellow members? The issue of precisely what constitutes an “armed attack” on NATO becomes increasingly confusing the more one attempts to unscramble and decrypt its meaning.

However, short of an undisguised military attack by Russia, another foreseeable example may help to clarify this issue: Would a Russian cyber-attack on Ukraine, causing economic damage which in turn adversely affected a NATO nation constitute an armed attack on NATO?

Further, if a cyber-attack by Russia on Ukraine resulted in the loss of electricity/power to a hospital in Poland, thus causing the deaths of Polish patients in that hospital, could that be construed as an Article 5 armed attack? However, if NATO responded with an attack on Russia, this could, quite foreseeably, initiate World War III. 

The resulting horror and associated trauma resulting from such an eventuality would be exponentially enhanced by the likely use of nuclear weapons (as already repeatedly threatened by Putin). That horrendous event would subject Western civilization to a conflagration between Russia and all NATO nations.

That war would result in massive, widespread destruction, coupled with innumerable deaths throughout Europe. As a result, Israel, the wider Middle East, and the entire globe would be unlikely to escape the ensuing holocaust, which could eviscerate life as we know it. 

Given that wholly foreseeable calamity, perhaps it is best that the phrase “armed attack” remains undefined. Maybe that silence will prevent secondary or collateral damage from being interpreted as an “armed attack” on NATO.

In summary, “armed” should mean an unmistakable military attack with weapons of war. But the question is – do weapons of war include cyber or drone attacks? 

Incidentally, it is clear that NATO nations have already “armed” themselves by implementing sanctions against Russia. Are such sanctions weapons of war? If not why not? Does it matter the means used to bring an adversary to its knees? If Russia had cut off Germany’s once desperately needed gas and thereby caused Germans to freeze to death this past winter, would that not also have been a casus belli under Article 5?

What if an aberrant Russian cruise missile, aimed at Kyiv, mistakenly flew off course and exploded in Krakow, killing thousands? Indeed, the ambiguity surrounding what constitutes an armed attack on NATO seethes with unintended consequences.

More frighteningly, Dmitri Medvedev, Deputy Secretary of Russia’s Security Council (chaired by Putin) just reacted to NATO’s latest announcement that it intends to supply more lethal aid to Ukraine. “World War III is getting closer!” he fumed

All things considered, it was Albert Einstein who once lamented: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

The writer is director of The Center For Strategic Geopolitics in Miramar Beach, Florida. He lectures globally on world affairs.

Read Entire Article