By Richard Pera
Dean of the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University
Twenty years ago, while training for an assignment in France, I had the opportunity to take the NATO Staff Officers Course at Fort McNair, Washington, D.C. The terrific thing about that course was the fantastic U.S. and Allied leaders who spoke to the class, including Field Marshall Sir Peter Inge, GCB, chief of the Defence Staff of the United Kingdom.
Sir Peter, a five star army officer, discussed NATO in transition, especially the new Partnership for Peace program with newly independent, former eastern bloc states. When asked about the biggest challenge facing NATO, I expected Sir Peter to focus on Bosnia, which was on almost everyone’s mind in 1994. But, he did not. His answer is as relevant today as it was then: ‘The biggest challenge to NATO is remaining relevant, especially in a crisis. The most certain way for NATO to become irrelevant is to fail to respond to an Article 5 situation in the post-Cold War era.’
Article 5 of the 1949 Treaty of Washington (the NATO charter) provides for collective security:
“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against all of them and…they agree that…each of them…will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force…”
When I heard Sir Peter’s comments, the thought of NATO having an Article 5 situation in the future was unimaginable. After all, the alliance survived more than four decades without a feared Soviet/Warsaw Pact attack through Germany’s Fulda Gap. Surely, no future threat would cause invocation of Article 5. I was wrong.
NATO’s first (and, so far, only) Article 5 situation was not brought about by an attack in Europe, but rather North America. On Sept. 12, 2001, NATO invoked Article 5 in response to acts of terror against the United States. Symbolic, yet noteworthy, four NATO AWACS aircraft deployed from Geilenkirchen AB, Germany, to Tinker AFB, Oklahoma.
According to an Oct. 18, 2001, State Department press release: “This deployment is part of NATO’s historic invocation of Article 5 of the NATO charter, which embodies the principle of collective defense.” The aircraft were manned by airmen from 10 allied countries. NATO remained relevant: not only did the alliance defend the U.S., it became involved heavily in the war on terror in Afghanistan.
Could other Article 5 situations occur in the future for reasons other than terrorism? It is not out of the question. Take, for example, the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia. Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, this crisis could mushroom, depending on Russian political calculus.
Putin-dominated Russia appears fixated on territories that contain a large Russian minority. Russia has already annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and many fear that Russia seeks to undermine and ultimately annex eastern Ukrainian provinces. There is some precedent for this. In 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia, also a non-member of NATO, and wrested South Ossetia from Georgian control. Like Crimea and eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia includes large numbers of ethnic Russians.
Will Moscow reach even further? If so, the most likely locations would be the small and relatively weak former Soviet Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all of which are contiguous to Russia and contain ethnic Russians. But, here is the rub: unlike Ukraine and Georgia, the Baltic countries are NATO members and NATO has been flexing its muscles by flying combat air patrol sorties over Baltic airspace. Perhaps Putin will be emboldened by the relatively tepid response from Washington and NATO over Ukraine and, therefore, perceive a positive risk versus gain calculation in the Baltics.
So far, NATO is relevant in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, and NATO membership has been enough to dissuade Putin from intervening in the Baltic republics. For NATO, invasion of the Baltic Republics is not the worst case. Slow, internal destabilization coupled by insurgency would be far more threatening and difficult to counter. Either scenario would likely cause NATO to invoke Article 5. While Sir Peter could not have foreseen this, such a situation would be the ultimate test of NATO relevance in the post-Cold War era.
About the Author
Richard Pera has more than 30 years of Navy and intelligence community experience, having most recently served in a leadership role at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Washington, DC. Prior to joining DIA, Pera served in a variety of senior assignments, including director of intelligence for the U.S. Sixth Fleet, director of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance on the Navy Staff and director of global information acquisition at the Office of Naval Intelligence.