In this answer the following scenario is presented:

  1. Russia invades a NATO member, say, Norway.
  2. NATO does nothing to defend Norway.

In my opinion, this scenario is unrealistic because the very purpose of NATO is to defend its members from Soviet or Russian aggression.

Article 5 states:

Collective defence means that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.

If Russia attacks, say, Estonia, it would face the same consequences as if it attacked the United States. Obviously, many people believe it's not the case.

What are rational, fact-backed reasons for the belief that NATO may not defend one or more of its members against Russian invasion?

  • 4
    A better question would be if Trump could veto such a thing. Because I haven't seen many others saying it's a bad idea. And more interestingly, what would happen in a confusing case, like just a massive terrorist attack in the Baltics. The US has invoked art. 5 on 9/11 nato.int/docu/review/2006/Invokation-Article-5/… Aug 4, 2018 at 14:15
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    Because world wars are good and easy to win. Wait, did I miss a "not" there? Aug 5, 2018 at 10:26
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    Even if Russia is bloodthirsty neighbor and price of life is equal to 0 there and even if other EU nations have in 2018 the weakest leaders like never before, I don't think that this is real case scenario for Norway. Norway is too important for EU stability and EU can't ignore fact with direct impact on NATO. If Russia attacks countries of EU/NATO then EU need to make strong pressure on NATO to go to war. If not, many national "brexits" will be triggered in a second and it will be an end of EU with huge impact on NATO. More anticipated is war comming from China.Just watch what is going there. Aug 5, 2018 at 19:51
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    Russia's leaders aren't stupid. They wouldn't invade Norway. They would subvert it using socio-political maskirovka.
    – RonJohn
    Aug 6, 2018 at 1:06
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    @owjburnham yes but it is part of European Free Trade Association and European Economic Area and Schengen. In other words, Norway is included in many European structures. European Union is in big crisis because Schengen is failure. Millions of former soldiers and killers of defeated Islamic state also called as imigrants are incomming out of any control and Brexit is outcome of this failure. Krim is also failure. EU financial support of Islamic state is failure. NATO and EU can't afford another one. Aug 24, 2018 at 20:47

6 Answers 6


Using military force is one way for NATO to counter aggression against one of its members, but not the only one. Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty reads:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, 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, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

(emphasis mine)

Including does not mean that it's the only option. So while the use of armed force is one way to respond to aggression, the NATO has several options, for example:

  • Retaliate by sending troops to attack the territory of the aggressor directly
  • Send troops to secure the attacked borders
  • Provide the attacked with logistic support (money, weapons, intelligence, consultants etc.) but leave the actual fighting to them.
  • Impose sanctions on the aggressor
  • Nothing. They might decide that the best way to "restore and maintain security" is to just let the attacker have that country.

So if NATO makes the political decision to sacrifice a member in order to maintain peace and avoid a third world war, they would be free to do that. Whether this would be a wise decision would be a matter of personal opinion.

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    +1 for the last sentence. At the end of the day, the wording of the treaty is irrelevant. Whether they are theoretically free not to intervene is secondary, the cost of that response (all the way up to a world war) would remain the main consideration for all those involved. That's the answer to the OP's question.
    – Relaxed
    Aug 4, 2018 at 14:40
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    I'm not going to downvote just yet, but what you're saying is basically that art 5 and the whole NATO thing is a worthless piece of paper, because the signatories can choose to do absolutely nothing if one is attacked. Clearly there' s something missing in this picture. Aug 4, 2018 at 17:38
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    @Fizz: All treaties are worthless paper by that assessment. Any sovereign state can abrogate any treaty it likes. Other countries may retaliate (e.g. with sanctions or military force), but there is no international system of enforcement.
    – Kevin
    Aug 4, 2018 at 18:48
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    A postcard with the message "Good luck" would be enough. Aug 4, 2018 at 19:39
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    I don’t think that your last point is valid and this is not part of the NATO idea or how the NATO is meant to be. Of course each country is at the end sovereign and can decide which action to take. But if in case of an attack the NATO parties decide to do nothing then from this moment on the NATO will be history. Aug 4, 2018 at 20:17

Why would the NATO not defend its members against Russia?

Lack of political will basically (for which one can find many reasons or justifications, of course). Each NATO country can choose how to respond to an article 5 invocation. This is why Trump's discourse (about maybe not defending a member) worries people. After a bit of digging, the promises in art. 5 exist in that guarded form supposedly because:

It is important to recall that the U.S. Executive Branch, which was responsible for negotiating the Treaty, insisted on qualified language in Article 5 largely to assuage concerns in Congress. Congress, which has authority under the Constitution to declare war, did not want to cede that power to any multilateral organization.

And as a result, any country which depends on its parliament for going to war (this also includes Germany), can say "no thanks" to any NATO military action. Which basically means, to twist a term that any actual NATO defense is done by a [sub]alliance of the willing... (I'm not sure what can happen if Congress decides to go to war but the US President opposes it; that's probably worth a separate question.) By the way, article 42(7) of TEU is basically in the same boat as art 5 of NATO as far as its implications for obligation go. The advocates that wanted stronger promises to be made in TEU ran into the same problem with some countries wanting to have the option of staying aside in any collective defense action.

However, simply seeing it like this, ignores how NATO is actually perceived by (most of) its own members, e.g.:

Q. How do you get countries on the eastern flank to devote resources to the southern flank, when Russia is almost literally breathing down their necks?

A. It’s easier than you would think. Because every ally understands that the most important value of NATO is unity. If we don’t hang together, we will hang separately and so while Eastern allies are very understandably heavily focused on Russia they absolutely get it — that the alliance including they, themselves, have to contribute to concerns southern allies have. And the same is true the other way around, southern allies are absolutely engaged on challenges to NATO [from the east.]

So basically this is a big part of backbone of collective defense: if you chicken out in helping someone... there's a good chance they'll pay back the same. Which is probably why the US is the one making most of these not-gonna-help noises: they need other countries the least to defend their interests, or at least Trump thinks that. In particular since in the case of Russia as enemy...

The decision to act, or not, would be made not at NATO HQ in Brussels, but in Washington, DC. And, many eastern NATO members worry, it is hard to imagine an American president risking nuclear war to defend a tiny country half a world away.

Besides how NATO countries would actually react, it's also important to consider what its potential enemies think NATO countries will do if one is attacked:

Article 5 says that the response may include armed force, but it does not mandate it. All that NATO actually promises is to take “such action as it deems necessary” to restore and maintain security. That could be anything from nuclear war to a stiff diplomatic protest. Three tricky considerations would determine the precise nature of any NATO response to foreign aggression. The first is geography: in places where an aggressor can quickly complete and consolidate an invasion, NATO's options are very limited. The Baltics, for instance, occupy a thin flat strip of land which is all but indefensible. A Russian surprise attack could reach the coast within hours, and reversing a successful Russian invasion would be hard, even futile. Yet that was also true of West Berlin. The Baltics argue that an attack on them would mean an all-out East-West confrontation thanks to Article 5. If Russia believes that, deterrence is working. But Article 5 does not specify such a response.

That it comes down to: perception is reality in this case. It doesn't matter that the treaty says NATO countries can do nothing... if Russia thinks that's not the likely response to its aggression. That's why many NATO people worry about Trump busting this perception in eyes of the world.

And finally, there's another aspect consider: ongoing military cooperation, besides enhanced cooperative readiness, also gives a potential "Pearl Harbour effect" (if I may coin a term) for US troops stationed near Russia's border:

Another option would be to put American soldiers in harm's way, so that Russia could not invade NATO territory without directly harming American military personnel. Given that America could not help but respond forcefully to an attack on its own people, such a move might render the NATO guarantee toothy. Not toothless. So, basically, man the NATO-Russian border with American troops.

It doesn't have that close, but you can see that having to dispose of some American targets (e.g. air power or even just AWACS, or anti-ballistic missiles) in Eastern Europe could be a big problem for Russia if it has the potential to create a "Pearl Harbor effect" (albeit not on US soil) that could enrage the US public and the Congress. Political will can materialize surprisingly quickly in such a case; even a just a proportionate US response could mean trouble for Russia as an aggressor in this case.

So my point with this is that while on paper the NATO treaty may look weak, the deterrence effect can well exceed what simple reading of the text might conclude... as long as the magic is not busted by talk to the contrary.

  • Some concrete articles on US pre-positioning forces in Eastern Europe: land; air Aug 4, 2018 at 20:24
  • +1. Compare how the political will in France and Britain to defend Poland, which had been attacked and overrun by Germany, was lacking: Pourquoi mourir pour Dantzig? (Yes, I know that both did declare war on Germany and that the "phony war" was anything but, and that Dan(t)zig was de jure a Free City, not part of Poland.) Aug 4, 2018 at 21:07
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    @StephanKolassa I think the first link in your comment is broken, unless the invasion of Poland had something to do with a linear algebra textbook. Aug 5, 2018 at 17:05
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    @GregoryJ.Puleo: thanks! (No, AFAIK, it didn't.) Here is the correct link. Aug 5, 2018 at 17:21

Nobody mentioned the elephant in the room right now; NATO is also unlikely to defend a member if this member goes rogue and act upon their own.

I am talking about Turkey.

The 1952 Turkey which joined the NATO is different from the 2018 Turkey. During the former time the military hold strict to Kemalism and every attempt to revitalize islamic fundamentalism in Turkish society was prevented, sometimes even by a coup (e.g. 1960). The islamist party was forbidden and changed names regularly: National Order Party, National Salvation Party, Welfare Party, Virtue Party, finally AKP. Now 2018 the military has lost its influence and Turkey is moving into the direction of a full-fledged dictatorship and islamization of the country.

Turkey has isolated itself internationally more and more, the EU is just weakly pretending to take the former attempts for membership seriously. While the hatred for the Kurds and their supporting troops (YPG) is nothing new, the shown sympathies for ISIL are alarming. Shooting down a russian jet in 2015 without consulting the allies did not help to give the impression that Turkey's command is trustworthy. Turkey had made steps to reconcile with Russia to defuse the situation, but I think currently NATO would think twice about defending Turkey if an attack on Russia is not in their interest and Turkey attacks unprovoked.

I think the USA still is prone to overestimate their relations with useful partners (using Turkey's airbases for second-strike capability with their bombers) and underestimate the danger such irregular partners pose.

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    Also, Turkey has invaded Syria. Aug 5, 2018 at 17:03
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    NATO's treaty is only for mutual self defense, if a "rogue" member invades or attacks another country members have NO obligation to assist it. Aug 5, 2018 at 20:18
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    @RandyHill The words on treaties are often ignored. There is no accepted due process in international relationships which looks up if treaties are correctly interpreted. False flag operations claiming an attack to justify a "defense" are one of the oldest tricks in the books, see Gleiwitz incident. The NATO for example called for collective defense in the wake of the 9/11 attacks despite al-Quaeda being a non-state actor and therefore not a subject of a treaty between countries (This was explicitly mentioned in the ICJ decision in case of Nicaragua 1986). Aug 5, 2018 at 21:37
  • @ThorstenS. I'm not sure what point you are trying to make. You said it NATO was "unlikely" to defend a rogue member that attacked another country, I'm pointing out the NATO treaty specifically provides no obligation to defend any member who starts a war with another another country. Donald Trump may want to defend Turkey if it attacks Greece, or not want to defend Germany if it's attacked by Russia (or Congress may refuse to authorize either). Both of those political decisions have nothing to do with what the actual treaty commitments are. Aug 6, 2018 at 1:08
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    @RandyHill Let's say as Turkey attacks Iran. Iran has quite a bad reputation among NATO members, so who guarantees that NATO does not declare that Iran attacked first, so collective defense is necessary?. Words don't matter much if the persons judging them are the same who are making the decisions. If on the other hand Israel attacks Turkey, I think NATO will do everything in their might to defuse the situation even if from an objective evaluation the conditions for collective defense have been fulfilled. I am just saying you have too much confidence that words of treaties matter. Aug 6, 2018 at 1:54

The main reason not to intervene would be the cost of a war (starting with the monetary and human costs of waging war for the helping nations all the way to the risk of escalation to a larger conflict and an attack on the mainland). That's perfectly rational even if you have multiple treaties with the nation being attacked.

During the cold war, that was a major aspect of strategic thinking in a country like France. While France and the US were broadly aligned, France was very keen on keeping some autonomy in its relationship with the Soviet Union, developing its own nuclear weapons, etc. because it was afraid that when push came to shove, the US would decide to sacrifice Western Europe rather than commit hundreds of thousands of men to fight a new world war. Interestingly, during both world wars the US did intervene and contribute greatly the winning side but it didn't do it immediately and not without debate.

Even with a mutual defense treaty, countries will rationally evaluate these costs anew when faced with such a consequential move as attacking a powerful opponent like the Soviet Union (and, to a lesser extent, present-day Russia). But no treaty is going to guarantee in and of itself that, say, the US spends billions of dollars and thousands of lives to defend another country.

So while it does contain a mutual defense clause, the purpose of the NATO treaty is a bit more subtle. What it does (besides all the technical aspects like common military standards and extensive operational collaboration) is increase the costs of reneging on a commitment. Once countries publicly committed to a mutual defense agreement, failing to act on it is signalling weakness and making them worthless as an ally, thus decreasing their overall power and influence in the world. That, in turn, means that an attack on a bona fide NATO member is a challenge to the US, which needs to be treated as such. But that's still not quite the same as being attacked and the cost-benefit considerations therefore differ.

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    Another side effect of the NATO treaty is standardization of communication (including digital), camouflage, weapon systems, tactics, and so on. When needed, the NATO can operate as a single army (provided the politicians manage to find an answer to "who's in command?").
    – Sjoerd
    Aug 5, 2018 at 16:33
  • @Sjoerd That's the technical aspects I am alluding to.
    – Relaxed
    Aug 5, 2018 at 21:04

The NATO and Russia of today are different than the NATO and Russia of the Cold War. The rationale behind the founding of NATO was to deter the Soviet Union from invading europe. The founding members are the US and a bunch of western european nations. The most likely conflict-scenario was more or less all-out war.

Nowadays, with ex-soviet republics being NATO members (the baltic states), or being interested in joining (Ukraine), the situation is much more complicated, as one can argue that today-Russia is trying to win back some of the ground lost during the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia's phase of relative weakness in the 90s, e.g. eastern Ukraine or Crimea.

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    Unfortunately this answer stops the moment it starts to get interesting. In what way is the situation "more complicated"? How do these "more complicated" circumstances affect the likeliness of a coordinated military response against hypothetical Russian aggression?
    – Philipp
    Aug 7, 2018 at 8:10

The why is that the Russian Federation has the strongest military presence in Europe, and to avoid all out war with Russia in the European theater, and elsewhere. NATO members also import substantial natural resources from Russia, making it "bad for business" to go to war with the Russian Federation based solely on the fact that one of their neighbor nations states or even allies are invaded or annexed by the Russian Federation.

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    (-1) It has become a frequent talking point the Budapest Memorandum was transparently weak, a comparison with NATO makes no sense, cf. politics.stackexchange.com/questions/7899/…
    – Relaxed
    Aug 4, 2018 at 14:37
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    You're resorting to sophistry. “Weakness” is not some deep concept, it's really just a trivial point. I don't care whether NATO is “weak” or not or to give a precise definition, the fact is that its founding treaty includes much stronger wording. Read the linked page for more details if you are interested.
    – Relaxed
    Aug 4, 2018 at 14:44
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    @guest271314 Ukraine is not member of the NATO. My question is about when Russia attacks a proper NATO member (not a country that wants to become a member).
    – user9558
    Aug 4, 2018 at 15:24
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    @guest271314 Re "That is pure speculation. " It's not. Baltic states (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) were training their armed forces for precisely that scenario couple of years ago.
    – user9558
    Aug 4, 2018 at 15:46
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    @guest271314 Because I am not checking this site every five minutes?
    – Relaxed
    Aug 4, 2018 at 16:21

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