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Short of attacking a NATO country, is there any other thing Russia can do to trigger direct American military confrontation?

The key section of the treaty is Article 5. Its commitment clause defines the casus foederis. It commits each member state to consider an armed attack against one member state, in Europe or North America, to be an armed attack against them all. Upon such attack, each member state is to assist by taking "such action as [the member state] deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area."

Article 5 states that an attack to one of its members should be considered an attack against them all. This means that an invasion or an attack against a NATO country would trigger military intervention against Russia. But short of Russia attacking a NATO country is there anything Russia could do that might trigger direct American military intervention that's mentioned in a treaty or some other international document?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Atlantic_Treaty#Article_5

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    The word "trigger" is doing a lot of lifting here. Because, historically speaking, countries can make casus belli out of a fairly large array of issues. So it really depends how restrained or not so a given administration (and Congress) is or isn't. Over 100 years ago, the US declared war on Spain over a rather mysterious ship explosion. And took over most the [remaining] Spanish colonial empire in the aftermath.
    – Fizz
    Jun 25 at 17:03
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    On the other hand, this century, the US "ate" an entire salvo of Iranian ballistic missiles on one of its bases, and didn't go to war as a result. Arguably, that was after killing a top general of Iran, which also by (say) 1914 standards would have been ample cause for a declaration of war (by the other side).
    – Fizz
    Jun 25 at 17:20
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    The nuclear armed USSR and China fought some border skirmishes too. So I wouldn't totally rule out such a conventional exchange of blows between the US and Russia somewhere.
    – Fizz
    Jun 25 at 17:32
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    @Fizz Ferdinand was an archduke, which is a monarch.
    – uberhaxed
    Jun 25 at 18:01
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    The answer is a clear "nobody knows". Say for example Russia would be crazy enough to use nuclear missiles on some non NATO but inhabited territory. Really nobody knows what would happen then, but I could imagine that it could lead to a direct military confrontation in the end. The question is too speculative. Maybe it can be narrowed down or ask for the past or similar cases instead of asking about the future.
    – Trilarion
    Jun 26 at 13:31

3 Answers 3

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NATO is not compelled to intervene unless there's an attack on a NATO country. That's not to say NATO can't intervene (e.g. Kosovo), but it's not compelled to. So there's nothing Russia can do to force NATO to intervene unless it attacks a NATO country.

The title asks about something else - "direct American military confrontation". This is much easier. Putting missiles on the American border would do it, see Cuban Missile Crisis. It might even be possible to point weapons at Alaska across the Bering strait; one can be confident America will respond.

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    NATO countries are not really compelled to respond militarily even in that case. Article 5 can mean "send humanitarian aid (or weapons) because that's the best we can do". This has been rehashed here on a number of questions. politics.stackexchange.com/questions/32682/… Although if the US responds like that to overt military action, its role in NATO (or at least in European defense) is pretty much over.
    – Fizz
    Jun 25 at 16:48
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The US has treaty relationships with a number of nations which come close to the scope of NATO protection, including South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Israel is a very special case. Taiwan is another special case. It would appear rather far-fetched to consider if Russia is going to attack one of those.

When it comes to the current Russian attack on Ukraine, the US appears to employ deliberate strategic ambiguity. That cuts both ways. A single cruise missile hitting NATO territory might not lead to military action, but neither did they say that a demonstration nuclear attack on Ukraine or over the Black Sea would be ignored.

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    The first paragraph is actually incorrect. While these countries may have defense treaties with the US, they do not have any scope of NATO protection as NATO only covers attacks in Europe or on the members' soil (see Falklands war). That is, unless you're implying that NATO is really just the US, which would make the statement "come close to the scope of NATO protection" accurate. But if Russia attacks South Korea, NATO will not be obliged to do anything.
    – uberhaxed
    Jun 25 at 18:18
  • In terms of troop numbers, the US is comparable to all of western Europe put together. In terms of deployed nuclear warheads the US has about 4 times as many as the US and France put together. In terms of total nuclear warheads it's over 10 times. Jun 26 at 3:15
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    @uberhaxed, I wrote "come close to the scope" and not "are the same" for a reason. The OP asked for cases of American military intervention, not just American-within-NATO.
    – o.m.
    Jun 26 at 4:39
  • @PeterGreen, the Brits used to talk about the Moscow Criterion. Enough warheads to inflict unacceptable damage on any remotely sane opponent.
    – o.m.
    Jun 26 at 4:41
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I imagine if Russia started rounding up civilians en masse at concentration (death) camps in a similar manner as Nazis did in WWII, it would be enough to trigger a direct military confrontation with NATO countries and allies.

Another possibility is the invasion of Finnland or Sweden. I personally think invading Finnland would not be enough but would definetly escalate things. Sweden would be with almost certainty the turning point.

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