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A question that has been bugging me for a while is: why hasn't Russia tested NATO unity by carrying a relatively harmless or deniable attack against a NATO member? Though until recently I imagined more naïve scenarios - like "accidentally" hitting territories of Poland or Baltic countries or even targeting an arms convoy about to cross into Ukraine, while still on the NATO territory. If the West chose to exercise "restraint" after such an attack, it would signal to the eastern NATO members that NATO is largely a paper tiger, and they need to look for better relations with Russia. On the other hand, in case of a forceful pushback by NATO, one could always downplay that the attack was intentional or posed a serious threat. Iranian scenario of a deliberate but easy to intercept attack might be an even better approach.

The fact that Russia hasn't tried anything of the kind, suggests that there are military/political mechanisms that assure a forceful response. Is this really the case? What are these mechanisms?

Remark
Here is Henry Kissinger's take on why European NATO members might (not) feel confident of the NATO reaction to a Russian attack:

The structural changes in the Atlantic Alliance had their origin in the field of security, which had given the first impetus to the formation of the Alliance. The Atlantic Alliance had been formed to provide for the common defense; its military strategy was grounded in the American threat to wage all‐out nuclear war in defense of Europe. American ground and air forces had been dispatched to Europe in the 1950s even when the official strategy was massive retaliation by forces based in the United States. As far as our European allies were concerned, the United States was to be deprived of any element of choice by involving US forces in a conflict from the outset. In the face of the risks of modern war, Europeans considered our constant reiteration of American steadfastness as insufficient, if not naive. Too many European countries had been let down by allies—or had let down allies themselves—to be totally comforted by rhetorical reassurances that became the staple of NATO meetings. Our troops, to put it bluntly, were wanted as hostages.

(emphasis is mine)

(Henry Kissinger, White House Years)

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  • There are indeed political mechanism to prevent further escalations of the conflict, but I don't think they focus on "forceful response". Forceful response is exactly the kind of scenario you would want to avoid.
    – alamar
    Apr 16 at 7:50
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    Questions like these, once again, can be avoided by simply asking yourself, "why would they want to do that?" It's there any reason you believe Russia would be interested in a conflict with NATO? Why would they attack NATO if that is the case? Even NATO realizes this and when earlier in the war Ukrainian missiles accidentally went into Poland (and Russia insisted that they would not do such a thing, obviously on purpose) NATO countries believed them.
    – uberhaxed
    Apr 16 at 14:53
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    The Q is relevant, but where is the similarity to Israel or Iran - which is implied by the title? Iran's retaliatory strike on Israel was did not hit NATO. And the possibility of US bases or expeditionary forces in the region coming under fire would not involve Article V, so would be outside of the NATO context.
    – Pete W
    Apr 16 at 15:40
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    @uberhaxed While questioning why may seem like it has merit, nobody could answer that question in reference to Ukraine before the invasion. The reality is that Russia is currently doing what the OP is asking, but in a much less antagonistic manner, and for years too. Russia has been constantly flying aircraft and sailing ships into NATO territory, testing the responses. They've flown missiles that had preprogrammed flight paths into NATO territory. Also, I would caution against conflating accepting an excuse and believing the excuse.
    – David S
    Apr 16 at 17:28
  • @DavidS you appear to be confusing reality with conspiracy. Russia made a claim (we didn't do it), which by default they don't even need to defend. Ukraine made an excuse (it might have been us, but it was their fault).
    – uberhaxed
    Apr 16 at 19:17

6 Answers 6

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Why haven't Russia tested NATO unity by carrying a relatively harmless or deniable attack against a NATO member?

Why should they wish to?

If you start from the assumption that they aren't actually trying to invade any current NATO member, then what would they gain by achieving certainty that NATO is for now a paper tiger?

And what would they gain from giving the Americans the chance and the signal to add lifeblood back into the tiger again?

Moreover, if the attack is genuinely deniable (as one of the options you propose), then how does that test NATO? NATO is going to respond differently to explicit bombing, than it does to an unexplained gas blast.

Testing what NATO does when it has no idea it is being attacked, or isn't very sure, is very little guide to how it might react when it knows it is being attacked.

Set against all this is the risk the Russians find that NATO isn't a paper tiger at all, and that they are held responsible for an enormous escalation - the penance for which (if NATO was in a conciliatory mood) would almost certainly be sustaining an explicit retaliatory attack. The political pieces the Russians then have to deal with.

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Russia has already done that by sending similar waves against Ukraine. Neither Israel nor Ukraine are in a formal defense treaty with anyone in NATO. (The MNAA designation is not that.) Both however have received [military] aid etc.

Which led to a slightly embarrassing question/moment: why have the US (even breaking out their SM-3), UK, and (also reportedly) France shot down Iranian drones & missiles headed for Israel but not those headed for Ukraine? You can listen to Kirby's answer yourself: "different conflicts". And of course, Russia's arsenal being much greater:

Since the start of this year, Russia has fired 1,000 missiles, 2,800 drones and 7,000 guided aerial bombs at Ukraine, according to Ukraine’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya. While Washington and other allies have provided Kyiv with some powerful air defense weapons, they have not directly confronted Russian forces, and Ukrainian officials have long argued that the supplied weapons are insufficient to counter the threat from Moscow. [...]

Ukraine has begged since the outset of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 for more tools to close its sky to Russian missiles. But the first Patriot missile systems from the United States and Germany — the only proven defense against ballistic missiles — did not arrive until the spring of 2023.

Iran, of course, has somewhat different ideas. They've justified their help to Russia as being imperative for them for NATO to be defeated in Ukraine. But yeah, Iranian help has been limited to shipping some drones [which they deny happened] and passing on some tech/factory. (The Iranian press even has 'interesting' analogies/slogans in support of that, like: 'Ukraine and "Israel", "Israel" and Ukraine; two sides with one ideology, both pariah apartheid bodies.')

And as far as the US is concerned, depending who's president, Israel might be more important than even NATO/Europe. (One story says Israel got F-35's before Europe, for example.)

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    N.B. the conservatives in Iran even support Russia these days when that goes against Iran's territorial claims iranintl.com/en/202307186726 And Iranian propaganda pieces have stories about "Zhidobandera" etc. in Ukraine, trying to convince that Zionism is involved there too. Apr 16 at 12:11
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    (One of the ironies of the last piece is that its author argued elsewhere that anti-Zionism and antisemitism should not be confused. But the same author is largely conflating Jews with Zionism in that Iranian press piece, even if not explicitly, but by repeated juxtapositions.) Apr 16 at 12:31
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    Why does US and other countries shoot missiles going from Iran to Israel but not those from Russia to Ukraine? Well, they use US bases in Iraq, warships on Mediterranean Sea, Jordan participates in shooting them. Where should bases and warships be located in case of defending Ukraine? US warships entering the Black See would be against Montreux Convention. And I don't think DPR or LPR would welcome US bases. Apr 16 at 13:42
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    I'm not sure logistics fully explains it. NATO operate aircraft in the region already, and several Ukrainian neighbors are NATO allies. While logistics give the US better opportunities to intercept Iranian attacks on Israel, neither the US nor NATO are without opportunity to intercept some Russian attacks on Ukraine.
    – bharring
    Apr 16 at 13:51
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    The reason NATO is not shooting down Ukraine-bound missiles is at least partially due to geography: NATO forces are not sitting between Russia and Ukraine. Apr 16 at 18:55
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It's not necessary to test NATO unity at the moment because NATO is quite united right now. There are few/no NATO countries calling for compromise with Russia over Ukraine, there are lots of Russia hawks in NATO, and Sweden + Finland just joined NATO over Russian fears. See e.g. source, source.

What about relatively harmless or deniable attack? This may currently be happening. See violations of non-combatant airspaces during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

An actual missile explosion in a NATO country would be a highly dangerous escalation. Don't forget that NATO is a military alliance where an attack on one country is an attack on all of them, and there's no way to say that a missile explosion is not an attack. Several countries are likely to be outraged. See the reaction to 2022 missile explosion in Poland. NATO would more or less be obliged to respond, and then we can look forward to WW3.

Israel-Iran is not the same, because the two have been engaged in a shadow war for a long time, including conducting strikes on each other's soil (example). As for the Iranian scenario of a deliberate but easy to intercept attack, remember Iran provided advance warning before it attacked. If Russia were to warn a NATO country that it is about to attack, that in itself would be a highly dangerous escalation.

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The fact that Russia hasn't tried anything of the kind, suggests that there are military/political mechanisms that assure a forceful response. Is this really the case? What are these mechanisms?

Yes, this is the case. The mechanism is sometimes called limited nuclear war (LNW), but is also known by other terms, e.g., limited nuclear options (LNC), sub-strategic use of nuclear weapons, etc. Under this scenario, NATO responds with a limited, localized nuclear missile strike against a target or targets in Russia, or wherever the incoming weapons were launched against NATO, according to satellite data.

The NATO response in LNW must be proportional, that is, the body count on both sides must be within a few-fold from each other. This way, the response is calibrated to both show that NATO can defend itself, and also that NATO does not want an all-out massive war to extinction.

References

"Sub-strategic use" includes the use of either "low-yield" tactical nuclear weapons, or of variable yield strategic nuclear weapons in a very limited role, as compared to battlefield exchanges of larger-yield strategic nuclear weapons. This was described by the UK Parliamentary Defence Select Committee as "the launch of one or a limited number of missiles against an adversary as a means of conveying a political message, warning or demonstration of resolve".[119]
...
In many ways, this present change in the balance of terror can be seen as the complete embracement of the switch from the 1950s Eisenhower doctrine of "massive retaliation"[122] to one of "flexible response", which has been growing in importance in the US nuclear war fighting plan/SIOP every decade since.

For example, the United States adopted a policy in 1996 of allowing the targeting of its nuclear weapons at non-state actors ("terrorists") armed with weapons of mass destruction.[123]

Nuclear warfare - Wikipedia


In January 1974 Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger (in the administration of Pres. Richard Nixon) publicly announced that U.S. nuclear doctrine had ceased to abide by the concept of mutual assured destruction (in which a first strike by the Soviets would be met with a catastrophic nuclear counterattack). Instead, the country would adopt a “limited nuclear options” approach. The shift in policy was presented as a serious effort to ensure that a conflict between the two superpowers would not end up destroying the entire planet.

Limited nuclear options (LNO) | Britannica

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targeting an arms convoy about to cross into Ukraine

This is a rather bizarre idea.

If Russia "accidentally" hit a convoy in Poland, NATO could either

a) Enter the war directly. Which would prove they are not a paper tiger, but would lose Russia the war unless nukes started to fly. In which case everyone, and that includes Russia would lose. Yes, NATO could keep it to a more limited, fully-conventional response, but its likely success would make Putin look weak.

b) Pretend to "believe" the accident bit and send a lot more arms to Ukraine. So, no direct involvement by NATO, but hardening of their support, just as they are being wishy-washy. Would that "prove" they are a paper tiger? How would that help Russia on the frontlines?

c) Fold and admit Putin is right/too powerful. Sure, it could happen. But given that the other two alternatives seem quite a more lot likely and that more arms to Ukraine come at a relatively low risk to NATO, why would Russia gamble on that? And, even if they "prove" NATO is weak, how do take advantage of that, besides having a free rein in Ukraine? Where do they go next with that newly-found knowledge, except by pursuing more pressure on NATO? Keep in mind that on the flip side, NATO loses a lot of prestige/deterrence by taking this route, making it unlikely barring some extra circumstances not specified in the Q.

mimicking the Iranian attack against Israel

What about attacking Israel proper? Equally bizarre. Either Israel can be considered NATO-like (it is not) and then we have the hit on Poland scenario. Or it is not that NATO-like and the lack of a direct NATO responses can be considered relatively irrelevant (no paper tiger factor).

But you'd probably get extra hardening of aid against Russia (think House Republicans). To which you need to add: likely future sales of not-needed-for-Gaza Israeli gear to Ukraine and wastage of missiles Russia obviously doesn't have to spare on this side quest.

Game theory wise this is not an obviously attractive utility set. Which also seems to be the crux of the top-voted answer.

p.s. if anything Russia might be quite concerned that this crisis may motivate Iran to keep more of its weapons for itself rather than selling them to Russia (with the caveat that was is inappropriate in one theater might be useful in another).

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  • But given that the other two alternatives seem quite a more lot likely - why? This is what the question is about, and I don't see this addressed. Apr 16 at 16:57
  • Alternative b) - arming Ukraine some more is relatively low cost and certainly low risk. Alternative c) - backing down, is high cost in terms of loss of deterrence credibility. So, if I were Russia, I'd expect a pick of b) first, with a lower possibility of a) or c). a) could be very bad. c) brings no obvious advantages unless NATO backs all the way down from providing any arms. Russia wants to distance NATO from Ukraine, not give it more reasons to support it. It's just overall a question that fails to take into account risk/benefit ratios. Apr 16 at 18:41
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The fact that Russia hasn't tried anything of the kind, suggests that there are military/political mechanisms that assure a forceful response. Is this really the case? What are these mechanisms?

There's definitely a capability. Russians tried, many times, and quite successfully, similar attacks against Ukraine. One example, two example. Russians essentially licensed the technology from Iran.

However, attacking NATO countries carries a risk of dragging all of NATO into the war, which neither side wants. That's the main mechanism. 300 drones don't just "accidentally" fly across the border.

Iran attacked Israel deliberately, and as an escalation of an already existing long-running conflict. There's no such conflict between Russia and NATO.

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  • I'm downvoting because the question asks about Russia attacking a NATO member, not about Russia attacking Ukraine.
    – Allure
    Apr 16 at 7:40
  • Hmm... The question was "what are these mechanisms", and I answered exactly that in the sentence starting with "Attacking NATO countries...". Edited to clarify
    – littleadv
    Apr 16 at 7:41

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