Will NATO Split on Ukraine?
Germany & the U.S. at Odds as Russia Continues Pressure
In the evening hours of Sunday, January 23rd, 2022, the United Stated Department of State issued two Level 4 travel advisories: one to Russia and the Second to Ukraine. The building tension between the two countries has captured the headlines for most major news outlets over the preceding days, with the lone exception within the United States being MSNBC, which instead continues the drumbeat of anti-Trump stories that lack a meaningful audience.
Nevertheless, the growing tension appears to have highlighted the recent growing rift between the United States and Germany - two of the foremost members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Over the past several years, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel adopted a softer stance on Russia and permitted or encouraged a number of energy and commercial projects between the two countries to create strong ties between them. Of these projects, the most significant have been the pipelines which supply Germany with nearly a third of its total gas. Over the latter half of the prior decade, Merkel was pushed from members of both her own party and her opposition to approve or force the completion of Nord Stream 2 - a Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline that runs parallel to Nord Stream 1 underneath the Baltic Sea.
The U.S. has traditionally feared that the completion of Nord Stream 2 would cause Germany to have closer ties to Russia - a potential conflict of interest in the event of an armed conflict. Nevertheless, the Biden Administration withdrew sanctions on the project in July, 2021, paving the way for the project’s completion and a closer tie between Germany and Russia.
Though Nord Stream 2 is imminently expected to be completed, it is not yet across the finish line. Recent moves by the members of the U.S. Senate and vague suggestions within the Biden Administration indicate a willingness on the part of the U.S. Government to reimpose sanctions in the immediate future. Nevertheless, the binding of ties, or at least warming of affections, between Germany and Russia seems to have continued anyway.
On Friday, January 21st, 2021, German Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach (the Chief of the German Navy) suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin was really only interested in receiving respect on the international stage - and furthermore, that the West and Germany should give it. To make matters worse, he suggested that Germany needed Russia in the belief that appeasement of Russia would help keep Russia away from an alliance with China. The remarks by the German Naval Chief were ironic and naïve at best, echoing the sentiment of Neville Chamberlain in his negotiations with Adolf Hitler in September of 1938:
“We, the German Fuehrer and Chancellor, and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognizing that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for two countries and for Europe. We regard the Agreement signed last night and the Anglo German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.
We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern or two countries, and we are determined to continue our efforts to remove possible sources of difference, and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe.” - Neville Chamberlain, September 30, 1938.
By Saturday Night, Vice-Admiral Schönbach was shown the door and resigned - much faster than Prime Minister Chamberlain was (he lasted another eight months before losing power in the face of German advances). Nonetheless, Germany seems intent on engaging with Russia diplomatically, with or (preferably) without the U.S. Next week, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock plans to meet with a Russian diplomatic team in Moscow and has suggested that expectations on the NATO and Russian talks were unreasonably high. The European Union, in which Germany (as the largest economy within the block) wields considerable influence, has also suggested that talks with Russia apart from NATO may be the right answer.
All of this is an indication of the United States’ weakening influence over its military and political allies. Between the Trump Administration’s haranguing of NATO members over their club dues and the Biden Administration’s appallingly bad Afghanistan withdrawal from a twenty-year conflict that NATO members had bought into, there’s little question as to why this relationship has soured.
The question of what happens next for NATO, however, is not as simple to answer. The root cause of the conflict between NATO (largely the United States) and Russia is about NATO’s interest in growing its influence in the region. Ukraine, a former Soviet vassal state and important energy and food production region in Europe, has long lobbied for membership within NATO for the express purpose of warding off Russian expansion - much like Poland lobbied in the late 1930’s for British and French protection from German aggression.
Ukraine has grounds for this fear: though it’s not discussed as often as it should be, the Obama administration sat idly by in 2014 as Russia annexed the Ukrainian owned Crimean Peninsula. Though Russia operated under the auspices of there being a local uprising of ethnic Russians to throw off their Ukrainian overlords (see Austria, 1938), it has been well reported and acknowledged that the Russian military was responsible for the armed conflict. The Democrats and President Obama did little to deter future activity, leveling a meager set of sanctions that did nothing to resolve the invasion.
Russia, for its part, sees the expansion of NATO into Ukraine as a permanent loss of the territory. As it stands now, Russia can take small bites out of the country (seemingly during any given Democratic administration in the White House), until enough of the country folds or a puppet government can be installed (see Nazi Germany and its dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1939). If Ukraine becomes part of NATO, a similar event as to what happened in Crimea would trigger a third world war.
So with Russia and the United States (wielding what little influence it has retained through NATO) maintaining diametrically opposing positions, under what circumstances would Germany and the rest of NATO be forced to act?
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is the provision that controls automatic retaliation in the event one member is attacked:
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-defense recognized 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 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.
Article 6 of the treaty provides clarification on what exactly qualifies as an “armed attack”:
For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:
-on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France, on the territory of Turkey or on the islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer;
-on the forces, vessels or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.
Article 5 has been invoked exactly once: September 12th, 2001 in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States. The end result of this particular invocation was a two-decade long war that ended with NATO forces being chased off of Afghanistan soil by a series of mountain dwellers wielding U.S. weapons, training and equipment. So, any level of action under Article 5 is likely to be taken as a measured response and not a knee-jerk reaction.
Accordingly, Ukraine does not automatically trigger Article 5 because despite being closely associated with the NATO members, it is not a member. However, there is a small hang-up which the U.S. may utilize in the event Russia invades. At the moment, there are a little less than 200 Florida National Guard members deployed to Ukraine. Their mission, since November of 2021, is to work with four Ukrainian brigades to improve their combat readiness.
If Russian attacks were to impact these National Guardsmen, would that qualify for Article 5 protection? A review of the circumstances seems to indicate it would not be enough. To begin with, while an attack on U.S. troops in Europe would appear to qualify under Article 5, Article 6 suggests that such an attack in Ukraine would not be covered. Ukraine is not a territory of the United States in Europe, and was not occupied by the NATO members when the treaty went into force in 1949. Therefore, automatic retaliatory actions is unlikely under the terms of the treaty despite the fact that Ukraine has lent support to NATO military actions over the last two decades.
Accordingly, an attack on Ukraine, even one in which U.S. forces are targeted, wont produce the full NATO response that Russia is likely intent to avoid, leaving them relatively free to act as long as they convince Germany or France that such an action is a waste of resources, or would have little benefit to them. Such persuasion has been relatively successful over the last few weeks. Germany recently blocked arms shipments to Ukraine, refused to suspend Russia from banking and finance agreements, and has threatened but hesitated to suspend the last steps of completion for Nord Stream 2.
Germany appears to have the support of France which has agreed to participate along side the Germans in direct negotiations with the Russians tomorrow, January 25th, 2022. Certainly, the French are still displeased with the U.S.’s interference in submarine purchase agreements with Australia that were nixed last year, and harbor no warm feelings about the two-decade long Afghanistan war. This sidebar, while discussed in the most friendly of public-relations terms as further efforts to address the rising threat from Moscow, is an attempt to find an accommodation for Russia that keeps the status quo for the remainder of the EU.
As such, the Germans and the Americans find themselves at odds over how to deal with Russia - a rift that will widen to a chasm if Russia invades Ukraine and Germany blocks NATO efforts to intervene. Such an event would leave the Biden Administration to either deploy further military support on its own, which is unlikely, or attempt to financially sanction the Russians into compliance, which will only drive the Russians closer to the Chinese. Neither option is preferable for the United States and the Biden Administration. Accordingly, the deterrent negotiations is the only option likely to be successful moving forward. Without Germany holding the line with the U.S., NATO will either lose considerable influence in a world increasingly influenced by the Sino-Russo alliance, or outright collapse.
There is historical precedent for the collapse of mutual defense alliances - namely the Triple Alliance at the beginning of the Great War (World War 1). This alliance involved Italy, the German Empire and Austria-Hungary - all of whom were then considered to be great powers to some degree or another. After two decades of crises and brushes with the Triple Entente (involving the Russian Tsar kingdom, France and the United Kingdom), when a small skirmish broke out in the Balkan states, Italy decided to ignore its treaty obligations because its financial interests were separate from those of their allies. A year after the war started, Italy joined the fight on the opposing side, eventually attacking its prior allies.
Whether the rest of NATO looks warily at the German and French negotiations that begin tomorrow is something that only time will tell. However, for the first time in more than eighty years, it appears that regional peace, if not global peace, depends upon Germany holding a careful line.