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After the explosion in Poland, will NATO go to war with Russia? Probably not.

Here’s what the NATO treaty actually does — and doesn’t — require

- November 15, 2022

Editors note: This piece was written in November 2022, after an errant missile landed in Poland. This provoked questions of whether this constituted an attack that would lead to a NATO response. Ultimately, it was determined the missile came from Ukraine’s air defense system.

On Tuesday, Russia’s war with Ukraine appeared to have spilled over into Poland. According to a U.S. official, missiles from an attack against Ukraine’s power grid hit Przewodow, a Polish village near the border with Ukraine. Two people reportedly died. Other missiles cut electricity to much of Moldova.

Poland is part of NATO, founded in 1949 to protect Western Europe against a Soviet attack. After the Cold War, the alliance expanded to include former Soviet allies, including Poland, which joined the alliance in 1999.

Poland’s NATO allies have been quick to condemn Russia’s attacks on Ukraine and to blame the country for the explosion. Latvia’s deputy prime minister castigated the “criminal Russian regime” for firing missiles “that landed on NATO territory in Poland.” The Estonian foreign minister promised to defend “every inch of NATO territory.” Pentagon press secretary Patrick Ryder agreed, saying that the United States has “been crystal clear that we will defend every inch of NATO territory.”

Despite the heated rhetoric, this incident is unlikely to lead to a collective military response from NATO. But it does highlight the continued danger of inadvertent escalation between Russia and NATO.

When Poland joined NATO, it gained the right to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter. That article declares that any attack against a NATO ally “shall be considered an attack against them all.” In response, NATO members will defend their ally, with actions it “deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

What is Article 5?

Article 5 was meant to ensure the collective security of NATO members during the Cold War, deterring a Soviet attack with the threat of a swift and massive response. But the first and only time the article has been invoked was the day after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when NATO’s governing body called upon all members to support the United States in its response to the terrorist attacks.

How does Article 5 work?

While Article 5 seems to promises collective defense, it does not guarantee an allied military response. The attacked country needs to ask NATO to respond, usually through formal channels. It does not need to initiate the conversation, however. After 9/11, Germany and Canada broached invoking Article 5 with the United States.

Once that request is made, NATO members must decide if collective response is warranted. After 9/11, NATO members met in an emergency session to vote on whether to support the United States.

Even if NATO members agree, they need not use force to defend their ally. Article 5’s language of “actions deemed necessary” is ambiguous, and allows each NATO member to decide how to respond. Instead of defending its ally with force, a member might send military equipment to an ally or impose economic sanctions.

And if a country does decide to use its military force, it can get even more complicated. Article 9 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that Article 5 will be carried out “by the Parties in accordance with their respective constitutional processes.” The invocation of Article 5 after 9/11 sent the decision to use force to members’ legislatures. And during a conflict, countries can add “caveats” that restrict how their forces can be deployed.

In the United States, the president’s powers to authorize force have expanded significantly over the past several decades. The Constitution does give the president the power to defend U.S. territory and citizens, even without express authorization. But the president cannot automatically use force in a case in which an attack does not directly threaten the United States.

Where does NATO stand?

All of this suggests that an invocation of Article 5 is unlikely. To begin with, it’s hard to imagine Poland calling for NATO’s collective defense if the missile explosion was accidental, as it almost certainly was. At the moment, the Polish media are reporting that the explosions might be caused by the remains of a Russian missile intercepted by Ukrainian forces. Even if a missile went astray, it is unlikely to be portrayed as an intentional attack.

Second, NATO members have no interest in escalating this war into a conflict between NATO and Russia. While they have continued to provide military equipment and impose economic sanctions, NATO members have so far avoided measures — such as no-fly zones — that could lead to direct military confrontation with Russia.

This doesn’t mean the alliance will remain silent. Some suggest that Russia’s actions may instead trigger Article 4. That article would bring all NATO members into consultation to discuss the Russian threat and whether the alliance should take measures to increase its defenses.

Not out of the woods

It’s unlikely that this most recent crisis will escalate into a NATO-Russian conflict. But it does highlight the continued dangers of inadvertent escalation in Europe so long as Russia’s war in Ukraine drags on.

Russia’s recent forced withdrawal from Kherson probably made Russian President Vladimir Putin all the more desperate. The explosions in Poland come on the heels of a huge barrage against civilian infrastructure. There is no evidence that Moscow intends to end this war.

The missile explosions in Poland may be an accident, but they may lead NATO to expand its support both of Ukraine and Poland. Both countries are poised to gain quite a bit in an Article IV consultation. Poland is looking to augment its air defenses, particularly its antiaircraft missiles and may use the Russian incident to press NATO to station more resources and invest more in missile defense in the country. Ukraine is likely to receive more advanced air defense systems, too.

All of this locks NATO and Russia into, if not direct conflict, at least fierce military competition. Under these circumstances, another explosion that’s less obviously a misfire could escalate quickly.

Stacie E. Goddard (@segoddard) is Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor of Political Science and Paula Phillips Bernstein ’58 Faculty Director of the Madeleine K. Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley College, and author most recently of “When Right Makes Might: Rising Powers and World Order” (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 2018.)