- Russian missiles struck NATO-ally Poland and killed 2 people on Tuesday, according to reports.
- The incident could invoke NATO Article 4, which allows any member to call for a consultation when threatened.
- Several NATO countries previously invoked Article 4 after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Two people were killed after Russian missiles landed in an eastern Polish village on Tuesday, a US intelligence official told the Associated Press.
Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine has forced the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its 30 member countries to continually grapple with the role they should play in the nearly nine-month conflict, but the Tuesday incident seemingly marks the first time Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war has directly impacted a NATO member.
The Pentagon on Tuesday reiterated President Joe Biden’s previous declaration that the US would “defend every inch of NATO territory.”
Such defiant language ostensibly appeals to the collective defense principle at the heart of NATO Article 5. But with Russia’s defense ministry blatantly denying any missile strike and so much still unknown, the incident may be more likely to lead to the invocation of the lesser-known NATO Article 4.
What is NATO?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a military alliance created in 1949 to provide collective security against Soviet expansionism and to encourage European political integration in the aftermath of World War II.
NATO serves as a collective security system, wherein its member states agree to mutually defend any attack on a member party — a pledge enshrined in the treaty’s most famous tenet, Article 5.
The alliance contained just 12 countries when it was founded but has more than doubled in size in the years since. The body now consists of two countries in North America and 28 European countries, including several former Soviet nations.
Ukraine, though not a member of NATO, has been designated one of the alliance’s “enhanced opportunity partners,” a title granted to nonmember countries that have contributed to NATO-led operations and missions.
As such, NATO and its members have no binding obligation to defend Ukraine against Russia’s attacks.
What is Article 4 of NATO’s treaty?
Article 4 of the treaty allows any member nation to call for a consultation of the organization’s governing body when “the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened,” according to the treaty.
Invoking the article does not guarantee that the alliance will take action, but it is a significant step in intensifying discussions between members. Article 4 starts formal communications on behalf of the threatened member.
Discussions within the alliance then focus on whether the threat exists and how to counter it. NATO employs consensus decision-making, meaning there is no voting within the alliance. Consultations continue until a unanimous decision is reached, NATO’s website says.
Immediately following Russia’s invasion in February, a group of Eastern European countries, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia requested discussions under NATO Article 4.
When has Article 4 been invoked before?
In NATO’s 73-year existence, Article 4 had only been invoked six times prior to the start of the war in Ukraine, according to the alliance’s website.
Its most recent use was in February 2020, when Turkey, which has invoked consultations more than any other country, invoked the article after Syrian government forces killed dozens of Turkish soldiers in an attack in opposition-held regions in northern Syria.
The other five times it was used were:
- July 2015: Turkey invoked Article 4 to alert the alliance to its impending response to terrorist attacks
- March 2014: Poland invoked Article 4 to discuss increasing tensions in Ukraine amid Russian aggression
- October 2012: Turkey invoked talks after five Turkish civilians were killed by Syrian shells
- June 2012: Turkey requested a meeting after one of its fighter jets was shot down by Syrian air defense forces
- February 2003: Turkey invoked Article 4 asking NATO to help protect its people from any spillover consequences of the war in Iraq
On two of those occasions, NATO responded with military assistance, aiding Turkey with Patriot missile batteries to combat Syrian attacks in 2012 and providing aircraft and missile batteries along Turkey’s border with Iraq in 2003.
Poland’s use of the tenet in 2014 led to a member meeting that resulted in stronger NATO efforts to defend the alliance.
What was the outcome of Friday’s discussion?
World leaders attended an emergency virtual NATO summit on February 25, 2022 following the invocation of Article 4. The meeting followed a separate emergency NATO summit on the previous day, where members also discussed the Ukraine situation.
Following the Friday meeting, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told journalists the alliance would deploy parts of its response force and continue sending weapons to Ukraine, including air defenses.
The decision marked the first time in NATO’s seven-decade history that the body’s combat-ready response force has been activated as a defensive measure, CNN reported.
—NATO (@NATO) February 25, 2022
“This is an historic moment and the very first time the Alliance has employed these high readiness forces in a deterrence and defense role,” NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Tod Wolters said in a statement to the outlet.
The force includes land, air, sea, and special operations forces from the alliance’s member nations ready for rapid deployment.
Biden has made clear that US troops thus far deployed to Eastern Europe are there to bolster NATO member countries wary of nearby Russian aggression.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked NATO for its help but called on the alliance to do more.
“We are alone in defending our country. Who is ready to defend us together with us? Honestly, I don’t see any,” Zelensky said, according to CNN. “Who is ready to give Ukraine a guarantee of joining NATO? Honestly, everyone is afraid.”