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NATO's Article 5 and US involvement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict

ABC News | President Joe Biden has stated repeatedly that the US will not send soldiers to Ukraine to combat Russia, but that the US will defend its NATO partners.

In a speech on Thursday, he reiterated, "As I made abundantly clear, the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full weight of American power."

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established in 1949 with the primary purpose of fostering mutual assistance in reaction to the Soviet Union's expansion in Europe. Article 5 of the treaty deals with "collective defense," which means that an attack on one ally is treated as an attack on all allies.

In the midst of the current crisis, Article 5 could compel the US and other treaty members to take more direct action if Russian aggression spreads beyond Ukraine.

Last Monday, NATO announced the activation of its reaction force, a 40,000-strong force that will provide land, air, and naval support across the alliance. According to a NATO official, this is the first time the force has been deployed for a "deterrence and defense duty."

Article 5 might be invoked while the US and its allies are providing military help to Ukraine, according to Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international politics at Georgetown University.

"Assume Russia succeeds in overthrowing the government. After that, it attempts to occupy and pacify Ukraine. If the US and its allies try to transfer guns to a Ukrainian resistance movement, there's a good chance Russia will try to stop it. And that an artillery shell, a missile, or a bomb could land in Poland or another NATO country, whether on purpose or by mistake," Kupchan warned.

"After that, we're looking at the possibility of an attack on NATO territory, which might trigger the Article Five collective defense guarantee, raising the possibility of a military clash between NATO and Russia," Kupchan added.

The article's form of solidarity is agreed upon by all participating countries, making it a vital component of the alliance. While Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it has borders with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania.

Ukraine has been moving away from Russia and toward the West, aiming to join both NATO and the EU. According to Kupchan, the position of the city could be significant during the fight.

"At the moment, Ukraine's border with four NATO nations provides it with two significant benefits," Kupchan added. "One is that refugees can seek asylum in NATO nations, and we're witnessing tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing to the west." The other is that, given that Russia controls Ukraine's airspace, the lengthy border between Ukraine and NATO provides a chance to continue funneling weapons and other forms of assistance to Ukraine."

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Article 5 was used for the first time. Terrorism had been acknowledged as a threat to the alliance's security since 1999. NATO joined the war against terrorism in the aftermath of the assault, initiating its first missions beyond the Euro-Atlantic area to patrol the skies over the United States.

Despite a lack of unanimity among members, NATO appeared to open the way for Ukraine's membership in 2008, suggesting it would become a member of the alliance. Ukraine's accession to NATO is not specified in terms of a path or timeframe.

"The Bush administration wanted to go forward with a Membership Action Plan for Ukraine and Georgia in 2008." And European partners were hesitant, partly because neither Ukraine nor Georgia were ready to join NATO, and partly because NATO's expansion to Georgia and Ukraine would be perceived as aggressive in Russia," Kupchan added.

"Because of the lack of consensus inside NATO, the alliance agreed to release a generic statement stating that Georgia and Ukraine would join NATO, but without specifying a timeline or a process," Kupchan added.

In a video address days before Russia attacked Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin linked the current conflict to Russia's NATO demands, particularly a promise that NATO will halt advancing to the east. Putin blamed the West for the Ukraine situation, accusing the US and NATO of ignoring his demands.

"Putin has stated openly that he wants NATO's military posture on the eastern flank reduced, which would include the three Baltic nations, Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia," Kupchan said. "He wants NATO to reduce its capability."

"One of the unfortunate aspects of this battle is that the Russians were well aware that Ukraine's membership in NATO was not on the table." It wasn't on the table, to begin with. And the NATO governments were very clear about that. Putin, on the other hand, chose to invade the country," Kupchan remarked.

Putin is unlikely to attack a NATO ally since he would be facing a "full-scale war," according to him.

"My guess is that he realizes this isn't going to work," Kupchan added.

In addition to the response force, NATO announced the deployment of a 3,500-strong quick response brigade that can deploy on short notice while the bigger unit gathers troops from other member nations.

"Our efforts are and will continue to be preventive, proportionate, and non-escalators," NATO stated in a statement last week.

It's still uncertain, according to Kupchan, how far west Russia will go into Ukraine.

"It's possible that there's a rump in Ukraine that Russia doesn't try to capture," Kupchan said. "Western Ukraine has generally been far more interwoven into Europe than into Russia."

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