“When it comes to Article Five, we are crystal clear: we will defend every inch of NATO territory.” This is how a spokesman for the US Department of Defense reacted to the news that there had been explosions of unknown origin in Poland near the border with Ukraine. possibly by Russian missiles. The Pentagon spokesman referred to Article Five of the NATO treaty. This reads:

“The parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America will be considered an attack against them all; They therefore agree that in the event of such an armed attack, each of them shall, in exercising the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, lend assistance to the party or parties attacked, each of them forthwith shall take, individually and in cooperation with the other parties, such measures, including the use of force of arms, as it deems necessary to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

The most important for the alliance is the first sentence, which is considered a guarantee of assistance. An attack on a NATO member, in this case Poland, is considered an attack on the entire alliance. Poland would have to tell NATO what response it thinks is appropriate and what help it needs.

The NATO countries would then each decide for themselves what assistance they would provide. There is no automatic escalation or even an automatic counterattack, in this case possibly on Russia. The alliance case must be decided politically unanimously.

Since the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine, politicians in the NATO countries have repeatedly heard the formula that every centimeter of NATO territory is defended. The incident in Poland could now be a test of what this statement really means.

So far, Article Five of the NATO treaty has only been used once. After the terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, NATO declared the attack on the USA as an attack on the alliance.

Accordingly, the USA was supported in the fight against terrorists and the occupation of Afghanistan by a NATO military mission. However, this did not happen on the basis of the NATO treaty according to Article Five, but with a mandate from the United Nations.

Not every attack on the territory of a NATO member or its soldiers automatically leads to the activation of the assistance guarantee. When Syrian units attacked soldiers from the NATO country in the border area with Turkey, NATO signaled to Turkey that the demand for Article Five had no chance of success in this case.

Turkey has the second largest army in NATO and would be able to defend itself against Syrian attacks on its own. So far, in the case of Turkey, there have only been consultations on threats under Article Four of the NATO treaty.

In the current case in Poland, consultations under Article 4 of the NATO treaty are likely. The NATO Council could meet at ambassadorial level in Brussels on Thursday. However, this has not yet been confirmed.

Incidentally, Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty goes even further. The final provision reads:

“Any armed attack and any countermeasures taken thereupon must be reported immediately to the Security Council. The measures shall cease as soon as the Security Council has taken the steps necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”

The United Nations Security Council is meant. So NATO would report to the Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member with veto rights, if it actually took steps against Russia.

Author: Bernd Riegert

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The original of this article “Keyword: Article five, the mutual assistance clause of the NATO treaty” comes from Deutsche Welle.