Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused a number of European countries–probably all of them–to reconsider their military defense postures. If Russia attacks them, will they be able to resist? And whom can they count on to come to their aid?
Responses vary. Germany is talking about abandoning its post-WWII de-militarization. France, in Gaullist tradition, wants the EU to take the lead on security. Others rely on a presumed airtight NATO guarantee of military assistance.
Sweden is an interesting case. Sweden is not a member of NATO, although it has collaborated closely with NATO’s central command. Instead, Sweden has allied itself with the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, the U.K. This interview with Björn Fägersten, head of the Europe program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, sheds considerable light.
The threshold question posed is, since Sweden is not a member of NATO, will the European Union come to its aid if Russia attacks?
Does the EU’s mutual defence clause have a similar effect to Nato’s Article 5?
Björn Fägersten: In a purely legal sense they are equivalent – in some ways the EU is a bit sharper. But on the other hand, the EU’s clause has a sub-clause that makes clear that it doesn’t affect member states’ individual choices on security policy, for instance for those countries that are neutral.
A key difference between the EU and Nato is that the EU has no real apparatus. Nato has a joint military headquarters, SHAPE, but the EU doesn’t have an equivalent.
Within the EU there are also expectations that Nato will be at the centre of European planning – most EU countries are members. In the EU’s Global Strategy from 2016 it is made clear that Nato is the cornerstone of the EU’s defence.
So the EU has a mutual defense pledge, but no coordinated defense apparatus. But that could change. What follows is especially interesting in view of the weak state of Russia’s military that seems to have been revealed over the last couple of weeks:
Looking to the future, many in the EU, not least Macron, have long spoken about the need for strategic autonomy, where Europe will take a more independent line in defence from the US. Last week Germany announced a huge increase in defence spending. How will that change the equation for Sweden?
BF: If in the long term Europe starts taking greater responsibility while the US takes the main responsibility for handling China, that would change Sweden’s calculation. Sweden would like there to be an American interest in its security, but if, for example, a new president was elected in the US in 2024 who had a more doubtful approach to European security, Sweden would be forced to rapidly reevaluate its defence strategy.
It is highly unlikely that we will elect a president more feckless than Joe Biden, but it it useful to see how that possibility weighs on the minds of European decision makers. But the key point here is that the Europeans might be able to defend themselves while the U.S. focuses on the Pacific.
Throughout the linked interview, but more importantly in pretty much all of the discussion of NATO’s defense obligations that I have seen, the assumption is that Article 5 of the NATO treaty is an iron-clad guarantee that if any NATO member is attacked, all–including the U.S.–will respond with devastating military might. Such universal interpretation is entitled to a great deal of weight, especially since there have been countless communications among diplomats and heads of state on the matter since the 1940s.
And, of course, Joe Biden has vowed to defend militarily “every inch” of NATO soil. That is the conventional view. But still…is that really what the famous Article 5 of the NATO treaty says? Here is that article in its entirety. Emphasis is mine:
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-defence recognised 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 the 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.
Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.
Call me a cynical lawyer, but does “such action as it deems necessary” really obligate the U.S., or anyone else, to a full military response to Russian aggression in Europe? Might “such action” merely encompass economic sanctions in the event of a Russian invasion of, say, Lithuania?
I suppose it is best if Russia’s leaders assume that Article 5 represents an airtight mutual security pact, but it is easy to imagine a weaselly or mentally challenged president–or, perhaps, one who is uniquely focused on American self-interest–going back on 70 years of interpretation of Article 5 and more or less abandoning our European allies. No doubt that is something that they, too, are imagining.
Which I think is probably to the good. Donald Trump was right: it is long past time for powerful European countries, including Germany, to look to their own defense, even if in cooperation with us. And, of course, the more able they are to defend themselves against Russian aggression, the more likely they are to receive military help from their NATO allies, including us, should the time come.