On November 15, 2022, Poland reported that Russian missiles struck its territory, killing two civilians. Initial information about the attacks suggested that this incident may make the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s strategic calculations regarding the war in Ukraine significantly more complicated. Poland is, after all, a NATO member with a fierce anti-Russian streak in its strategic culture. And foundational to NATO is the Article 5 commitment to ally members that an attack on one is—upon agreement by allies—to be treated as an attack on all. Put these data points together and the casual observer could easily conclude that NATO was about to go to war.
It appears, however, that the missile strike was not an intentional Russian strike on Polish territory but rather a tragic, accidental effect of Ukrainian military forces trying to defend Kyiv against a barrage of incoming enemy fire. While there were immediate calls on both sides of the Atlantic to respond to show alliance unity, it turned out that NATO did what NATO needed to do: get the facts, verify what happened, consider possible prudent courses of action, and just breathe.
NATO has to date charted a sophisticated path when it comes to supporting Ukraine while staying out of the war itself. NATO members have individually provided weapons and military assistance, but the alliance to date has confined itself to providing nonlethal support to Ukraine—and is therefore not a belligerent in the conflict.
Yet war is an inherently complex, friction-filled endeavor. Humans get disoriented and systems fail. In this light, given the hail of missiles that Russia has rained on Ukraine, it is somewhat surprising that an incident like this has not already occurred. And it is exactly this kind of situation that demonstrates the utility of institutions like the NATO alliance. Rather than immediately—and inadvertently—escalate the crisis, NATO and its member states relied on decades-long institutional linkages and relationships in order to collectively develop a level-headed, facts-based approach to the situation.
That said, even though this missile strike appears not to be Russian, the alliance should not simply sit on its hands and wait for a potential future missile strike on its collective territory before thinking about how to respond. Moscow is very likely assessing what NATO’s response has been in the initial hours following this strike—and NATO’s moves from this point forward—as a test of NATO’s political will and allied solidarity. And the lesson that Brussels does not want Moscow to learn is that “accidental” missile strikes can be used to sow political discord and confusion among allies. Fortunately, there are a number of options that would further signal to Moscow that striking NATO territory—inadvertently or not—is unacceptable.
While NATO is best known for its Article 5 collective defense commitment under the 1949 Treaty of Washington, another powerful tool at NATO’s disposal is its defense consultation mechanisms that are a part of Article 4. Such consultations allow NATO states to develop a shared view of the situation and develop a coordinated, alliance-wide response to crises. It is not clear if Warsaw requested Article 4 consultations following this missile strike but, in the coming days, convening allied leaders and military officials to discuss what NATO needs to do in the event of a future crisis of this nature would send a strong signal to Putin that NATO remains united. It could also use Article 4 consultations to discuss—and plan for—handling future accidental or intentional strikes on NATO allied territory.
Article 4 consultations could also be a pathway for activating the NATO Response Force (NRF), a stand-by, quick reaction collection of alliance member forces that can be deployed within a few days to reinforce an ally’s borders or to respond to a crisis in Europe. Following Russia’s actions in February, NATO activated elements of the NRF for the first time. And at the recent Madrid Summit, NATO leaders agreed to further strengthen the NRF with capacity and time responsiveness. NATO could activate additional elements of the NRF now to reinforce the eastern flank allies of the Baltics, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia.
Moving forward, NATO and its member states could also agree to permanently increase and strengthen its military posture along NATO’s eastern border. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO has, among other things, established four new battlegroups (for a total of eight) along its eastern front, and is increasing the number of its high-readiness forces to 300,000. Yet more could be done, including through strengthening air defenses and permanent (versus rotational) stationing of NATO troops in eastern allied countries.
Such moves would likely be the worst-case scenario for Putin, whose long-stated objective has been to erode NATO and U.S. strength, particularly in Eastern Europe. Some in Washington might see such enhancements to U.S. posture in NATO’s east as a distraction from work to counter China in the Indo-Pacific. Yet any U.S. response to Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific will ultimately require NATO allied political support at minimum; it is therefore important to keep the alliance as vibrant as possible during moments of crisis. Further, while a Taiwan invasion scenario might be on the horizon, Russia is actively carving up its neighbors’ territories now. Sometimes, it is prudent to prioritize the near-term fight.
NATO has been right not to overreact to Putin’s action. The alliance has remained focused and deliberate in its actions, its words, and its intent. In other words, as an institution designed to promote transatlantic security, NATO performed admirably. Looking forward, the best response to Putin’s continued military’s aggression is to demonstrate resolve by strengthening NATO’s posture in Eastern Europe, remaining unified in its stance against Russia’s war against a sovereign nation, and ensuring Ukraine has the tools and platforms it needs to defend itself and end this war of aggression against its own nation.
Kathleen J. McInnis is a senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Daniel Fata is a non-resident senior adviser at CSIS International Security Program. Daniel Fata is a non-resident senior adviser at CSIS International Security Program. He is the former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO Policy (2005–2008).
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