US, NATO seek to shore up defenses as Russia-Ukraine conflict rages

Russia’s military incursion against Ukraine has raised questions about what would trigger a military response to the conflict from the U.S. and NATO.

Washington has bolstered NATO’s defense capabilities along the eastern flank, and the alliance recently decided to activate elements of the NATO response force for the first time in history.  

But experts agree that the organization itself would need to be threatened in order to trigger a heavy military response from the alliance, which they say doesn’t seem likely at the moment.  

“Putin very well understands the difference between being conducting aggression against a non-NATO nation,” said J.D. Williams, a senior defense policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. 

“He's obviously crossed a huge threshold and doing what he's doing. But it would be another major type of escalation if he actually wants some kind of attack or aggression against the NATO nation,” he continued. 

NATO operates as a defensive alliance and is guided by the North Atlantic Treaty, also known as the Washington Treaty, which was signed in 1949. 

Article 5 of that treaty stipulates that the alliance is obligated to defend one of its members under attack. The only time that article has been invoked was after the U.S. was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.  

However, countries along the alliance’s eastern flank triggered Article 4, under which a member state can request consultations with the broader alliance if it feels threatened. 

According to NATO, this has only occurred seven times since 1949, further signifying the eastern flank’s concerns about military spillover. 

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, therefore, there is no formal obligation from the U.S. or the alliance to come to its defense.  But member states fear a Russian military incursion against Ukraine could threaten its eastern flank and moved to bolster its defenses in the region. 

On Friday, the alliance activated some units of its NATO response force — a multinational coalition that can deploy on short notice.  

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Friday that the alliance has over 100 jets on high alert in 30 different locations and 120 ships from the High North to the Mediterranean. 

“What's going on in NATO right now is a reaction to what's happening in Ukraine and a perception that actions being taken by Russia constitute a threat to NATO beyond what they're doing in Ukraine,” Williams said. 

Fighting has been nonstop since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an invasion in Ukraine early Thursday morning, and he has largely been focused on the eastern part of the country. 

Russian forces have advanced toward Kyiv from Belarus, into an area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, and from Crimea toward Kerson, a senior Defense official told reporters on Friday. 

The official also said there was a an “amphibious assault” coming from the Sea of Azov, indicating that they’re moving toward Mariupol and the Donbass region. The official added that the Russians were meeting more resistance from Ukraine than it expected. 

The Biden administration has worked hard to fulfill its obligation to NATO’s collective defense —deploying roughly 15,000 troops to Europe over the past few weeks. 

But the administration has made it clear that no American troops would go directly into Ukraine.  

“I don’t know how many more times I can say it: There's no scenario -- the President is not sending U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine against Russia,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday.  

“We are taking a range of other steps…but, I would say, they're quite significant,” she added. 

Putin’s intentions are currently aimed at Ukraine, but whether he intends to push beyond the country’s borders remains, for now, unclear. 

“It’s not entirely clear if Mr. Putin has desires beyond Ukraine,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Friday. “And it's because that's not perfectly clear that we continue to look for ways to bolster our NATO capabilities and to reassure our allies.”  

Another expert said, that the possibility of conflict spilling into NATO territory looms large as fighting between Russia and the former Soviet state continues. 

“When you have military forces operating relatively closely to one another, there are risks of you know, accidents, those kinds of things,” said Barry Pavel, senior vice president of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. 

“There's a kind of a myth that that leads to massive war, but I do worry about all these forces operating near each other,” he continued. 

Still, experts don’t believe Putin would intentionally venture outside of Ukraine.  

“I don't think anyone expects the Russians to move all the way to the western side of Ukraine, and then they keep going,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser for the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“As they moved further west and came close to NATO's border and the countries involved would get increasingly nervous. I think you would see more troop deployments and, you know, in more firepower,” he continued. “But again, I can't imagine the Russians crossing the border.” 

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