The promise of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is written into Article V of the group's charter: an attack on one member, it says, is an attack on them all. This principle, known as collective defense, helped keep the Cold War cold, by pledging that the US, Canada, and Western Europe would band together against any Soviet attack. When the communist empire collapsed, many of its former Eastern European conquests joined NATO. At the time, relations between Russia and the West were improving, so the idea that Western Europe and the US might have to actually defend their new post-Soviet NATO recruits against Russia was not taken particularly seriously.
Today's Russia is much more hostile: it fought a war with Georgia in 2008, invaded Crimea in 2014, and is currently fighting in eastern Ukraine. There is a question that is increasingly asked in military policy circles in Washington and in much of Europe: what if Russia made some provocation in one of the tiny NATO states along its border? Would NATO come to its defense, as it has pledged to do? Or would the promise of Article V turn out to be a lie?
If it were up to European publics, the answer is a resounding "maybe, but maybe not." According to a disturbing new Pew survey, voters in much of Europe are divided over whether they would want their country to fulfill its pledge to defend fellow NATO members along Russia's border:
This poll seems to confirm what analysts, and particularly Eastern Europeans, have feared for some time: if Vladimir Putin tested NATO's willingness to defend its easternmost members, he might find that they are not.
In reality, things are even worse than they look.
The nation that is least willing to come to the defense of NATO members on Russia's border is Germany, which opposes action by a factor of about three to two. This is crucial because within Europe, Germany is widely seen as the de facto leader on the tensions with Russia — and the deciding vote should an eastern NATO member come under attack. When I traveled to Berlin this week, analysts warned me that though the German public despises Putin, their deep-seated pacifism and desire to seek compromise over confrontation could make them unwilling to uphold Germany's pledge to NATO.
The three NATO members along Russia's border — former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania that are known as the Baltic states — have grown increasingly vocal in warning that a Russian attack could really happen. Russian military planes and naval ships are increasingly active along (or sometimes within) their borders.
To be clear, if Russian tanks simply rolled across the border into Estonia next week, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel would almost certainly override her public's concerns and pledge to come to Estonia's aid. So, naturally, would the United States. But that's not the scenario that analysts fear.
Rather, they warn that Russia could repeat the so-called "hybrid war" provocations it deployed in the early stages of the Ukraine crisis: cyberattacks, propaganda meant to stir up panic or protests, armed "vigilantes," or even unmarked special forces shipped in to provoke small-scale violence. Such measures exist, by design, in a gray area between war and not-war.
In September, Russian security forces stormed into Estonia to kidnap an intelligence official, making clear Moscow does not consider the country off-limits.
The goal of such provocations would be to bully the Baltic states, to let them know Russia can push them around despite NATO. In the most extreme scenario, Putin's goal would be to push the Baltics just hard enough that they formally call on NATO for help, but that Russia would use fuzzy hybrid war measures that leave just enough ambiguity (does this really qualify as an act of war? was Moscow really responsible?) that European leaders don't respond.
Should that happen, should NATO's easternmost states ask for help and be turned down, it would expose NATO's pledge of collective defense as a lie — effectively dissolving the organization and leaving Eastern Europe exposed to Russian aggression once more. It would be, for Putin, a tremendous victory.
That scenario sounded outlandish when it was first suggested last fall by the Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, but it is now taken as a serious possibility by many in the US and in NATO. (I spoke to Piontkovsky and many others in Washington, Moscow, and Berlin on this subject for a forthcoming article.) The more plausible it seems, the more Putin may be tempted into trying it. And indeed, Russian military activity around the Baltics is increasing.
The revelation, in this Pew poll, that so many German voters oppose coming to the Baltics' defense even in the case of an overt Russian military attack adds disturbing new credence to the theory. That opposition will surely be much higher should Russia instead launch the sort of hazy, unclaimed "hybrid" provocations that are seen as more likely. At some point, even Merkel will have to listen to her public.
And if Germany declines to fulfill its duty, the rest of Europe — which has taken to following the German lead on Russia — is likely to do the same. Even if the US responds on its own, NATO's supposed unity and pledge of collective defense will have been exposed as empty. Putin will have won.
There is an even greater risk: that Putin will be tempted into testing NATO's resolve to defend the Baltics, but that he will overstep or miscalculate to a degree that forces NATO to counterattack. The potential consequences of such a scenario, of open military conflict between the nuclear powers of Russia and NATO that could easily spiral out of control, are almost too terrible to contemplate.