The West’s decision to eventually send tanks to Ukraine has prompted some to wonder aloud whether NATO is now in outright combat with Russia.
This story, which the Kremlin is pushing hard, surely helps Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies divert attention away from the fact that Russia launched an unprovoked invasion on Ukraine and illegally captured sections of a sovereign state.
It also, perhaps more conveniently for Putin, gives NATO partners pause when assessing how much military aid they should provide Ukraine.
First and foremost, experts agree that no NATO member is in any way close to being at war with Russia under any globally recognised legal definition. As a result, the notion that the alliance is at war with Russia is untenable.
“War would necessitate strikes by US or NATO soldiers in uniform attacking from NATO territory on Russian forces, Russian property, or the Russian people,” explains William Alberque of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Any battle by Ukraine – with any conventional weapons, against any Russian forces – is not a US/NATO attack on Ukraine, regardless of how much Russia claims,” he says.
According to Alberque, nothing “shall hinder the fundamental right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken steps necessary to ensure international peace and security.”
Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and has used its veto to prevent international condemnation of its activities in Ukraine.
The Kremlin has undoubtedly attempted to exploit certain grey areas inherent in modern warfare in order to falsely claim that NATO is the primary aggressor in the Ukraine conflict.
Among the grey areas might be the use of Western intelligence to carry out assaults against Russian targets.
They might also include the United States declaring war on terror and using NATO’s Article 5 following the 9/11 attacks, in which America was attacked by terrorists rather than a nation state.
Nikolai Patrushev, Russia’s Security Council secretary, has alleged that the West is attempting to “destroy” Russia. Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, has stated that the US government is pressuring Ukraine to “carry out terrorist strikes in Russia.”
Of course, whatever merit these dubious accusations may have, they pale in comparison to Russian forces’ recorded brutality and illegal conduct in Ukraine since Putin launched the invasion.
However, the fact that they exist and are taken seriously by analysts and pundits outside of Russia, notably in Washington DC, benefits the Kremlin in more ways than one.
According to John Herbst, former US ambassador to Ukraine and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, pushing the concept of this being a NATO-Russian conflict helps Putin’s home audience understand why the invasion has not succeeded as swiftly as Russia had intended.
“Because the Russian military has been such a failure in Ukraine, it is helpful to frame this as a conflict with NATO rather than Ukraine. This also helps to justify whatever moves Putin takes next, and Russia has been ready to play up the possibility of going nuclear,” Herbst told AWN.
Herbst believes that Russia’s information campaign against the West has been more successful than its military campaign in the sense that it has caused credible and rational people in Washington, DC to refrain from supporting increased military support for Ukraine because they exaggerate the possibility of Putin using nuclear weapons, which would be disastrous for Russia as well.
“I can’t tell you how many experts have stated we really can’t equip Ukraine with certain weaponry because Putin will go nuclear. In the last six months, we’ve seen Russian think-tankers approach their Western counterparts to say that Putin could accomplish it. “Unfortunately, Washington and Berlin, in particular, have been deterred by this menace at times,” he continues.
Long-term Putin observers believe there is minimal risk of Russia escalating to the point of forcing NATO to respond with force since Moscow knows it cannot survive the clash.
“Avoiding a direct clash between the two powers is one of the few objectives that the Russian and US leadership share at the present,” says Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London.
“Russia realises that a traditional confrontation with NATO would be ended very fast for them. “However, there is some logic in amplifying the notion that it is willing to accept that risk if it means extracting additional concessions from the West,” he adds.
Multiple European officials and NATO sources agreed that Putin going nuclear was unlikely, but the option should be taken seriously and avoided. The question is, how much is avoided at what cost?
Ukraine will almost certainly continue to request additional weapons and increased backing from its friends as the war continues. Every NATO member will have to decide if the danger is worth taking, or whether stalling its feet actually benefits the Kremlin.
Herbst feels that the Russian invasion of Ukraine served as a stark reminder of what it is like to deal with an aggressive Kremlin, and that Western authorities had temporarily forgotten the Soviet Union’s Cold War methods.
“The West’s softness has occurred because we’ve had peace between the great nations for the better part of 30 years,” he argues. “We are currently in the process of finding stuff that we knew in our bones at the height of the Cold War. And the only reason we’re seeing this now is because one of the world’s big powers has decided it doesn’t like the current world order.”
As the battle continues, the West and NATO are forced to learn difficult lessons in real time.
But, whenever Russia warns of escalation, whether by itself or through NATO, Western capitals must remember that Russia is the aggressor in this dispute, and the West is nowhere close to war with Russia.
And, regardless of what Kremlin officials say about the West attempting to destroy Russia, only one sovereign state ever invaded another and unjustly appropriated sections of its territory by force.