With War Between Russia and Ukraine, What Is NATO and Why Does It Matter? – What You Need To Know



March 24

9 min read

Foreign Policy



With all that’s going on in Europe as Russia has invaded Ukraine, you may hear a lot about NATO in the news. Here’s what you need to know about our NATO alliance, what it means, what the U.S.’s obligations are and are not, and why it matters.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded in 1949. NATO’s primary purpose was to create a mutual assistance pact of western states to counter the risk that the Soviet Union would seek to extend its control of Eastern Europe to other parts of the continent. Collective defense is the foundational and motivational purpose of the Alliance.

Each NATO member has a diplomatic mission at the NATO HQ in Brussels, and each state has a permanent representative with the rank of ambassador who sits on the North Atlantic Council when it meets. The Council includes a defense committee tasked with recommending measures for the implementation of Articles 3 and 5. The Council can promptly meet at any time. There are times during the year when Heads of State/Government meet together as leaders of their respective state delegations, as well as meetings led by a state’s foreign minister or defense minister. The senior military officer is always an officer from the U.S. Armed Forces (whose two deputies come from the UK and Germany), while the NATO Secretary General, the senior civilian official in the Alliance, is always a non-American.

The North Atlantic Treaty is a relatively short treaty with only 14 articles. In the preamble, the parties are “resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security.” The three most important articles are Articles 4, 5, and 6.

All NATO decisions are made by consensus, after discussion and consultation among the member countries. A “NATO decision” is considered the collective will of all the sovereign states that are members of the Alliance. Thus, NATO does not hold votes on issues. Instead, consultations and discussions take place, in public and private, until a decision acceptable to all is reached.

Many significant decisions are based on draft proposals circulated to the Allies by the Secretary General or individual members of NATO. However, even in such cases, there is no formal voting procedure. The Secretary General often leads discussions with representatives and through private meetings with officials and legislators.

Article 4

Article 4 deals with consultations among members when issues of importance arise, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a state bordering NATO states. Article 4 encourages any Party with a concern about territorial integrity or political independence of a member state or a state whose status impacts NATO (like Ukraine and Russia) to call for consultations among members to identify the problems and seek solutions before such problems get out of hand.

Concerns may be raised among individual states first before raising them with the Secretary General, who, in turn, notifies the other member states. Because NATO missions are essentially co-located with each other, it does not take long to convene a meeting when requested. Each state has a Permanent Representative accredited to the NATO Alliance. When important issues are raised, representatives of each state meet in Council to discuss the issues. Such representatives usually have the rank of ambassador and can speak with authority for the country he or she represents. The Council can form quickly because each NATO member state maintains a diplomatic mission located at the NATO HQ in Brussels, and each mission maintains close contact with its national authorities in its respective national capital.

Consultation decisions can be difficult and time-consuming because of the required consensus. Once consensus is reached on a document or statement, each country then individually determines what action it will take in response to the decision. At times, this may require states to do research to satisfy themselves that the threat is legitimate and real.

With respect to the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, the countries of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland jointly called for consultations. Each borders either Russia or Belarus or both, and they have all had experience under Russian (then Soviet) control. Accordingly, they see the danger quite clearly. The initial meeting to discuss collective defense on this issue lasted over 11 hours.

Article 5

Article 5 is the key article which enhances the idea of collective defense and solidarity among members. It provides that if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack from a foreign power, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked.

NATO first invoked Article 5 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This is the only time Article 5 has been invoked. In accordance with NATO’s general principles of governance, consultations among the Allies occurred and collective action (including military action) was decided by the North Atlantic Council.

Subsequently, the NATO Secretary General informed the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the Alliance’s decision. Pursuant to the decision, NATO “launched its first ever anti-terror operation - Eagle Assist - from mid-October 2001 to mid-May 2002. It consisted in seven NATO AWACS radar aircraft that helped patrol the skies over the United States.”

NATO has also acted in collective defense by deploying Patriot missiles to Turkey during the Gulf War and in response to the civil war in Syria. More recently, NATO has deployed multinational battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. It also engages in air policing over the Baltic and Black Seas and has developed tools for cyber defense.

Article 5 reads as follows:

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 recognized 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.

This article is complemented by Article 6. Like Article 4, Article 5 can only be invoked at the request of a NATO Member.

Article 6

Article 6 fleshes out the general principle of Article 5, and defines what is considered an armed attack for purposes of Article 5:

For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:

–on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France 2, on the territory of Turkey or on the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer;

–on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.

A Turkish ship off the coast of Odessa in Ukraine was reportedly struck by a bomb during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, although no casualties occurred. This could potentially be understood to fall within the ambit of Article 6. A Russian takeover of Ukraine would also put it on the border with four more NATO countries.

The principle of providing assistance

When Article 5 is triggered, Allies can provide any form of assistance they deem necessary to respond to a situation. This is an individual obligation of each Ally, and each Ally is responsible for determining what it deems necessary in the particular circumstances. It can be awkward at times, especially since NATO forces are organized into various Army Groups, Air Wings, and Naval flotillas where they train together and whose war plans presuppose that the forces planned for will in fact be available when needed. It must be understood that individual states’ political decisions can play a role throughout the execution of a mission.

A case in point occurred when NATO forces deployed into the Balkans when General Wesley Clark was the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR). General Clark ordered an allied unit in the force to secure an airport. The commander of that unit refused to obey the order because he had been given instructions by his government to avoid certain provocative situations, and the commander thought that SACEUR’s order violated his instructions from home.

NATO leaders and forces attempt to avoid such situations by including the key leaders of national forces in the development of war plans so that any concerns can be dealt with before the fight begins. They also practice interoperability. At the beginning of NATO and at various times since, national forces have bought equipment for their forces which could not interoperate with equipment their Allies had (such as radios that could not communicate with each other or calibers of ammunition that could not be used by one’s Allies). To avoid that, NATO has sought to standardize munitions, radio requirements, operational order formats, phonetic alphabet, etc.

Once a state decides what resources to provide, they are taken forward in concert with other Allies. Resources may not always be military resources and depend on the material resources  each country can provide. It is therefore left to the judgment of each individual member country to determine how it will contribute. Each country will consult with the other members, bearing in mind that the ultimate aim is to “to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”


NATO is probably the most effective military alliance ever created to keep peace and avoid war.  It is not without its faults and weaknesses, but it proved to be remarkably successful during the Cold War by maintaining peace and stability in a bipolar world. More recently, the size of NATO’s Response Force has been tripled in light of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Further, NATO recently issued a statement opposing Russia’s actions and calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. NATO said, “Our commitment to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty is iron-clad. We stand united to defend each other.”

As with all large organizations whose political decision-making requires consensus, the process can be slow and frustrating, but NATO members have learned to work effectively with each other despite different languages, different national cultures, and different military cultures.

If anything, this crisis on NATO’s border is awakening Alliance members to the reality that we still live in a dangerous world and that vigilance and preparedness is the price of freedom.

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