Earlier today a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkish forces near the Turkey-Syrian border. At least one of the two pilots has been confirmed as dead.
Turkish officials say downing the plane was justified, claiming the Russian jet violated Turkish airspace and ignored 10 warnings to leave the area. However, Russia contends that the jet was over Syrian airspace at the time of the attack, with Russian President Vladimir Putin calling the incident “a stab in the back” that will have “serious consequences for Russia’s relationship with Turkey.”
As others have pointed out, this clash, though serious, is not likely to spiral into World War III. All parties involved have an interest in avoiding a major conflict. That said, Turkey, along with the United States, is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). If Russia proved the pundits wrong and launched a large-scale retaliation, would the United States be obligated to come to Turkey’s defense under the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty? Yes … and no.
Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty 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 recognised 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.
The treaty was signed in 1949, and Article V was crafted with the intent of deterring Russia (then part of the Soviet Union) from attempting to expand beyond Eastern Europe. The idea was that an attack on one NATO member was an attack on all, so any Russian attempt to invade a smaller NATO member would be met with the same response as an attack on a more powerful member. And for all intents and purposes, it worked. After all, we’re all alive, and the Cold War ended without a thermonuclear war.
While the Cold War ended in 1991, NATO still exists, and Article V is still in place. Does that mean a Russian attack on Turkey will be treated as an attack on the United States? Not exactly.
Before Article V can be invoked, Turkey must call for an Article IV consultation with all of the 27 other NATO members. During this consultation, the other members would have to agree to implement Article V. This caveat prevents a NATO member from “going rogue” and dragging the rest of the alliance with it into a pointless war.
“Many bilateral and joint meetings among NATO members would be undertaken to negotiate the response before a united front would be displayed as an alliance,” Robert Baines, a corporate development officer for the NATO Association of Canada, told the CBC. “When Article V was invoked on Sept. 12, 2001, it took almost a month to confirm the source of the attack and the response.”
And given the currently questionable circumstances surrounding Turkey’s behavior, it is entirely possible that NATO would choose not to act. Even if Article V was invoked, it would not require the U.S. or any other member to put boots on the ground or planes in the air.
“Article V’s language does call for a joint response from all allies, but the actions would be as each nation deems necessary,” Omar Lamrani, a military analyst for global intelligence company Stratfor, told Newsweek. "Just because an ally invokes the article doesn’t mean other allies are obliged to send more armed forces. Article V only demands that they give aid to [other NATO members]. This could be everything from very much to very little.”
Jason Mathews is Internetting way too hard. Follow him at @jasonmathews316.