Russia’s war against Georgia has forced Europeans to ask where their true interests lie and which country they’d be willing to defend if and when a Russian push ever comes to shove.
Some have suggested that Europe should defend only those countries it’s obligated to defend: the members of NATO. But would Europe—especially Germany, France, and Italy—really send troops to Estonia if its Russian-populated enclave of Narva were to be annexed by Russia? Politicians will dismiss the question as a hypothetical, but policy makers know that contingency planning is the stuff of foreign policy.
Estonia is a member of NATO, and Article 5 of the NATO Charter requires of its members 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 … that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them … 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 language of Article 5 would seem to suggest Europe would have to rush to Estonia’s defense in case of a Russian attack. Of course, diplomatic language can be variously interpreted and whether or not Europe would actually respond in this manner would depend on a number of factors.
First, Russia would deny that it has instigated an “armed attack” and insist that it is on a humanitarian mission to restore the human and civil rights so brutally denied its Russian brethren by Estonia’s supposedly chauvinist regime.
Second, Russia would tell the world that it is merely responding to calls for help from local Russians—perhaps organized in a Russian Popular Front—who feel neglected by the European Union and NATO.
Third, Russia would rely on the authority of Europe’s own institutions, which have criticized Tallinn’s policies toward its Russian minority, in making its claims.
Fourth, Russia would argue that Narva—like Estonia—is too small to risk a complete breakdown in relations or war.
Fifth, Russia would suggest that it’s acting no differently than Europeans who intervene in conflict zones in Africa in order to protect their citizens.
Finally, Russia would remind Europe that even humanitarian missions in Estonia could have the unfortunate consequence of disrupting flows of oil and gas.
How will Europe react to these arguments? “New Europe”—Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, and Bulgaria—will insist that NATO or the European Union take immediate action. In all likelihood, some Polish and Lithuanian freedom fighters will cross the border into Estonia and declare their readiness to die in the struggle against Russian imperialism. The United Kingdom will express outrage and call for sanctions. France will argue that it does not “deem necessary” a military “action” and point to the irresponsible behavior of the Polish and Lithuanian hotheads disrupting normal diplomatic channels. Italy will express admiration at Russia’s willingness to take a principled stand and claim that the NATO Charter does not unequivocally require immediate armed intervention. Germany will at best dither and at worst find reasons to justify Russia’s behavior.
Germany’s response will be key to Europe’s response. Some German policymakers will say that Germany’s armed forces aren’t ready for an intervention—at least not just yet. Others will argue that, short of preventing genocide, Germany shouldn’t intervene anywhere. Still others will insist that a military intervention risks reviving militarism and annoying a well-meaning Russia unnecessarily. All will implicitly agree with Otto von Bismarck that Narva isn’t “worth the bones of a Pommeranian grenadier.” Gerhard Schroeder will probably ask the Germans to choose—between blood and oil.
As Europe debates, Russia will be busy liberating Narva and the opportunity for a quick and effective intervention will have passed. When it does, Europeans will claim that, even if intervention were justified, it would be too costly, too ineffective, too risky—and certain to fail. So why bother, especially as relations with Russia are beginning to settle down again?
Since the logic of inaction would also hold for Russian interventions in Latvia and Lithuania, all of Russia’s neighbors—the three Baltic states in NATO as well as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia—will conclude that Europe, or more precisely “old Europe,” will do nothing to defend them.
The non-Russian states are then likely to respond in the same manner that all states facing existential threats would respond: by continuing to pay lip-service to a moribund alliance, while seeking existential guarantees. Some will secretly begin pursuing the nuclear option; after all, all ex-Soviet states have the know-how to build nuclear weapons and Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan actually had nuclear weapons in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse. Most will probably follow in Poland’s footsteps and seek shelter under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Washington will in all likelihood happily comply.
The result, ironically, will be exactly what France, Germany, and Italy most fear—a new division of a renuclearized Europe and a new Cold War.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.