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What if Putin attacks NATO next?

François Heisbourg is a senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and special adviser at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique.

PARIS — The basic assumption within NATO is that Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t dare to directly strike at the alliance. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty — which holds that any attack on a NATO member country is to be considered an attack on all its members — has come to be seen as an unchallengeable defense guarantee that Russia will not seek to put to the test.

The question now, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, is: Just how much does Putin share this totemic vision of Article 5? The answer — we just don’t know — is worrying enough to warrant a rethinking of NATO’s military and political stance.

Let’s begin with what we know about Putin. The Russian president has made clear he intends to reorder the Continent’s security environment. The existence of Ukraine, a country larger than France, as a sovereign state was denied as early as last July in his “Article by Vladimir Putin ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’,” and he is now executing the corresponding policy by force.

Those who assumed that Putin was bluffing because war would be “irrational” now see that it was anything but: He has rationally chosen war to achieve an objective that could not be met by other means.

Expect Russia to do the same with the two “limited sovereignty” draft treaties it put forward in December. These aim to set the European security system back three decades to the Soviet era, and to forbid the further enlargement of NATO. Unlike the Soviet Union, whose core priority was to preserve its post-World War II empire, Putin’s Russia is on the move to recreate an empire and bring forward its strategic limits to the heart of Europe.

The West’s remarkable solidarity has prevented Putin from achieving this goal diplomatically. We can now expect him to pursue it by other means. If there’s one thing the invasion of Ukraine has shown, it’s that Putin means what he says.

Next, let’s note that Russia is a country that takes military power seriously. If we don’t make adequate military preparations in peacetime, there is a risk we won’t be taken seriously when it comes to the possibility of actual war.

And here’s where NATO’s totemic belief in Article 5 comes in. Because of that belief, NATO’s military measures remain inadequate for a serious challenge: Nuclear weapons in the deep background and limited rotational forces provide reassurance and perhaps some amount of deterrence, but NATO’s conventional forces, even as they are being beefed up, are not tailored to defend against a force of the sort that is operating in and around Ukraine today.

There is a strong chance that President Putin will seek to further test NATO’s determination after the Ukrainian campaign. The obvious places for him to begin are in the non-NATO but close-to-NATO countries — notably Sweden and its strategic real estate in the Baltic Sea, such as the island of Gotland.

Limited gray-zone operations could also be undertaken directly against NATO countries, which have become more vulnerable as a result of the Ukrainian campaign: Moscow is now in control of the strategically important Suwalki gap, a 104-kilometer stretch of the Poland and Lithuanian border that runs between Russian-dominated Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

Romania, a militarily weak neighbor of Ukraine, will likely soon see Russian forces lined up along its border, in a position to provide support for Serbia and the Republika Srpska. And as Russia refits its forces after the Ukrainian campaign, Putin will be watching the United States carefully for political change after the midterm elections there.

The limits of relying on Article 5 and small NATO forces were well understood during the Cold War: NATO maintained a strong defensive force to deter Soviet leaders from succumbing to temptation. It’s important to return to a robust military stance — and quickly. As sanctions will undermine Russia’s ability to sustain war, one should assume that Putin will act sooner than rather than later, and so countermeasures must be undertaken in short order.

Putin’s draft treaties and his invasion of Ukraine relieve NATO of the non-binding commitments it agreed to in 1997: Permanent forces and bases now can and should be established on the territory of former Warsaw Pact countries. NATO’s defense capabilities there should be ramped up by an order of magnitude — from 5,000 in 2021 to some 50,000 stationed troops, from brigade level to a full army corps equivalent.

On the political level, EU members Sweden and Finland should benefit from fast-track membership to NATO, if they want to join. There is no technical obstacle here since they are in a quasi-plug-in mode vis à vis NATO. This would be best done before Russian forces recover from their Ukrainian campaign. These measures will cost money and require political energy. But it’s urgent they be made. President Putin has reminded us that his wars are not cold — they are hot.

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