The Big Insight: Though there are 30 members of NATO, the U.S. would bear the weight — both financially and militarily — of any war with Russia.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said this week that the U.S. will “defend every inch of NATO territory” if attacked by Russia — a sentiment President Biden has also shared, even while warning that “direct conflict between NATO and Russia [would be] World War III.”
But Russia recently launched a lethal missile attack on a Ukrainian base just 15 miles from the Polish border, moving this conflict dangerously close to the territory of NATO member states. Here are five facts on what it would mean to “defend every inch of NATO territory.”
1. The commander of NATO’s Allied Command Operations has always been an American, though leadership of the alliance is shared between nations.
All 19 officers to hold the position of Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) have been members of the U.S. military, almost always with a British officer as deputy. The current SACEUR is U.S. General Tod G. Wolters. NATO’s Allied Command Transformation — which is tasked with defining “the future military context, identifying challenges and opportunities in order to innovate and maintain a warfighting edge” — is led by French General Phillipe Lavigne, who has the same level of authority as General Wolters.
In the event of a NATO war with Russia, command of military forces would be shared. In 2011, when NATO intervened in Libya, commanders were drawn from Canada, France, Italy, the UK, and the U.S. NATO’s ongoing mission in Iraq is commanded by a Danish officer.
2. NATO has responded to an attack on a member just once, and it is not required to do so if Russia attacks a NATO member now.
Article 5 of the original NATO treaty signed in 1949 states that an attack on one member state will be taken as an attack on all member states. It has been invoked just once, following the 9/11 attacks on the United States. However, a military response would not be automatically triggered by a Russian attack on Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, or any other NATO member. Instead, the 30 NATO members would first come together to decide if a military response is warranted, and what sort of response it should be, although the precise decision making process NATO would use is not clear.
There has been less focus on the treaty’s Article 11, which adds the caveat that a NATO member is only required to act in accordance with its own constitutional processes. That means that no NATO member can be compelled to go to war if its government declines to do so.
3. Russia has the world’s fifth-largest standing army, with 900,000 troops in addition to two million reservists.
By comparison, Ukraine about 200,000 active troops and 900,000 reservists. At the time of the invasion, Russia had about 200,000 troops in the vicinity of Ukraine and as of mid-March, the bulk of these troops are operating within Ukrainian borders.
There were about 90,000 U.S. troops in Europe when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Since then, about 15,000 troops have been sent from the U.S. to the region, and some U.S. troops already in Europe have been shifted closer to Ukraine. More than one-third of U.S. troops stationed in Europe are based in Germany; about 3,000 were in former Warsaw Pact nations (primarily Poland and Romania) last month.
NATO claims a full military capacity, including civilian support, of 3.5 million. But much of the troop strength, some 1.35 million personnel, is American. Turkey is a distant second with 445,000 troops, and no other member has more than a quarter-million.
5. NATO nations spent $1.2 trillion on defense last year — with 70% of that coming from the U.S.
The $811 billion the U.S. spent on defense last year was more than 10 times the amount spent by the next-highest NATO spender, the United Kingdom. But four NATO members alone — the U.S., UK, Germany, and France — each spend more than the $45 billion spent by Russia. (Ukraine’s military budget is $4.7 billion.)
This article first appeared on Real Clear