However unlikely many may think a massive World War III clash between Russia and NATO may be, there are some disturbing reasons why such a scenario may indeed be a realistic possibility.
At very least, Pentagon leaders are by no means ruling out the possibility and taking the clear position that it will support Ukraine and its allies in Europe. While most of the discussion has centered around the prospect of economic sanctions against Russia in coordination with military and financial support to Ukraine, both Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley specifically cited NATO military power and did not back off from the possibility of using force to defend Ukraine.
NATO's Article Five
"A move on Ukraine will accomplish the very thing Russia says it does not want: a NATO alliance strengthened and resolved on its western flank," Austin told reporters at the Pentagon Jan 31, according to a Pentagon transcript of his remarks.
While the Pentagon describes Ukraine as a NATO partner and not a NATO member persay, a Russian invasion certainly presents a question as to whether NATO would in fact activate the Article Five collective security measures. As a collective security agreement, Article Five stipulates that an attack on any one member is equivalent to an attack on all NATO nations, something which therefore justifies a larger-scaled, multinational coordinated response.
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While Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin did not say Article Five would definitely be invoked, he certainly referred to its importance in the context of Ukraine.
"The United States will contribute to NATO's response forces. And we will coordinate with our NATO allies. We will make sure that they have the capabilities that they need to defend themselves. Article Five is clear on its point of attack against one NATO member is an attack against us all. And as President Biden has said, the United States holds this as a sacred obligation. And we will do right by that commitment," Austin told reporters at a Pentagon briefing, according to a transcript of his remarks.
In attendance to support Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley explained that NATO already has significant military strength on the ground in the region. Milley said that NATO has more than 130 brigades of “maneuver forces,” not including US forces and 93 squadrons of high-end fighters.
Milley also outlined the principle or conceptual foundation of the US and NATO’s defense of Ukraine in clear terms.
“Ukraine has the right to be independent and they have been an independent country since 1991. Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, with the United States and Great Britain, that guaranteed the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine,” Milley said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.