What happens if a Nato country is attacked?

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump walks on the stage to speak at a Get Out The Vote rally at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Former president Donald Trump said countries must be prepared to spend on defence if they want protection. (AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Vladimir Putin has issued a stark warning to Nato, suggesting any potential conflict with Russia would put the world “one step away from World War 3”.

The Russian president's comments came amid a landslide victory in an election that was branded a sham by leaders in the west. Putin's win with 87% of the vote puts him ahead of Joseph Stalin as Russia's longest serving leader in the past 200 years.

Asked about the potential for conflict with Nato, Putin said: "everything is possible in the modern world."

“It is clear to everyone, that this will be one step away from a full-scale World War Three. I think hardly anyone is interested in this,”

Speaking about his election win, and subsequent negative reaction from western leaders, Putin added: “No matter who or how much they want to intimidate us, no matter who or how much they want to suppress us, our will, our consciousness – no one has ever succeeded in anything like this in history.

“It has not worked now and will not work in the future. Never.”

His comments came after a Nato military official warned in January that the West should prepare for war with Russia in the next 20 years, and should "expect the unexpected".

Speaking at a meeting in Brussels, the chair of Nato's military committee of national chiefs, Admiral Rob Bauer, said: "We have to realise it’s not a given that we are in peace. And that’s why we [Nato forces] are preparing for a conflict with Russia.

“But the discussion is much wider. It is also the industrial base and also the people that have to understand they play a role... the realisation that not everything is plannable and not everything is going to be hunky dory in the next 20 years.”

He added: “We need to be readier across the whole spectrum. You have to have a system in place to find more people if it comes to war, whether it does or not. Then you talk mobilisation, reservists or conscription.

“You need to be able to fall back on an industrial base that is able to produce weapons and ammunition fast enough to be able to continue a conflict if you are in it.”

Chair of the NATO Military Committee Admiral Rob Bauer addresses a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. Ukraine is locked in an existential battle for its survival almost two years into its war with Russia and Western armies and political leaders must drastically change the way they help it fend off invading forces, a top NATO military officer warned on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
Chair of the NATO Military Committee Admiral Rob Bauer said Western armies and political leaders must anticipate conflict with Russia in the next 20 years. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Germany’s defence minister Boris Pistorius told news outlet Der Tagesspiegel that the country's experts were looking at a 5-8 year period in which they could see the possibility of Russia attacking a Nato country.

"We hear threats from the Kremlin almost every day... so we have to take into account that Vladimir Putin might even attack a Nato country one day," Pistorius said, stressing that the threat was not expected now. "Our experts expect a period of five to eight years in which this could be possible."

His comments came as the Russia-Ukraine conflict marked its 695th day, and as Russian forces said they had taken control of the Vesele settlement in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine.

"Not only has their counteroffensive failed, but the initiative is entirely in the hands of the Russian Armed Forces," Russia's president Vladimir Putin said this week, despite Ukraine ramping up air strikes in the region.

"If this continues, Ukraine's statehood could be dealt an irreparable, very serious blow,"

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What is Nato?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a political and military alliance of 30 countries.

Nato was set up in 1949 to protect members against the Soviet Union, with 12 nations initially signing up to the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington DC.

These countries were the US, Canada, the UK, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal.

Nato's stated political objectives are to "promote democratic values", "enable members to consult and cooperate on defence and security-related issues", and to "prevent conflict".

The organisation says it "is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes", but if diplomacy fails it will use its military power "to undertake crisis-management operations".

What happens if a Nato country is attacked?

The collective defence clause of Nato's founding treaty – Article 5 of the Washington Treaty – is a provision that means an attack against one member is considered an attack against all of them.

This is a fundamental part of Nato and why it says it is a defensive alliance.

Nato says military operations are carried out under Article 5 or a United Nations mandate, alone or in co-operation with other countries and international organisations.

Last month, in direct response to the conflict in Ukraine, Nato said: "Allies are committed to deploying robust and combat-ready forces on the Alliance’s eastern flank. The eight battlegroups demonstrate the strength of the transatlantic bond and the Alliance’s solidarity, determination and ability to respond to any aggression.

"Many activities undertaken by Allies nationally also contribute to increased Allied activity in the eastern part of the Alliance. In response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Allies have sent additional ships, planes and troops to NATO territory in eastern Europe, further reinforcing the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture."

Crucially, Ukraine is not a member of Nato and therefore the alliance is not treaty-bound to defend it, while US president Joe Biden has said he will not send American or allied troops to fight Russia in Ukraine.

President Joe Biden speaks at the Abbots Creek Community Center in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. Biden is visiting North Carolina to highlight $82 million in new spending to connect 16,000 households and businesses to high-speed internet. Biden's reelection campaign is making winning North Carolina and its 16 electoral votes a top priority in this year's presidential election. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
US president Joe Biden has said he will not send American troops to fight Russia in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press)

However, Kyiv is a close partner and was promised eventual membership of the alliance. The 30-member Nato works with Ukraine to modernise its armed forces.

Sweden has applied to join Nato along with Finland – which shares a border with Russia – with Nato hoping the expansion will boost its eastern Europe defences. However, alliance members Hungary and Turkey are currently blocking the accession.

Which countries are in Nato, and what date did they join?

1949: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK, the US.

1952: Greece, Turkey

1955: Germany

1982: Spain

1999: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland

2004: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia

2009: Albania, Croatia

2017: Montenegro

2020: North Macedonia

Why does Putin see Nato as a threat?

Since the Cold War ended, Nato has expanded eastwards by taking in 14 new countries, including the states of the former Warsaw Pact and the three Baltic nations that were once in the Soviet Union.

Russia sees this as a threatening encroachment towards its borders and continues to say it was a betrayal of Western promises at the start of the 1990s – something Nato denies.

Ukraine is not a Nato member but has a promise dating from 2008 that it will eventually get to join.

Since toppling a pro-Russian president in 2014, Ukraine has become closer politically to the West, staged joint military exercises with Nato and taken delivery of weapons.

Kyiv and Washington saw these as legitimate moves to bolster Ukraine's defence after Russia seized the Crimea region in 2014 and provided backing to separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Putin believes Ukraine's growing ties with the alliance could make it a launchpad for Nato missiles targeted at Russia.

He said Russia needs to lay down "red lines" to prevent that.

Last year, Putin said Nato troops on the ground fighting the Russian army would be "a very dangerous step that could lead to a global catastrophe".

In a recent address, Putin also said: "In Nato documents, our country is officially and directly declared the main threat to North Atlantic security. And Ukraine will serve as a forward springboard for the strike."

But his demands that Ukraine drop its long-term goal of joining the Atlantic military alliance have been repeatedly rebuffed by Kyiv and Nato states.