When migrant crisis would trigger NATO Article 4: possible scenarios

NATO and Lithuanian flag DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

Article 4 of the NATO Treaty. In November, more and more European countries, including Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, are talking about activating it because of the migrant crisis. What is this much-talked-about Article, what are the chances that it will be activated in the near future, and what kind of help would Lithuania receive in this case, Monika Kasnikovskytė asks in TV3.lt news portal?

At the beginning of November, Donald Tusk, former President of the European Council and former Prime Minister of Poland, expressed his concern about the developments on the Belarus-Poland border and said that “it might be time to consider whether Article 4 of the NATO Treaty should be activated”, as the Polish border was under “physical pressure”.

In mid-November, Latvian Defence Minister Artis Pabriks said the same thing, stating that we are now only one step away from activating Article 4 of NATO. However, he added that Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are in no hurry to trigger the Article, believing that they can handle the situation for the time being, pending further steps by Belarus and Russia.

Finally, in Lithuania, too, according to the Presidency, concrete criteria have already been agreed on when the heads of state could decide by mutual consent to join NATO.

“There are specific criteria agreed upon, which would require additional assistance in addressing NATO by activating individual Washington Treaty articles. It is agreed that such an appeal would be a consensus of the Heads of State. <…> We have agreed that both the criteria and the means are a matter of our national security, and we will not comment on the content at this time,” said Darius Kuliešius, Senior Adviser to President Gitanas Nausėda.

Lithuanian Minister of National Defence Arvydas Anušauskas himself says that the preconditions for activating NATO’s Article 4 are getting increasingly stronger.

“According to the latest information, these assumptions are getting stronger and stronger”, the minister said to Delfi.

However, he said that this Article’s activation is primarily related to military threats, and Lithuania would only take it up if it noticed that Russia was increasing its military activity in Belarus.

“So if <…> it starts to transfer its combat units to Belarus, we will certainly seek consultations with our NATO partners,” the minister assured.

How many preconditions are there to activate Article 4 now?

Article 4 of the NATO treaty states that a member state can request consultations with its allies if it considers that its territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.

“When one of the NATO member states or a group of them activates Article 4 of NATO, which is dedicated to consultations on territorial integrity, political independence, or perceives an immediate threat, the NATO Council meets and considers how the Alliance can respond jointly to the expressed concerns of the member state or group of members and what actions could be taken jointly in response to these concerns,” explained the meaning of the Article to tv3.lt the professor of the Lithuanian Military Academy of General Jonas Žemaitis Giedrius Česnakas.

However, whether Lithuania or its neighbours will have to activate the Article will depend on whether the situation on the border with Belarus escalates. If the situation is as it is today, then NATO’s assistance should not be needed, G. Česnakas said.

“I think that such activations should definitely not be wasted in vain. Potentially, activation could be precipitated if Russia were to deploy more troops in Belarus because the geopolitical environment would change directly. Now, looking at what is happening today, if we do not see an escalation of attempts to break through, clashes between border guards or officials on the Belarusian side, the activities of illegal migrants, it would probably not be logical to activate the Article,” the professor said.

Moreover, the mere fact that Lithuania and its neighbours are talking more and more about the possibility of activating Article 4 of NATO has an impact.

“It has been talked about; it has been brought to the attention of other NATO countries. And this, I would say, is producing sufficient results, because there is a certain amount of listening and seeing by other countries,” G. Česnakas noted.

Laurynas Kasčiūnas, Chairman of the Seimas Committee on National Security and Defence, echoed him, confirming that Lithuania has established criteria for triggering Article 4, but that the most important thing now is how the situation in Poland develops.

“We can see that there is a regional phenomenon here; the Poles are the primary target this moment, that is obvious. And the Poles are not making that decision yet. This means that we have to negotiate with them, inevitably. They are apparently still on their own path for the time being. It is natural that we need to negotiate. If Lithuania had a similar situation to Poland, we would certainly not hesitate to activate this Article, even if it were only similar”, Kasčiūnas told tv3.lt.

What help could Lithuania expect?

Activation of NATO’s Article 4 would first mean a political message, and only in a more serious case would it mean a military force, G. Česnakas said. Then, additional troops could be deployed only if the situation on the border becomes increasingly tense, he said.

“Other countries would announce a higher military readiness, a better response if necessary – that would be a solution. Whether there would be something physically, I’m not sure. But I think that states would announce political support, call for de-escalation of the situation and announce a possible increased readiness to react, to send additional forces, experts if necessary, to monitor the situation more intensively,” the professor reflected.

At the same time, Kasčiūnas considers that the assistance of NATO members could be multidimensional. For example, the US would have a particularly strong role to play in helping to resolve the issue of flights to Belarus from the countries of origin migrants.

“Various additional military deterrence solutions can be expected. In other words, the arrival of various additional forces. As NATO is a military-political alliance, we can expect perhaps requests for a physical barrier and so on. Naturally, these are such military-political measures.

Those countries, the big powers, especially the US, could help us with their economic and physical weight to deal with all the flight disruptions from the countries of origin, and that would be a very strong moment here”, said Kasčiūnas.

Activated only four times

So far, Article 4 of NATO has been activated only four times, all of them in this century. And all four times the Article has been activated by Turkey: in 2003, during the Iraq war; in June 2012, when Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet; in October 2012, after the Syrian attacks on Turkey and the Turkish retaliation; and in February 2020, after tensions rose over the military operation in northwestern Syria.

“If you take what happened with Turkey when Syrian forces shot down a Turkish plane on the border in 2012, then there was a meeting, and some NATO member states allocated air defence systems to Turkey, which started a vigil on the Turkish-Syrian border”, Mr Česnakas said.

In March 2014, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland called for an Article 4 meeting to discuss the Crimea crisis, but Article 4 was never activated.

According to Mr Česnakas, the activation of NATO Article 4 should not be abused, as there is a risk that the next time NATO members try to activate it, they will be sceptical of the request for assistance.

“Because if we were to abuse Article 4 a lot, other countries would potentially be more sceptical in the future, which is what happened with Turkey. When it was activated four times, the first and second time there was an intense discussion, and after that, there was a bit more scepticism”, Česnakas noted.

Since the beginning of August, when border guards gained the right to refuse entry to prohibited areas to foreigners coming from Belarus, 7146 foreigners have been refused entry to Lithuania. More than 4,200 migrants have entered Lithuania illegally this year.

Lithuania and Western countries accuse the Minsk regime of organising the migrant flows and call it hybrid aggression.

Last week, after several thousand migrants, gathered on the Polish-Belarusian border and tried to storm the border, a state of emergency was imposed on Lithuania’s border with Belarus for a month.

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