Cover: An Attack Against Them All?

An Attack Against Them All?

Drivers of Decisions to Contribute to NATO Collective Defense

Published Aug 29, 2019

by Anika Binnendijk, Miranda Priebe


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Research Questions

  1. What factors make North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies more or less likely to respond to a Russian attack?
  2. How do these factors change in the face of an unconventional attack?

Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and military operations in Eastern Ukraine have prompted renewed discussion about the possibility of a Russian attack on a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, particularly in the Baltics. Many analysts have raised questions about whether NATO members would respond militarily to such an attack. This report contributes to U.S. defense planning by identifying 13 key factors that are likely to affect each member's decision to participate in a military response to either an unconventional or conventional Russian attack. Based on this analysis, the report recommends ways to reduce allies' vulnerability to Russian influence and increase alliance cohesion.

Key Findings

Perceptions of elites, Russia, shared goals all affect decisionmaking

  • Public opposition could restrain national leaders from participating in an operation to counter Russian aggression, but other domestic factors, such as elite consensus and an electorally secure governing coalition, might overcome public opposition.
  • Countries that perceive Russia as ambitious, opportunistic, or threatening to their homeland are more likely to participate, while members with favorable views of Russia or lower threat perceptions are more likely to worry about Russian economic or military retaliation.
  • Countries that place the greatest value on NATO's continuity are more likely to participate. However, allies are less likely to join if other major allies — particularly the United States — do not participate, if they perceive allies' goals as diverging from one another, or if they are not confident in their ability to restrain other allies from unnecessarily escalating a conflict with Russia.


  • Increase the resources dedicated to collecting and analyzing Russian behavior and releasing intelligence to NATO governments.
  • Enhance public access to information on Russia through financial support to entities such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as to new NATO institutions, such as the Joint Intelligence and Security Divisions hybrid analysis branch.
  • Initiate new outreach to emerging political elites on NATO's value through institutions such as the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
  • Engage regularly with allies on Russian aims and motivations, including through an update to NATO's Strategic Concept.
  • Address allies' concerns about entrapment by supporting renewed NATO engagement with Moscow and continuing to encourage Baltic states to address minority grievance.
  • Supplement the defensive capabilities of vulnerable allies through U.S. support for additional point defenses and new civil defense exercises and preparations.
  • Mitigate allies' vulnerability to economic coercion by continuing to support diversification of European energy supplies and by initiating a new NATO-European Union strategic reserves program.
  • Establish new ministerial-level political exercises to provoke discussions about NATO goals in a Russia scenario and build allies' confidence in collective decisionmaking.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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