The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is back, thanks in large part to Russian President Vladimir Putin. His invasion and annexation of Crimea and his sustained aggression against eastern Ukraine have revived NATO, imbuing the bloc with the sense of mission it lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Ukraine is the primary beneficiary of this revival. In effect, Putin, an inveterate NATO opponent, has walked into a strategic trap of his own making.
In 1947, when NATO was formed to provide collective defense for its members, the threat was clear: the Soviet Union. And the need for U.S. leadership was not in doubt either. World War II battered the Europeans, but the United States emerged from the fighting a global superpower. By 1992, however, the Soviet Union was no more. The Russian Federation formally succeeded the USSR, inheriting its United Nations Security Council seat and nuclear weapons, but Russia was still in the throes of a systemic breakdown that lasted more than a decade. As the threat from the Soviet Union disappeared, NATO’s core mission also appeared less relevant. Why maintain the alliance if there is no enemy?
By the mid-1990s, Europe was no longer the impoverished place that emerged from the war. While the Soviet collapse made United States the world’s sole superpower, the Europeans quickly acquired enough wealth and began questioning the necessity of U.S. leadership.
In the last two decades, NATO has searched for alternative missions, shifting its focus toward the fight against terrorism and deployments outside Europe. The realignment worked, but only up to a point, as Europe’s participation in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved desultory and spotty. The central problem was obvious: How Americans and Europeans defined threats differed. As a global economic and military power, the U.S. faced global threats. As a regional economic power, the European Union did not necessarily agree that its core interests were also at stake.
NATO essentially became an alliance without a purpose.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea changed all that. By violating the postwar international order and unilaterally annexing foreign territory, Putin reconstituted Russia as a threat. By vowing to protect all Russians living abroad, Putin repositioned Moscow as a menace to Europe. Estonia and Latvia, both NATO members, have significant Russian populations, and Russia has enormous economic interests across Eastern and Western Europe.
By supporting anti-Ukrainian militants in eastern Ukraine, Putin effectively arrogated the right to wage war in a Europe, where it had been considered unthinkable. Why, then, shouldn’t he wage war against other members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, such as Moldova and Georgia? With Crimea’s economic collapse and possible transformation into a major Russian military base, Moscow has signally affected the balance of power in the Black Sea region, potentially threatening NATO members Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Greece.
“Changing borders with military means is what alarms us,” a highly placed NATO official told me recently. “I think it’s astounding to see people close their eyes and pretend the dinosaur doesn’t exist.”
With collective defense against a resurgent Russia once again its raison d’être, NATO is beginning to flex its muscles. NATO officials, including its Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, have been vocal in supporting Ukraine and condemning Russia. At a recent briefing for a civilian expert group at NATO headquarters, one of NATO’s leading Ukraine-Russia analysts dismissed a suggestion that both Russian and Ukrainian narratives be taken into account in developing policy toward eastern Ukraine. “[There are] no two competing narratives,” the NATO analyst said. “The situation is black and white, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say it.”
NATO is developing mechanisms for helping Ukraine. A 20-person Crisis Action Team Ukraine has been set up to monitor the Russian intervention and provide daily analyses to key NATO policymakers. Several trust funds intended to bolster key aspects of Ukraine’s security are in the process of being established. NATO’s focus will be Ukraine’s communications and information systems, cybersecurity, logistics and standardization, and the retraining and resettling of former soldiers. NATO expects still unspecified lead nations to provide the initial funding and hope to funnel some unspent money from the current budget into those funds.
NATO might also be considering more hands-on approaches to bolster Ukrainian security. One NATO official at the briefing with the group of civilian experts was tight-lipped about the specifics, repeatedly saying she “had nothing to say” about what NATO was doing. While still unclear, such measures may involve sending military advisers to Ukraine. During a visit to a camp near Kiev where Ukraine’s all-volunteer Donbass Battalion was stationed, soldiers told me that they received training from Bulgarians, Georgians and Israelis.
Ukraine’s membership in NATO is still many years away, but thanks to Putin, it’s now on the table.
NATO’s ace in the hole remains Putin. The only way to undo the enormous damage to his and Russia’s reputations is to return Crimea to Ukraine — and that, obviously, will not happen anytime soon. He could help improve relations with the West by ending his support for the militants in eastern Ukraine, but that too would be difficult, as it means enabling Kiev to re-establish control over territories he has labeled “New Russia.” Given these realities, his rhetorical support of peace and negotiations appears hypocritical.
That is not all. Putin continues to meddle in the affairs of his non-Russian neighbors. As Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite recently revealed, Russia proposed reducing the price of oil and gas for Estonia and Latvia if they left NATO. Putin’s offer demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of Baltic sentiments toward Russia. The Balts would rather die than exchange the West for Moscow.
Last but not least, by engaging their country in war, Putin has imbued Ukrainians with a remarkable solidarity and unprecedented patriotism.
The greatest irony is that Putin is driving Ukrainians to embrace the West. A public opinion poll conducted from April 23 to 25 by the Razumkov Center in Kiev showed that more than half of Ukrainians “favor steering Ukraine’s foreign policy toward the European Union.”
The survey also showed favorable sentiments about NATO. Traditionally, more than half of Ukrainians opposed joining NATO and only 10 to 15 percent supported membership. But in the latest poll, 36 percent were in favor of NATO membership (with 42 percent opposed).
Ukraine’s membership in NATO is still many years away, but thanks to Putin, it’s now on the table. Although he continually invokes NATO as a military threat to Russia, the fact is that NATO has no army, and its ability to deploy forces is wholly dependent on member nations’ willingness to supply them. But NATO has political authority, and its voice does not go unheard. As a vast bureaucracy, NATO can act as a powerful pro-Ukrainian lobbyist within Europe’s corridors of powers. Although NATO’s anti-Russian stance is more outspoken than that of most European countries, it roughly coincides with the views of the United States. It helps — both NATO and Ukraine — to have the world’s only superpower on your side.