More than two decades after the Cold War supposedly came to a peaceful conclusion, Russia’s encroachment on Ukrainian sovereignty and its outright annexation of Crimea have occasioned a retro flashback. A byproduct of this geopolitical turmoil is NATO’s renewed importance to foreign policy.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1949, during the Soviet blockade of West Berlin, to coordinate the security interests of the United States, Canada, and European non-Soviet allied nations. NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, originally summarized the organization’s purpose by saying that it was meant “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” In other words, the idea was to prevent the Soviets from invading the West, keep the US engaged in European affairs to forestall a return to pre-World War II isolationism, and surround Germany with a military presence in case it decided it wanted a rematch or something. (West Germany joined NATO in 1955.)
This worked pretty well throughout the Cold War. For starters, civilization wasn’t destroyed in a fiery nuclear holocaust. The Soviets stayed on their side of the Iron Curtain, the US didn’t take its toys and go home, and Germany didn’t accidentally invade anyone even once. After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, a number of its former Warsaw Pact allies (or puppet states) made a beeline for NATO membership.
Even as it welcomed new members, NATO faced a sort of midlife crisis. After the Soviet Union dissolved, people started wondering whether there was really any point in keeping NATO around, since it was no longer necessary to keep Soviets out of the rest of Europe. Commentators grew fond of describing NATO as a solution in search of a problem.
But with Russia’s seizure of Crimea violating its 1994 guarantee to respect Ukraine’s borders, and the possibility that Russia will also invade Eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is not only rescuing down-trodden Russian-speaking Ukrainians (as he’s claimed), he’s also breathing new life into NATO. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been popping up in public and dropping statements like crazy (or at least as crazy as a NATO secretary general is likely to get).
On April 1, NATO’s foreign ministers ended civilian and military cooperation with Russia over its illegal intervention in Ukraine. “Through its actions, Russia has chosen to undermine the very foundations upon which our cooperation is built,” Rasmussen said. At the same time, member state Poland — which is no stranger to unwelcome Russian intervention — requested the deployment of two NATO battalions to the country, lest Russia get confused about where the border is. Rasmussen then published an op-ed in the British newspaper the Telegraph, calling for investment in the defense of democracy and criticizing “Russia’s illegal aggression against Ukraine and its continued breach of international law.” Shortly after that, NATO announced that extensive access to its headquarters would be denied to practically all members of the Russian Mission, except the Russian ambassador and his deputy.
Last week, Rasmussen delivered a speech in which he argued that Europe had “disarmed too much and for too long.” He called for NATO’s Response Force to be placed at high readiness, and repeated NATO’s insistence that Russia “pull back the tens of thousands of troops it has massed on Ukraine's borders, engage in a genuine dialogue with the Ukrainian authorities, and respect its international commitments.” Russia’s response to all this was to accuse Rasmussen of using the Ukrainian crisis to boost NATO’s popularity. “The constant accusations against us by the secretary general convince us that the alliance is trying to use the crisis in Ukraine to rally its ranks in the face of an imaginary external threat to NATO members and to strengthen demand for the alliance,” its foreign ministry said.
On Tuesday, NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen called on Russia to “make clear that it doesn’t support the violent actions of pro-Russia separatists” in Ukraine.
Rasmussen continued his campaign this week, saying that NATO and EU members should cooperate militarily and reinforce eastern defenses. But will this newfound purpose amount to much of anything? The top NATO military commander, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, is trying to help Ukraine resist the Russian threat as much as he can without running afoul of the White House, which remains cautious. The US has increased the number of units being sent to Europe for regularly scheduled training in Poland and the Baltic states. Sweden and Finland have both been weighing whether or not to pursue NATO membership.
It’s too early to read a lot into all this activity. While Gen. Breedlove has said that he wouldn’t rule out US reinforcement of Europe, he’s not actually the guy who makes the call on deploying US forces. That’s the responsibility of a White House whose priority is avoiding conflict and trying to convince onlookers that sanctions and diplomatic protests will be enough to dissuade Putin from further action within Ukraine.
This shift away from using the threat of armed force as a deterrent and the role of the military as a means of diplomatic signaling isn’t just a passing fancy in the West, either. Reinforcing Rasmussen’s point about European defense spending, figures just released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute — a Swedish organization that monitors global arms sales — indicate that defense spending has declined in the West while it has continued to increase in the rest of the world. Russia has doubled its own military spending since 2004.
Absent strong militaries in Western nations, a strong NATO, with or without a new sense of purpose, is almost beside the point.