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NATO is having an existential crisis

The 28-nation alliance that won the Cold War is having a hard time adjusting to a resurgent Russia and to internal divisions. We went to the Warsaw summit to check things out.

by Lucian Kim
Jul 11 2016, 10:11pm

An image of the NATO summit in Warsaw on July 9. Photo by Radek Pietruszka/EPA

Seventeen years ago, NATO was triumphant. After a 78-day air campaign against Serbia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization sent an occupation force into Kosovo, then still a Serbian province. Originally formed to counter the Soviet Union, NATO found a new sense of purpose following the collapse of communism. The victory convinced Western leaders that they were behind the steering wheel of history, while Russians were filled with resentment over their role as spectators.

Those roles have since been reversed. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin is keeping NATO guessing where he may strike next, while the West grapples with a collective fear of paralysis and decline. That's what made the weekend meeting of NATO's 28 leaders, including President Barack Obama, all the more urgent.

If NATO's main mission in Kosovo was about ending the career of a regional arsonist, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the outside threats facing the alliance today are global and existential. A belligerent, unpredictable Russia, combined with a conflagration raging across the Middle East, doesn't fit into the peace and harmony that Europeans had come to take for granted.

"In good times and in bad, Europe can count on the United States," Obama said. "Always."

The president's words may have been sincere, but it's not just the unity of the transatlantic alliance that's at stake — it's the internal coherence of some of its key members. Obama spoke to the world as America was consumed by the killing of five Dallas policemen amid a domestic debate over racially motivated violence. Two weeks earlier, the Brexit referendum called into question the future not only of the European Union, but of the United Kingdom itself. The United States, Germany, and France will all hold elections within the space of a year.

Related: NATO is sending its radar planes to coordinate airstrikes against the Islamic State

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are playing to home audiences wary of globalization by attacking the usefulness of NATO and other international organizations. Presumptive Republican candidate Donald Trump has called the alliance "obsolete," while German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently accused it of "saber-rattling."

The Warsaw summit was a carefully choreographed ritual, with the arrival of motorcades timed to the minute and the final communique drafted long in advance. A giant security bubble was created around Poland's National Stadium, where leaders met in a white, air-conditioned tent on the playing field. Little-known presidents of little European countries bustled to briefing rooms, surrounded by bodyguards, aides, and generals. Deputy defense ministers took selfies next to the whale-shaped Global Hawk surveillance drone parked outside the entrance.

A Global Hawk surveillance drone outside the NATO summit, on Friday (Photo by Lucian Kim/VICE News)

For the participants, the highlight was the informal dinner at the Presidential Palace on Friday evening. Leaders quizzed Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, the last Western leader to meet Putin personally. His country and Sweden, famous for their neutrality during the Cold War, have begun to mull NATO membership since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014. "It was a very good atmosphere," Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas told VICE News after the dinner. "I assure you there was common understanding."

Yet a deep split runs through NATO over what the alliance's main job should be. While Mediterranean countries are most concerned with Mideast instability stirring up terrorists and setting off refugee flows, former Communist nations see the threat coming primarily from Russia. French President François Hollande landed in Warsaw declaring that "Russia is not an adversary, not a threat."

"We're vulnerable to bullshit thrown in the fan"

Even though NATO made pledges to bolster its fight against Islamic State, the summit's most tangible results will be the deployment of Western troops to the Baltic Sea region beginning next year. The United States will lead a NATO battalion in Poland, as well as rotate an armored brigade through Europe.

Taking into account the hybrid tactics that Russia has used against Ukraine, the alliance also recognized cyber as a fourth operational domain in addition to land, air, and sea. "We're vulnerable to bullshit thrown in the fan," an eastern European diplomat said, requesting anonymity so as to speak undiplomatically. "I'm more nervous about Russia than Islamist information warfare."

As western European leaders reassured their eastern colleagues with talk of deterring the Kremlin, Ukrainian politicians stalked the stadium to remind everyone of continuing clashes with Russian-backed fighters. It's hard to imagine now that eight years ago Putin traveled to the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, to make the case against extending membership to Ukraine and Georgia. He succeeded in using internal divisions within NATO to put off the decision indefinitely.

"Russia is hyped up on testosterone while Europe is filled with self-doubt," said Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine's deputy prime minister for European integration. "Russia wants to be great again. It doesn't measure greatness by the well-being of its people, but by the greatness of its enemies. It wants to be feared, and it's getting what it wants."

The danger for NATO is that Russia can undermine the alliance's unity by pressuring smaller, more vulnerable members, said Jonathan Eyal, international director at the the Royal United Services Institute in London. "If you slice up security into regions, with some more secure than others, you generate internal tension," he said. "Countries with less security will demand more, while more secure ones will be reluctant to give it."

"NATO and Russia should be focused on reducing the risk of war in Europe, which is not negligible unfortunately"

Dmitri Trenin, one of the few Russians watching the summit from the sidelines, joked darkly that the discussions made him feel 30 years younger — which didn't make him happy in the least.

"If you accept the analogy of a cold war, you're looking at things that are unlikely to happen, and missing some important features that are there," said Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. One of those features is the West's superiority in almost every area, which explains the Kremlin's readiness to take gambles. "NATO and Russia should be focused on reducing the risk of war in Europe, which is not negligible unfortunately," Trenin said.

Obama's response to the gravity of the continent's crisis seemed symbolic of the domestic conflicts eating away at Western democracies.

In his post-summit press conference on Saturday, the president focused almost exclusively on the Dallas shootings, taking questions only from members of the White House pool. For one long hour, America picked at its wounds in front of the world's TV cameras.

In four months, Obama will be a lame duck. The job will be left to his successor to explain why more than 4,000 US troops are being sent to defend eastern Europe at a time when most Germans or Italians would be hard-pressed to say why they should.