Why the Ukraine Crisis Won't Save NATO

The tensions within the alliance are too deep for a little Russian pushiness to erase.

The Natocracy is fired up. The crisis in Ukraine, which climaxed with a bogus referendum, a fig leaf to legitimize a Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula, has given the Atlantic alliance, strategically adrift since the end of the Cold War, a fresh and compelling reason for being. The panjandrums at NATO headquarters in Brussels proclaim that Russia’s move on Ukraine is testimony to the threats and instabilities that continue to make the pact pertinent despite the demise of the Red Army, and that the Crimean crisis will strengthen NATO’s unity and resolve.

Such cheerleading is to be expected—bureaucracies facing problems of diminished relevance are wont to fall back on PR—but the reality is this: What NATO is likely to face in the years ahead is even less strategic coherence and comity, deeper divisions about means and ends, and decreased security for its post-Cold War members, particularly those nearest Russia.

First, some context.

When the USSR was alive and well, one could easily compose a bumper-sticker-size logo encapsulating NATO’s purpose. It might have read like this: NATO Exists to Deter, and If Necessary, Defeat, a Warsaw Pact Attack on Europe. Was the Pact created to ensure Soviet domination over Eastern Europe’s communist bloc? Or did Moscow entertain hopes of using it to conquer or Finlandize Western Europe? These questions will continue to be contentious; but what mattered was that there were millions of Western Europeans who didn’t want to find out and who therefore believed that NATO was essential, had a mission that they understood, and was relevant to their lives. When asked to explain the alliance’s raison d’ etre, NATO officials could invoke the words of its first Secretary-General, Lord Ismay, who quipped that it was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” a witticism that offered the added advantage of tying NATO to European stability generally, not just the Soviet threat.

Once the Soviet Union imploded, it was no longer easy to provide pithy formulations about NATO’s purpose. One way in which the alliance sought to gain new vigor and élan was by expanding its membership eastward. But that produced two problems.

First, it made Russia suspicious and resentful. This sentiment was by no means one that Putin has conjured up, though he has certainly strengthened it. It was evident even during the halcyon years when Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin reveled in their curious camaraderie and the latter, despite assaulting the parliament with tanks in 1993, staging a fraudulent election three years later, and presiding over the stripping and fire sale of state-owned economic assets, was hailed as a democrat and compared, during the brutal Russian war in Chechnya no less, to Abraham Lincoln. But even in the heady days, when Western hopes for a democratic Russia ran high, most Russians, regardless of political orientation, could not understand why an alliance that symbolized the Cold War, was creeping toward their borders when, all the while, the West was hailing Russian democracy, prattling about bringing Russia into the West, and declaring that the era of ideological and military rivalry was over. Most Americans were tone deaf to this perplexity and resentment, which Putin has fanned in devising his brand of chest-thumping Russian nationalism. NATO expansion has turned out to be net minus for the West’s relationship with Moscow, though it’s ludicrous to claim that Putin annexed Crimea to avenge it.

The second problem produced by NATO expansion was that it made achieving strategic consensus within the alliance harder, not least because what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “old” and “new” Europe necessarily had different views of what the threats were, particularly as regards Russia. To an extent the dissonance was a matter of arithmetic. An alliance that, at its Cold War peak, had sixteen members—twelve in 1949, the year it was established—grew in six stages and by 2009 had become a club of twenty-nine. It’s much harder to reach agreement when a grouping almost doubles in size: anyone who has chaired a large committee can attest to this iron law of numbers. At no point was this more apparent than when the alliance split over the Iraq war, with much of New Europe eager to please America and Old Europe, well, not so much.

The Iraq war was also an example (though not the first) of another way in which NATO readied itself for the new, non-Soviet, century: it embraced “out-of-area operations,” in plain English, expeditionary missions beyond Europe. This was more than an adaptation; it was a transformation inasmuch as the alliance had for a generation hewed to a Europe-centered purpose. Combine a rapid increase in numbers with a move toward a new mission and what happens to an alliance? Answer: Confusion and disunity. Whether one considers Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, one finds that NATO’s involvement in these “out-of-area” conflicts increased its problems. Discussion of extra-European campaigns had always been controversial within the alliance; Europe, understandably, wanted a continental focus. But when, after the Cold War, the alliance actually began to get involved in conflicts beyond Europe, the contention increased.