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.
Iraq and the other conflicts I’ve listed gave rise to disputes about “burden sharing” (essentially, America’s insistence that Europe spend more on defense to increase equity and fairness within NATO). They also demonstrated the extent to which most of non-US NATO had been able to limit defense spending and avoid increasing military size and strength thanks to the security blanket long provided by Uncle Sam. True, there were variations within NATO as regards the percentage of GDP accounted for by defense spending. Still, the European allies’ defense load was much lighter than America’s. Inevitably, when it came to airlift, power projection, and the various forms of firepower, the extra-European conflicts illuminated the degree to which the alliance was, militarily, largely an American operation, with able assists from some members, such as France and the UK. During the Cold War this imbalance didn’t matter much, but with the advent of a post-Soviet world, tolerance in Washington began to wear thin.
Another source of friction was the contrasting European and American willingness to undertake combat missions in nettlesome non-European conflicts. This was revealed most vividly by the war in Afghanistan. The heavy lifting on counterinsurgency—as opposed to participation in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams created to secure areas so as to enable economic development—was done by American forces and those deployed by a few other allies, some of whom were not in NATO. Iraq revealed the same pattern. Thus going global hasn’t been quite the tonic for NATO that the originators of the scheme had hoped.
Now NATO is confronted with a crisis in Ukraine. What makes this challenge different for the alliance is that it’s very much “in area” if you will. Moreover, several members, above all Poland and the three Baltic states, have been unnerved by Russia’s brazen seizure of Crimea. So is Putin’s power play the Deux ex machina that will finally define NATO’s post–Cold War purpose and induce all twenty-eight allies to pull—and hard—in the same direction? To officials in Brussels and other European capitals, especially NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the answer is unambiguous: Russia’s move in Ukraine amounts to a cold shower of reality for the alliance, and the same assessment is evident in the DC beltway and in much of the American and European press.
The prevailing wisdom is almost certainly wrong; the fracas between Russia and the West over Ukraine will aggravate NATO’s waywardness, not attenuate it—and this for several reasons.
First, the expansion vs. ease of consensus tradeoff I’ve mentioned will remain. Once the dust dispersed by Crimea’s annexation descends, differences will emerge within NATO on how best to manage the Russia problem, and even the extent of it. Here’s what the pattern will be: The closer to the Russian border the ally, the more often and insistently it will seek verbal reassurances and practical demonstrations of NATO commitment to its security; the further from Russia the ally, the more disinclined it will be to oblige because it will not want to provoke Russian counterreactions and does not experience the visceral vulnerability propinquity produces.
Second, rather than energizing NATO to resume expansion, Putin’s Crimea gambit is likely to make the most powerful NATO states—those who will assume the biggest risks in the event of a war—reticent to extend protection to non-members states on Russia’s doorstep. That’s because the ones that fear Moscow the most are weak and are therefore unable therefore to deter Russia even by making it more costly for the Kremlin to use military power. Furthermore, they have a history of conflict with Russia, which increases the odds that might seek to redeem a pledge of protection. As vulnerable as Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine presently feel, the Crimean crisis makes it less likely that they will be invited into NATO, not more. It’s conceivable that they will be given Membership Action Plans, though even that’s unlikely anytime soon and may, should it happen, be a sop that amounts to an indefinite holding operation.