How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Exposed NATO’s Fault Lines
Due to geography, relative power, and history, Western and Eastern Europeans have profoundly different threat perceptions of Russia. These are now quite visible.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine initially seemed to galvanize the United States’ NATO allies and encourage them to take a more energetic role in Europe’s defense. But some analysts have recently noted that the war actually seems to have had the contrary effect of increasing Europe’s dependence on Washington. This should not be a surprise to anyone, since Europe’s dependence will inevitably increase in proportion to the United States’ own commitment to the continent’s security.
While French president Emmanuel Macron has championed strategic autonomy in recent years, and German chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a historic “Zeitenwende” in defense policy in response to the Russian invasion, both countries have proceeded cautiously over the course of the war. Germany only grudgingly sent Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine following parallel moves by the United States and the UK, while Macron has insisted that a post-war resolution must include a recognition of Russian security concerns.
This has increasingly frustrated Eastern European allies like Poland and the Baltic States, whose hard line on Russia has put them at odds with what they perceive as their Western counterparts’ ambivalence, making them all the more eager to maintain the U.S. presence in Europe.
But the more restrained attitude of France and Germany towards Russia is not based on spinelessness or frugality. Instead, due to geography, relative power, and history, Western and Eastern Europeans have profoundly different threat perceptions of Russia.
This would normally suggest that the two halves of Europe do not in fact make natural treaty allies. Historically, Eastern Europe suffered the misfortune of being a buffer zone between Western Europe and Russia—a role to which Eastern Europeans, all too understandably, do not want to return.
This fundamental asymmetry was introduced into the alliance by enlarging NATO to include Eastern European states from the 1990s onwards—a faultline papered over by the continuing leadership of the United States, but which reduces any incentive for Western Europeans to “step up” the way Washington (officially) wants them to.
The reflexive argument among many Western commentators is to blame France and Germany for not backing Ukraine more aggressively, reducing their credibility in the eyes of Eastern Europe, and compelling the latter to lean even more heavily on Washington to allay their security fears. According to these arguments, Western Europe should instead put itself on a serious war footing and help lead the charge against Russia.
But there are a couple of reasons to view such assertions skeptically. In the first place, the Russian military’s performance makes France and Germany’s response seem relatively proportionate. Russia has been struggling for months to conquer the small regional city of Bakhmut; it is not marching on Warsaw anytime soon. Moreover, while Eastern Europeans would probably like nothing more than for Russian fields to be sowed with salt, France and Germany recognize that Russia will likely always be a power in the region, and that peaceful coexistence requires some sort of reasonable mutual accommodation.
Secondly, the United States shouldn’t expect the over-the-top measures it relies on to prop up the credibility of extended deterrence to be mimicked by Europe should the latter transition towards strategic autonomy and deterring Russia directly. Nor should the Eastern Europeans.
Finally, and more to the point, one would think when listening to American officials and analysts who lament Europe’s security dependence that these folks want the United States out of Europe as quickly as possible. And yet the opposite is the case; most of these same voices are deeply dedicated to America remaining permanently committed to NATO.
According to conventional arguments for greater “burden-sharing” among the allies, the best way for the United States to encourage its capable allies to do more for their own defense is to redouble our own efforts on their behalf and fall over ourselves to insist upon our commitments to them. The causal logic here has never been explained, but it seems self-evidently contradictory: if we do more, we incentivize our allies to do less.
The alternative view is that the best way to encourage the rich and capable countries of Western Europe to assume greater responsibility in a European alliance is to slowly, but steadily and openly, reduce our own contribution to the continent’s security. This would not be greater “burden-sharing,” but rather “burden-shifting.”
If European security is truly the goal, we should expect capable states like France and Germany to act like any other state without a guarantor: to develop the independent capabilities they deem necessary for their own threat environment, and to manage their own alliances. Poland and the Baltic states prefer an American guarantee, but they’ll likely still be able to sleep well at night with a guarantee from their more powerful and nuclear-armed Western neighbors.
If we’re being frank, however, the contradiction at the heart of calls for more “burden-sharing” is probably recognized by those devoted to the permanence of the transatlantic alliance, and this incoherence is precisely its utility. Virtually no one in the American foreign policy establishment actually wants to give up the United States’ seat at the head of the table in NATO, which places Europe within America’s sphere of influence. And for some time, therefore, NATO’s existence, to quote the historian Richard Sakwa, will continue to be “justified by the need to manage the security threats provoked by its [own] enlargement.
Christopher McCallion is a Non-Resident Fellow at Defense Priorities.