NATO’s Moment

NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Courtesy of cineberg / Adobe Stock

As NATO leaders gather for an extraordinary summit in Brussels, the Alliance faces the most serious European security crisis since its foundation in 1949.

In terms of both its scale and its open territorial revisionism, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents the most blatant example of state-on-state aggression since the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. That war played a key role in prompting a rapid reassessment of Soviet ambitions by the US and its NATO allies, and it led directly to steep increases in defence spending and the creation of NATO’s integrated military command. Then, as now, NATO’s member states know that the world is only a few steps away from a wider war between the world’s largest military powers. During NATO’s lifetime, only the 1962 confrontation over Cuba has come close in terms of the level of danger.

NATO’s members have risen to this challenge, coming together around a shared strategy with speed and unity. The three elements of this strategy are clear. First, and most immediately vital, is their commitment to provide as much support as possible to Ukraine in its efforts to thwart Russian aggression, short of the direct involvement of their own forces in the war. NATO is now in a race against the clock in this regard, rushing to resupply Ukraine with vital anti-armour and anti-air weapons before it runs out.

Second, they have agreed on the need to strengthen reassurance of NATO’s most exposed member states, particularly those that have borders with Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The scale of the required reinforcement is as yet uncertain, and depends in part on the outcome of the war for Ukraine. But it is likely to involve a forward presence in Poland, the Baltic republics and Romania which is much more militarily potent than the post-2014 deployments, and deployed on a much more ambitious timescale.

NATO’s front line would be further strengthened if, as is now widely anticipated, Finland – and possibly Sweden – apply for membership. Such an application would be likely to be quickly approved. A rapid decision will be needed as to whether this should be accompanied by a visible NATO presence.

Third, NATO members are working closely with each other, with the EU and with their Asia-Pacific allies to deliver a massive programme of sanctions, intended to inflict as much damage on Russia’s economy as possible within a rapid timescale. The objective is twofold: both to ensure that Russia pays a price for its aggression and, more ambitiously, to make it more difficult for it to sustain a long conflict.

The primary purpose of the summit, and the accompanying meeting of EU leaders, is to keep up the pressure on states to deliver on this strategy, and to agree to its intensification. The daily escalation of attacks and atrocities, and the millions of refugees now flooding into the rest of Europe, mean that they are likely to do so.

In contrast to the botched experience of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US’s leadership of the Alliance during this crisis has rightly been praised

It is likely to be a prolonged crisis. In the absence of a negotiated pause or – much less likely – a longer-term Ukraine–Russia political settlement, the conflict could turn into a protracted war of attrition, albeit one punctuated by pauses as the opposing armies regroup and resupply. NATO members will seek to ensure that Ukraine remains in the fight, even if its economy and many of its cities are in ruins. Russia, for its part, still has some way to go before it fully exhausts its reserves of people and weapons.

The longer the war goes on, the higher the stakes for everyone involved, and the greater the escalation risk. The possibility of large-scale Russian use of chemical weapons, such as chlorine, against Ukrainian cities cannot be ruled out, largely because Russia may believe – on the basis of Syria’s experience – that they have real operational value. The US, for its part, could find it hard to resist pressure to respond militarily in the event of such an attack. And it could get worse. There is a non-trivial possibility that Russia could credibly threaten nuclear use to improve the terms on which the war is ended. In contrast to the use of chemical weapons, the purpose would be strategic, not tactical; and the audience would be more the US and NATO than Ukraine. In addition to Putin’s own statements, nuclear escalation is part of the public discourse in Moscow, with Russian state TV recently broadcasting an open discussion of possible nuclear strikes against several NATO members.

Managing the risks of escalation will remain a top priority for most of the Alliance’s leaders. Some degree of retrospective comfort may be taken from the fact that neither the US war in Vietnam nor the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan resulted in direct conflict between the superpowers, despite the considerable military assistance being given (by the Soviets and the US respectively) to each other’s local opponents. But Ukraine is different, both because it is so central to Russia’s view of its vital national interests and identity, and because of the breadth and scale of NATO’s own commitment to Ukraine’s cause. These high stakes mean that the escalation risks are already greater than in either of the above two conflicts.

NATO Transforming

In contrast to the botched experience of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US’s leadership of the Alliance during this crisis has rightly been praised. After the trauma of the Trump years, European members and Canada have welcomed an administration that, in the run-up to the invasion, consulted closely with its partners – both NATO allies and Ukraine; saw the importance of being seen to take diplomacy seriously; and then moved swiftly to lead NATO’s new war strategy. The current US leadership understands that, in an alliance of democracies, persuasion is likely to be much more effective than coercion when it comes to matters of shared interest.

Germany’s transformed position is one of the most dramatic consequences of the crisis, and one which, if sustained, promises to greatly strengthen NATO’s European pillar. The East Europeans were the first to react to the increased Russian threat after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, posting rapid increases in defence budgets which had, before then, been among the lowest in the Alliance. The UK's shift in approach was initially less rapid, but accelerated after the 2018 Salisbury attacks, most notably in the UK’s leading role in supporting the Ukrainian military before the latest war. But it is the German transformation that has been the most dramatic, precisely because its starting point – only a month ago – was so different and, apparently, so immobile.

NATO has gained strength from acting as part of a wider Western coalition. The EU has been key – generous in its approach to accepting Ukrainian refugees, tough on sanctions despite the economic costs involved, and working closely with the US and NATO. The UK government also deserves credit for its willingness to work closely with the EU in key areas, notably on sanctions. The UK’s leading role in the Joint Expeditionary Force has been important, not least in ensuring that Finland and Sweden are fully engaged in collective defence preparations.

The greatest cause for optimism in these dark days is that public opinion across the West supports NATO’s current strategy and wants governments to do more to help Ukraine

Furthermore, NATO leaders have benefited from strong public support across the Alliance. The West’s post-1945 settlement, and the prosperity and security that it brought, depended on the marginalisation of extremist political forces – on both left and right – which had played such a destructive role in the previous half-century. The last decade, by contrast, has seen a growing challenge to this consensus, most strongly from nationalist parties on the far right. One benign effect of the crisis has been to discredit the pro-Putin rhetoric that was such a common theme for these parties.

The Way Ahead

But larger challenges lie ahead. Hopes for a benign transformation of Russia after Putin departs need to be tempered by the reality that there is widespread popular support for the war. Dealing with the anger and resentment of a weakened Russia seems likely to be a primary focus of NATO’s efforts for years to come.

As the costs of the crisis for European economies and societies mount, moreover, today’s unity of purpose will be challenged. Steep hikes in fuel prices, together with the severing of profitable trade links and the influx of millions of refugees, could create a perfect storm for which leaders are ill-prepared.

Nor can the unity of the coalition against Russia be taken for granted. Some of the world’s largest democracies have sought to sit on the fence or – in the case of India – seek economic advantage by undermining Western sanctions. In turn, NATO countries have been reaching out to key authoritarian states in order to find new sources of supply for oil and gas. Hence US outreach to Venezuela, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s trip to Saudi Arabia, and Germany’s gas deal with Qatar. It is misleading and unhelpful, therefore, to see this crisis as part of a long struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. It is instead best described as one between Western democracies on the one hand and Russia on the other, with China playing an important supporting role for the latter. China’s unwillingness to distance itself from Russia’s aggression has, in turn, strengthened the realisation of US allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific that they have a common interest in working together against these two challengers to the global order. The closer that Russia and China become, the clearer the case for a strong Western-led balancing coalition.

The war has demonstrated, once more, the value of NATO and the commitment to collective defence that it represents. In the last analysis, however, Europe’s security remains dependent on the commitment of key states, most of all that of the US. The greatest cause for optimism in these dark days, therefore, is that public opinion across the West supports NATO’s current strategy and wants governments to do more to help Ukraine in its time of need. It is a commitment that may need to be sustained for many months, if not years. In the end, though, it is reasonable to expect that Ukraine will emerge from this war as an independent and free state, and that Russia will suffer a massive blow to its power and reputation. This prospect should be of some consolation at this desperate moment of crisis.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Malcolm Chalmers

Deputy Director General

Senior Management

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