The Russian aggression in Ukraine has exposed the Western Alliance to the hard evidence of a grim reality: Moscow is willing to break the fabric of the post-Cold War order to advance an imperialist agenda in the East, challenging NATO at its borders.
What Russia is doing right now in Ukraine is more than mere brinksmanship or muscle flexing. It aims at sustainably reversing the developments of the past two and a half decades, which sought to bring democracy, prosperity and stability in Eastern Europe. This is beyond doubt the most significant test for NATO since the end of the Cold War, and one to which the Alliance must respond swiftly and credibly in order to retain its relevance and continue to serve as a security anchor for Western values.
Alas, Allied response to Russia’s brazen actions in the East has revealed a number of critical weaknesses in NATO’s military posture, political resolve and resulting preparedness to build a credible deterrence strategy against the threat posed by Russia.
First among these is the structural imbalance of military assets, a legacy of the Cold War and one that has been left unaddressed since. The US is still the preponderant military force within NATO. European Allies have done little if anything to offset America’s retreat of conventional forces from Europe, whereas new member states in the East, with the emerging notable exception of Poland, do not possess the economic muscle to finance significant new military assets.
This state of affairs has the upshot of leaving NATO’s Eastern flank vulnerable to a conventional military aggression. The Baltics are the most acute expression of this, but other states, including my country, Romania, are also exposed.
On the political side, NATO has been afflicted by the simultaneous effect of the US pivot to Asia and the lack of political leadership in Europe, where Germany still dithers when it comes to assuming its role as a full-fledged regional power. Revelations of NSA eavesdropping on European leaders have done little to boost confidence in the transatlantic dialogue. Building a credible response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine required a degree of transatlantic cohesion that simply was not there, and could not be built overnight.
When events in Ukraine escalated, it was as if Russia had served the Allies dinner, whereas they were still busy washing up the dishes after lunch. NATO’s lack of preparedness and contingency planning for Russia’s assertiveness was apparent in the response of leaders from both sides of the Pond. Slow to react in the first place, Western leaders then moved to erect a barrage of words that did not match up with concrete actions. This, to Russia, looked a lot like weakness, serving to both vindicate Putin’s bold moves and to encourage further escalation. For NATO, this was the best response they could put up. As it turns up, it was not nearly good enough.
What now? With Eastern Ukraine on the verge of disaster, and rising alarm as to the security of the Baltics, NATO must move swiftly to make up for lost time. Ahead of the Summit in Wales, Western leaders need to address an impending threat, while rushing to draw the blueprint for the future of the Alliance. To do this, the Allies need to center their response on the urgent need to enhance political and military credibility. In what follows, I will sketch a set of recommendations that NATO Members could use to resuscitate NATO and secure the future of the Alliance.
1) Go back to the fundamentals and sign a new Charter of Values. Western military cooperation was about defending values before it was about building military assets. When the solidarity of the Allies comes under stress, it is fundamental for them to remember why they came together in the first place. Signing a new Charter of Values, including a strong pledge to enforcing Article V, may serve as a public reminder of what the Alliance stands for, increasing its legitimacy, reassuring more exposed/new member states such as Poland and the Baltics, and showing challengers that the transatlantic bond is still strong.
2) Develop and stick to a roadmap for a more sustainable burden sharing among Allies. For too long now, the US has provided for the bulk of spending on assets and capabilities. It is time for all Member States alike to step up and jointly commit to a calendar of boosting defense spending up to 2% of their GDP. European members should also develop a structured dialogue for finally making operational a program to avoid needless asset duplication.
3) Strengthen the Eastern flank. The Alliance needs to make clear that it won’t put up with the new aggressive posture of Russia. Strengthening the Eastern flank by relocating assets and capabilities in key countries such as Poland, the Baltics, Bulgaria and Romania needs to be a priority in the short to medium term. So is developing a plan for holding joint military exercises with Member States in the East and making it clear that Allies are engaged in contingency planning for a potential further deterioration of the security situation in Eastern Europe. As the Cold War has amply shown, building up a strong deterrent is probably the best way of ensuring durable peace.
4) Keep the door open. NATO is not and should not develop into a fortress. Countries that share the same values and are willing to shoulder the burden of collective defense should be allowed to have a membership perspective.
5) Get Germany to sign up to a role that matches its economic weight. A more substantial engagement of Germany with NATO is long overdue. Of late, some Berlin leaders have indicated Berlin may be inclined to take up a more active role in the Alliance. This is welcome, and should be encouraged by European allies and the US alike.
Until very recently, conventional thinking regarding NATO’s future role revolved around the mantra “Out of Area or Out of Business.” While the Alliance was grappling with the challenge of finding a new role for itself in a changing global environment, longstanding but dormant threats slipped under NATO’s radar. The Allies were keen to view Russia as a partner rather than a foe, and this in spite of repeated warnings that Moscow was not content with playing second fiddle to NATO’s agenda. The result was that, to Russia’s eyes, NATO appeared as a weak and increasingly irrelevant relic that reflected Western nations’ relegation of hard power to the footnotes of history.
Now, the Allies need to make a U-turn in strategic thinking and wake up to the realization that, to keep the guns silent, they must hold their finger on the trigger. Building a credible deterrence in the East may turn out to be the real litmus test for NATO’s contemporary relevance.