Mr. Putin’s insistence on stopping NATO expansion and withdrawing allied forces from member states bordering Russia will draw a new iron curtain over Europe, and the threat has focused minds. Perhaps this is just what the lagging alliance needs.
“NATO relies on momentum, and a lot of momentum is created by a sense of threat and fear,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior intelligence officer with Russia and now at the Center for a New American Security.
After last year’s fiasco in Afghanistan and France’s humiliation in the Australian submarine deal, she said: “We all thought we had serious problems in the alliance and we might have to rethink the foundations of this relationship.”
But in talks this week with the Russians, NATO leaders spoke with singular unity about the 30-member alliance, whose commitment to collective defense has increasingly been questioned.
The talks allowed Mr. Putin to revisit Russian grievances about how the Cold War ended, in hopes of bringing them back up for review 30 years later. His Deputy Foreign Minister Oleksandr V. Grushko even warned the alliance against Russia’s “containment policy” and insisted that “there is no free choice in international relations”, suggesting that Ukraine would have to bow to Russia’s wishes.
But the more the discussion resembled the Cold War—with its hard-line dividing line across Europe and the competing systems and spheres of influence of Russia and the West—the more it reminded European and American allies of NATO’s purpose.
“Containing Russia is in the DNA of NATO, because it is Russia that can pose an existential threat to European peoples,” said Anna Wislander, chair of the Swedish Institute for Security and Development.
According to her, this threat is now more than territorial. Russia is also trying to undermine the democratic unity of NATO. “Russia is targeting our elections, our social media, our parliaments and our citizens, and it is now becoming increasingly clear that Russia is not part of our value system,” Ms Wieslander said.
In developing a new strategic concept due this year, NATO is focusing on “resilience” to new hybrid and cyber threats, emphasizing its defense of member states’ democratic institutions, not just their territory.
“NATO is its member states, and that’s what allies make of it,” said Sophia Besch, a Berlin-based defense analyst at the Center for European Reform. “He didn’t go out of business because we didn’t let him, and we changed his raison d’etre into what are the major strategic issues of the day.”
The old joke was that if NATO is the answer, then what is the question? Ms Besh replied: “Over the years we have changed the question to make it a NATO answer. And now we are back to the old question of where NATO is more convenient.”
NATO is now particularly important to those states that border Russia, such as the Baltic states and Poland, a nation that is growing at odds with its European partners over the defense of core democratic principles that Brussels has accused the government in Warsaw of undermining.
But the current crisis is a reminder even for Poland of the importance of the alliance as a whole, and not just the country’s bilateral relations with the US, said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. . Ukraine has proved particularly vulnerable to Russian threats, perhaps precisely because it is not a member of NATO.
“There were fears in Poland that NATO would stop paying attention to Russian security threats, but now it is clear that this is the only structure that can protect us and provide long-term security,” Mr. Buras said.
There were also fears that President Biden, in an attempt to stabilize relations with Russia and turn towards China, would abandon the forward deployment of NATO troops in Poland and the Baltic countries, which were deployed after 2014.
“But there is no sign that the United States will give in to NATO on fundamental issues” such as its open door policy and its right to deploy forces in any member state, Mr. Buras said, and Washington was strict in briefing its allies on all his negotiations with Russia.
However, he said, the current crisis “is a very clear consequence of the US pivot to Asia and Russia’s realization that it can now take advantage of this reorientation of core US security interests.” “And this problem is not going away anytime soon.”
According to him, Russia will continue to insist on a new security system in Europe, and without the United States, Europe is not ready to play any significant role, so “for Poland, NATO is a key and indispensable element.”
Understanding Escalating Tensions Around Ukraine
While Poland’s battle with the European Union over the rule of law is still smoldering, this is not a clear issue in the NATO military alliance. But it was quite noticeable that as the crisis over Ukraine grew, Polish President Andrzej Duda decided to veto a law criticized by Washington that would deprive a US company of a controlling stake in an independent television channel.
As the security situation in Central Europe deteriorated due to Russian aggression and threats, Poland “finally got what it wanted when it joined NATO, which is an allied and American military presence on our soil – to finally withdraw the deployment of forces NATO outside of Germany,” said Michal Baranowski. , who heads the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund.
This is precisely one of Russia’s current demands to remove these deployments in Poland and the Baltic states, a demand to relieve Poland, rejected by Mr. Biden and NATO.
Still, according to Mr. Baranowski, the Russians have mobilized the largest military force in Europe since 1989, “and it’s scary.” The alliance, he said, “is close to a military confrontation, but at least we haven’t given up.”
But the crisis also highlighted NATO’s continued dependence on Washington. For Ivo Daalder, the former US ambassador to NATO, it is striking how “this is the old NATO, where the US is the link, the core and the irreplaceable leader of the alliance”, bringing allies together, informing them and “putting on the table a strategy that we will follow”.
What is unusual, he said, is that more than 70 years after the founding of the alliance, “there seems to be no independent European strategy, or even a European point of view, other than what Washington has proposed.” Of course, NATO has divisions, Mr. Daalder said. “But all units are disbanded, at least for today.
Whether that unity will last if Mr. Putin moves further into Ukraine remains to be seen, says Kadri Liik, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. She sees in Europe a reluctance to understand that the world is changing.
“The general public is not ready for any change in the arrangements that we have lived with for the past 30 years,” she said. “People think that we can still impose sanctions on Russia to comply with the European security order, and that all it takes is the unity and principles of the West.”
But the United States is leading the world differently, Ms Liik said. “I’m just not sure that we can continue to live in a world that follows rules and regulations and expect America to enforce them.”
According to her, this applies to both Russia and Europe. “We are slowly returning to the world” of confrontation between systems with different views on the observance of rules and the use of power and force.
Ms. Kendall-Taylor believes Mr. Putin saw an opportunity to take advantage of a more precarious transatlantic alliance, a divided Europe and a polarized America with a weakened president.
According to her, the unity of NATO is real, but not verified. “It is too early to say that everything has been restored because Russia has not done anything yet,” Ms. Kendall-Taylor said. “It’s a bit of a calm before the storm.”