Renewed tensions with Russia inject new lease of life into NATO

French President Emmanuel Macron once observed that Europe was living through the “brain death” of NATO while former US President Donald Trump branded it “obsolete”.

But after Russia spent the winter assembling its forces on the border with Ukraine and warning of a military response to what it said were the alliance’s eastern European ambitions, NATO has been brought back to life.

Alongside the US, it led the response to the Russian threat, pushed talks with Moscow and bolstered troop numbers in eastern Europe. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg rallied western nations towards a united position against the Kremlin’s aggression and declared support for its “partner” Ukraine even though Kyiv is not a member.

Talk of Nato irrelevance was fueled by last summer’s chaotic retreat from Afghanistan. Before that, around the times Macron and Trump made their observations, its search for a new purpose came as the US shifted its focus to China and growth in non-conventional warfare.

Yet the Ukraine crisis has reinvigorated support for the alliance’s original concept: as a defensive collective to deter a possible attack from Moscow.

“It’s quite clear that [Nato] is very much in business, ”said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former president of Estonia, one of three ex-Soviet Baltic states that joined NATO in 2004.“ The absence of an immediate threat does not mean it has gone away for good. ”

Since the build-up around Ukraine began in November, allies have pledged troops and equipment to NATO members in eastern Europe. France said it was ready to send troops to Romania, Spain dispatched a frigate to the Black Sea and the Netherlands pledged two F-35 fighters to Bulgaria and put other units on standby.

This week, the US said it was deploying 3,000 troops to NATO’s bolster defenses in Europe, a break from the trend of shifting its forces out of the continent.

These movements are in addition to the four rotating battle groups – agreed in 2016 and staffed by troops from countries including the UK and Germany – in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Military vehicles and tanks of Poland, Italy, Canada and the United States roll during the NATO military exercises in Latvia
Since the build-up around Ukraine began in November, allies have pledged troops and equipment to NATO members in eastern Europe © Roman Koksarov / AP

“Ultim ultimatums as well as its real-time amassing of a serious host of troops and material have led to a rethink in many capitals,” said Ilves, adding that France, Spain and the Netherlands had “upped their game” as the threat increased .

Nato, formed in the second world war’s aftermath as a transatlantic security alliance, was at the frontline of western European defense during decades of tensions with the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites.

The organization’s role became less defined after the end of the Cold War and, as it sought new meaning, its involvement in the 1990s Yugoslav wars drew criticism from within its own ranks.

It entered Afghanistan in 2003 and stayed, through a series of missions and guises, until its ignoble exit last year. Involvement in Libya’s civil war in 2011 also sparked deep divides between members.

In recent years, Washington’s pivot to Asia under Trump and his successor Joe Biden have prompted calls, most forcefully by Macron, for the EU to take on a larger role in Europe’s defense to achieve an autonomy that was less reliant on the US-led alliance .

Yet Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy more than 106,000 troops on the Ukraine border, alongside demands including a ban on Ukraine and Georgia becoming Nato members, has made clear the value of unity and the organization’s unique ability to collectively respond to Moscow with both political clout and troops, officials say.

“This is an amazing moment for the alliance,” said Julianne Smith, US permanent representative to NATO.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy more than 106,000 troops on the Ukraine border, has made clear NATO’s unique ability to collectively respond to Moscow with both political clout and troops, officials say © Yuri Kochetkov / Pool / EPA

“The level of alliance unity in that room. . . was pretty breathtaking, ”she added, referring to last month’s Nato-Russia summit. “It became crystal clear. . . the alliance and all 30 allies are absolutely in sync on where we stand. ”

Even before the Russian build-up, 2022 had long been viewed as a pivotal year for NATO. The alliance is due to outline its priorities for the next decade in a “strategic concept” document this summer, and is expected to elect a new leader to replace Stoltenberg.

The new strategy is expected to include significant mentions of China, climate change and cyber security – underscoring the significantly altered security landscape over the past decade. But the events of the past few months have reminded allies that their original foe still remains a present threat.

The alliance still faces considerable challenges. Its reliance on the US was painfully underscored during the withdrawal from Afghanistan, when it became clear that the allies were incapable of retaining a presence without US military infrastructure and notably air support from Bagram air base, north of Kabul.

Lord George Robertson, former NATO secretary-general, said last summer that the disunity over Afghanistan was damaging. “It weakens Nato because the principle of“ in together, out together ”seems to have been abandoned both by Donald Trump and by Joe Biden,” he told the Financial Times at the time.

The majority of NATO members also continue to fall short of its goal of spending at least 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defense by 2024.

Asked last week about the “brain death” barb, Stoltenberg said that in such uncertain times it was “even more important that we stand together”.

“We demonstrated that in the Cold War, the Balkans and 9/11 and we’re demonstrating that now with the aggressive actions of Russia against Ukraine,” he told an event hosted by the Atlantic Council think-tank.

“If Russia wants less NATO near its borders, it has achieved the opposite,” Stoltenberg continued. “And if it invades Ukraine, even more so.”

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