Fear of Russia brings new purpose and unity to NATO, once again

Mr Putin’s insistence that NATO halt enlargement and withdraw allied forces from member states bordering Russia would draw a new iron curtain across Europe, and this threat has focused people’s minds. This may be just what a lagging alliance needed.

“NATO is built on momentum, and a lot of the momentum is generated by a sense of threat and fear,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior intelligence officer in charge of Russia, now at the Center for a New American Security.

After last year’s fiasco in Afghanistan and the humiliation of France in the affair of the Australian submarines, she said: “We all thought that we had serious problems in the alliance, and we may have to rethink the basics of this relationship.”

But in talks this week with the Russians, NATO leaders spoke with exceptional unity for a 30-member alliance whose commitment to collective defense was increasingly in question.

The talks allowed Mr Putin to revisit Russian grievances over the end of the Cold War, hoping to put them back on the table for renegotiation 30 years later. His deputy foreign minister, Aleksandr V. Grushko, even warned the alliance against a “policy of containment” of Russia and insisted that “free choice does not exist in relations international organizations” – suggesting that Ukraine should comply with Russian wishes.

But the more the discussion evoked the Cold War – with its firm dividing line across Europe, and its competing Russian and Western systems and spheres of influence – the more it reminded European and American allies of NATO’s purpose.

“Deterring Russia is in NATO’s DNA, because it is Russia that can bring existential threats to European nations,” said Anna Wieslander, president of the Swedish Institute for Security and Development.

This threat is now more than territorial, she said. Russia is also trying to undermine NATO’s democratic cohesion. “Russia targets our elections, our social media, our parliaments and our citizens, and it has become more evident now that Russia is not part of our value system,” Ms. Wieslander said.

As it drafts a new strategic concept to be ready this year, NATO is focusing on “resilience” against new hybrid and cyber threats, underscoring its defense of member states’ democratic institutions, not just their territory.

“NATO is its member states, and that’s what the allies do with it,” said Sophia Besch, a defense analyst in Berlin for the Center for European Reform. “It’s not bankrupt because we didn’t let it, and we changed its raison d’être based on the key strategic concerns of the day.”

The old joke was that if NATO is the answer, what is the question? Ms. Besch replied: “We have changed the question over the years to make NATO the answer. And now we return to the old question, where NATO is more comfortable.

NATO is today particularly important for states bordering Russia, such as the Baltic countries and Poland, a country that has deepening of tensions with its European partners on the protection of fundamental democratic principles, which Brussels has accused the government in Warsaw of eroding.

But the current crisis is a reminder, even in Poland, of the importance of the alliance as a whole, and not just of the country’s bilateral relations with the United States, said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Relations Council. foreign. . Ukraine has proven particularly vulnerable to Russian threats, perhaps precisely because it is not a member of NATO.

“In Poland, there were fears that NATO would no longer focus on Russian security threats, but now it is clear that this is the only framework that can protect us and ensure long-term security,” Buras said. .

There were also concerns that President Biden, in trying to stabilize relations with Russia, pivot to china, would negotiate forward-based NATO troops in Poland and the Baltics that were deployed after 2014.

“But there is no indication that the United States will give in on fundamental NATO issues,” such as its open door policy and its right to deploy forces in any member state, Buras said, and Washington has been rigorous in informing its allies of all its discussions with Russia.

Yet, he said, the current crisis “is a very clear consequence of America’s pivot to Asia and Russia’s realization that it could now benefit from this reorientation of fundamental state security interests. United,” he said. “And this problem is not going away anytime soon.”

Russia will continue to push for a new security framework in Europe, and Europe without the United States is not ready to play a meaningful role, he said, so “for Poland, the NATO is the key and irreplaceable element”.

Even as Poland’s battle with the European Union over the rule of law escalates, it is not an open issue in the NATO military alliance. But it was very visible that, as the Ukraine crisis escalated, Polish President Andrzej Duda chose to veto a law, criticized by Washington, that would have deprived a US company of majority ownership of a channel independent television.

As the security situation in Central Europe deteriorated with Russian aggression and threats, Poland “finally got what we wanted when we joined NATO, which is the presence of allied and American troops on our ground – to finally bring NATO deployments beyond Germany,” said Michal Baranowski. , who heads the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund.

This is precisely one of Russia’s current demands – that these deployments in Poland and the Baltic states be scrapped, a demand rejected by Mr. Biden and by NATO, much to Poland’s relief.

Yet, Mr Baranowski said, the Russians have mobilized Europe’s largest military force since 1989, “and that’s scary”. The alliance, he said, “is closer to military confrontation, but at least we haven’t folded.”

But the crisis has also highlighted NATO’s continued dependence on Washington. For Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO, what is striking is how “it’s the old NATO, where the United States is the glue, the linchpin and the leader indispensable part of the alliance”, bringing the allies together, informing them and “putting on the table the strategy that we will pursue.

What is extraordinary, he said, is that more than 70 years after the creation of the alliance, “there does not seem to be an independent European strategy or even a European point of view different from what Washington put on the table”. NATO has divisions, of course, Daalder said. “But all divisions are dissolved, at least for today.”

It is not yet clear whether this unity will last if Mr Putin moves further into Ukraine, said Kadri Liik, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. She sees a reluctance in Europe to understand that the world is changing.

“The general public is unprepared for any change in the arrangements we’ve lived with for the past 30 years,” she said. “People think we can still sanction Russia to obey the European security order, and all it takes is Western unity and principles.”

But the United States runs the world differently, Ms. Liik said. “I’m just not sure we can continue to live in a world that matches the rules and standards and expect America to enforce them.”

This also applies to Russia and Europe, she said. “We are slowly returning to a world” of confrontation between systems with different views on respecting the rules and using power and force.

Ms Kendall-Taylor believes Mr Putin saw an opportunity to take advantage of a more fragile transatlantic alliance, a divided Europe and a polarized America with a weakened president.

NATO unity is real but untested, she said. “It is too early to declare that everything has been restored, because Russia has not done anything yet,” Ms Kendall-Taylor said. “It’s kind of the calm before the storm.”

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