What role for NATO? Ukraine crisis may push it back to basics.

The treaty organization has been suffering from a lack of direction since the end of the cold war, but Russian aggression in Ukraine may rejuvenate its role in Europe.

Frank Augstein/AP/File
A NATO AWACS plane takes off the NATO Airbase in Geilenkirchen, Germany, earlier this month. Russia's readiness to use military force in Ukraine has been a wake-up call for many European countries, which have slashed defense spending since the Iron Curtain fell.

If President Obama’s visit with the secretary general of NATO in Brussels today had happened before Russia annexed Crimea, it might have garnered little attention.

The alliance, formed at the start of the cold war, has long struggled to defend its relevance since the demise of the Soviet Union, and soul-searching has begun in earnest this year as NATO prepares to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan.

But the crisis with Russia, and in particular President Vladimir Putin’s assertion that Moscow has the right to defend Russians living anywhere, has suddenly breathed new life into NATO’s raison d’être. Two years after the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize for six decades of advancing peace, Russia’s antagonism has bolstered those who argue the continued relevancy of NATO’s historic mission as a counterweight to Moscow.

“You could see how NATO was a bit in search of a mission post-Afghanistan ... and then Russia gave it an answer,” says Nicu Popescu, an analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris. “This militarization of politics, driven by Russia, has led to the re-discovery of NATO’s importance.”

Rethinking NATO

As NATO leaders prepare for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of the year, there have been competing visions over what role it should play in the 21st century.

On one side are those who argue that the alliance should return to its founding mission, encapsulated in the treaty's Article 5, which states that an attack against one NATO member is an attack against all. On the other are those who want their national defense systems and the alliance to focus on adapting to the new nature of security threats, namely global terrorism.

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea following the fall of a pro-Russian leadership in Kiev has given more credence to those who want it to return to its roots. Newer EU members from the east have long feared Russia’s intentions across their borders. Last week visiting US Vice President Joe Biden reassured Poland and the Baltic nations that as NATO members, they will be fully protected by the US in the case of Russian aggression.

More broadly, budget cuts in defense in both the US and Europe, and shifting American attention to terrorism and, more recently, to China's military buildup, have called into question the global relevance of NATO, which was founded in 1949. 

When he retired in 2011, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates rebuked Europe for not fulfilling its commitments to security. Indeed, the vast majority of NATO members do not meet the organization's goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.  

"If current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders – those for whom the cold war was not the formative experience that it was for me – may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost," Mr. Gates said.

This position has prodded Europeans to take a hard look at their capabilities without the US behind it. And while Obama has stood side-by-side with Europeans in the Ukrainian crisis, Russia’s willingness to use military force has been another “wake-up” for Europe.  

Ready and able?

Still, as long as the confrontation between Russia and the West remains economic and political, not military, it might have little long-term impact on European attitudes towards NATO and the use of military force, says Elvire Fabry, a senior research fellow at Notre Europe - Jacques Delors Institute in Paris. And national governments will remain constrained by slow economic growth. “But it is increasing the perception that Europeans will remain exposed to important risks to their security and need to be well-prepared,” she says.

Nor is it clear that NATO forces are prepared for any confrontation in Europe. US Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove said over the weekend, as quoted by Reuters, that Russia’s actions should lead the alliance to rethink the readiness of its forces in Eastern Europe. So far NATO has deployed AWACS surveillance planes to its eastern borders. Many have called on NATO to engage in more exercises to underline its commitments to security in the region.

In 2008 NATO members shelved a proposed expansion of the alliance to Ukraine or Georgia, a move seen as a sop to Russia. This debate still simmers below the surface of the Ukrainian crisis: some argue that extending closer to Russia's borders is a strategic mistake that will only provoke Moscow.

A separate debate concerns the status of non-NATO European allies like Finland or Sweden that do not enjoy the protections under Article 5. The crisis “will give arguments to people who are in favor of NATO membership,” says Lena Jonson, head of the Russia Program at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs. But she predicts that the conflict, in its current form, won't change these countries' positions.  

On NATO's agenda, meanwhile, is more routine business: a September summit in Wales and an upcoming leadership change this year.

“[The question of] who will be the new secretary general of NATO takes on a much different character … with a security crisis in Europe,” says Ian Lesser, head of Brussels office of German Marshall Fund of the US. It has “put NATO back in the limelight in a way it wasn’t a few months ago.”

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