French President Emmanuel Macron once noted that Europe lived through NATO’s “brain death”, while former US President Donald Trump branded it “obsolete”.
But after Russia spent the winter gathering its forces on the border with Ukraine and warned of a military response to what it said were the alliance’s Eastern European ambitions, NATO has been brought back to life.
Together with the United States, it led the response to the Russian threat, pushed for talks with Moscow, and strengthened the number of troops in Eastern Europe. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg united Western nations against a united position against the Kremlin’s aggression and declared support for its “partner” Ukraine, even though Kiev is not a member.
The talk of NATO irrelevance was driven by last summer’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Before that, around the times when Macron and Trump made their observations, their search for a new purpose came as the United States shifted its focus to China and growth in unconventional warfare.
Yet the Ukraine crisis has revived support for the alliance’s original concept: as a defensive collective to deter a possible attack from Moscow.
“It simply came to our notice then [Nato] is very much in business, “said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former president of Estonia, one of three former Soviet Baltic states that joined NATO in 2004.” The absence of an immediate threat does not mean it has disappeared forever . ”
Since construction around Ukraine began in November, Allies have promised troops and equipment to NATO members in Eastern Europe. France said it was ready to send troops to Romania, Spain sent a frigate to the Black Sea, and the Netherlands promised two F-35 fighter jets to Bulgaria and put other units on standby.
This week, the United States said it deployed 3,000 troops to strengthen NATO’s defense in Europe, a break from the tendency to move its forces out of the continent.
These movements are in addition to the four rotating battle groups – agreed in 2016 and manned by troops from countries including Britain and Germany – in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
“Russia’s ultimatum as well as its real-time collection of a serious wealth of troops and material has led to a reconsideration in many capitals,” Ilves said, adding that France, Spain and the Netherlands had “increased their game” as the threat increased. .
NATO, formed in the aftermath of World War II as a transatlantic security alliance, was at the forefront of Western European defense during decades of tensions with the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites.
The role of the organization 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 its own ranks.
It entered Afghanistan in 2003 and remained, through a series of missions and shadows, until its tasteless exit last year. The involvement in Libya’s civil war in 2011 also triggered deep divisions between members.
In recent years, Washington’s hub for Asia under Trump and his successor Joe Biden has prompted calls, most strongly from Macron, for the EU to take on a larger role in Europe’s defense to achieve less autonomy dependent on the US-led alliance. .
Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy more than 106,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, along with demands including a ban on Ukraine and Georgia becoming NATO members, has highlighted the value of unity and the organization’s unique ability to respond together. Moscow with both political clout and troops, officials say.
“This is a great moment for the Alliance,” said Julianne Smith, the United States’ Permanent Representative to NATO.
“The level of alliance unity in that space… Was quite 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 with where we stand. ”
Even before Russia’s construction, 2022 had long been considered a crucial year for NATO. This summer, the alliance will outline its priorities for the next decade in a “strategic concept” document 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 changed security landscape over the past decade. But the events of the last few months have reminded Allies that their original enemy is still a current threat.
The Alliance still faces significant challenges. Its dependence on the United States was painfully emphasized during the withdrawal from Afghanistan when it became clear that the Allies were unable to maintain a presence without US military infrastructure and in particular air support from the Bagram air base north of Kabul.
Lord George Robertson, former NATO secretary general, said last summer that the disagreement over Afghanistan was harmful. “It weakens NATO because the principle of ‘in together, out together’ seems to have been abandoned by both Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” he told the Financial Times at the time.
The majority of NATO members will also continue to fall below the target of spending at least 2% of gross domestic product on defense by 2024.
Asked last week about the “brain death” barrage, Stoltenberg said that in such uncertain times, it was “even more important that we stand together”.
“We demonstrated it in the Cold War, the Balkans and 9/11, and we are now demonstrating it with Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine,” he said at an event hosted by the think tank Atlantic Council.
“If Russia wants less NATO close to its borders, it has achieved the opposite,” Stoltenberg continued. “And if it invades Ukraine, even more so.”