Next week, the world’s most important security alliance faces its most important test since the end of the Cold War 23 years ago.
The 28 countries comprising the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will gather in the U.K. starting Thursday. It comes at a time when the dominant NATO mission of the last decade — the Afghan war — is winding down and when Russian incursions into Ukraine challenge the very European order the alliance was created to defend.
When the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact alliance collapsed in 1991, NATO went through an identity crisis of sorts. The alliance had been formed in 1949 with the singular purpose of protecting Western Europe from the sort of takeover the Soviet Union had engineered across Eastern Europe, from the Baltics and Poland in the north to Bulgaria in the south.
NATO succeeded in protecting Western Europe, but this victory led to a big question: Now what? For a time, it was kept busy with crises like the Balkan wars of the 1990s and, later, participation in Afghanistan’s 48-member International Security Assistance Force.
But the crisis in Ukraine is taking the alliance back to its roots — only now in a world where everything from tactics to weapons to geopolitics is entirely different from that of 1949.
Start with the blunt nature of NATO’s original challenge. The organization was born just three years after Winston Churchill declared that a Soviet “iron curtain” had descended on Eastern Europe, and in the same year that the USSR detonated its first atomic bomb. During the height of the Cold War, the dominant threat was the USSR’s combination of massive Soviet conventional forces poised to charge into Western Europe backed by its frequently rattling nuclear saber.
Today, the challenge is subtler but no less real — and in some ways much harder to counter. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s creeping takeover of Crimea early this year and his slow-motion incursion into Ukraine tend to flummox an alliance whose doctrine and exercises have historically focused on combating clear and distinct conventional armed aggression — tanks, armies and aircraft coming straight at you.
"Russia has long held a conviction that NATO is dedicated to keeping them down, and Putin would like nothing better than to show NATO toothless"
Now NATO has to find some traction against a Putin strategy that employs a mix of anonymous special forces (what analysts now call the “little green men”), information operations, dissembling public statements, and covert infiltration of men and materiel that blurs attribution and offers a just barely plausible patina of denial.
In short, the mode of warfare today involves tactics that are very difficult to pin down and harder to describe — a recent U.K. parliamentary study called Putin’s new tools “ambiguous warfare.”
So next week, NATO’s leaders must face down this new challenge; can they effectively deal with this changed reality?
Practically, this means NATO must decide how to implement the core provision of the alliance treaty — Article 5. This is the collective defense provision that pledges all members to come to the aid of any member that is threatened. This provision is newly challenged because the idea of threat itself is changing so fundamentally.
No NATO member has experienced something comparable to what has happened in Ukraine — yet. But if Russia succeeds in destabilizing Ukraine and thwarting Ukrainians’ ambition to associate with the European Union, Putin could be powerfully tempted to use some of the same techniques on a NATO member. Seeing how difficult the Ukraine crisis has been for Europe and the United States might induce Putin to try some of the same tactics on one of the ex-USSR Baltic nations, for example. And given the deep suspicion with which the Baltics view Russia, it would not take much for them to request Article 5 protection.
Invoking Article 5 in the aftermath of another “ambiguous warfare” episode by Russia would plunge NATO into a debate it has never had to have — because so far, nothing Russia has done has led a member to request Article 5 protection. The only time it has been used was after the 9/11 attacks when all members pledged support to the U.S. without being asked. The clause requires unanimity, no easy feat to achieve, especially since NATO upped its membership from 12 nations to 28 over recent years. And among these 28 nations, everything from capabilities to histories to political views vary sharply.
So next week NATO must anticipate and decide what collective defense really means in light of the novel threat posed by Putin’s strategy. If the leaders do not do this and then freeze in the face of a circumstance requiring unanimity, they will hand Russia a strategic victory. Russia has long held a conviction that NATO has always been dedicated to keeping them down, and Putin would like nothing better than to show NATO toothless.
Against this central doctrinal challenge, the summit will be grappling with some immediate practical issues. On the docket: sorting out NATO’s long-standing goal for members to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense (only four currently do — the U.S., U.K., Estonia and Greece); deciding whether to base more forces, including U.S. military, closer to Russia’s border; considering providing more modern weaponry to nonmembers such as Ukraine and Moldova to conduct military exercises; and, finally, discussing adding members (Georgia, in particular, is pressing to join).
During Cold War times, NATO meetings often took on a routine quality. In fact, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1984 characterized NATO summits as gatherings where government leaders went through “… the tedious motions of reading speeches, drafted by others, with the principal objective of not rocking the boat.”
But now someone is rocking NATO’s boat — hard — and the time for tedious speeches is over.