In trying to find a reason for NATO to continue operating, the obvious solution is to once again address NATO’s founding mission: deterring Russia. From 1991 until 2008 and the war in Georgia, NATO’s assumption about Russia was that it was the crippled remnant of the Soviet Union, incapable of posing a military hazard and interested primarily in evolving into a variety of liberal democracy with a vibrant economy linked to Europe.
It seemed a reasonable assumption, but it was defective. The Russians increasingly saw European and American help as undermining Russia’s economic viability, and saw NATO expansion as designed to strangle Russia. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 was the breaking point, along with the admission of the Baltic states into NATO. The Russians saw the latter as a violation of the West’s pledge not to expand NATO into the former Soviet Union, and the former as a desire to build anti-Russian regimes in areas of vital interest to the Russians.
Whatever the subjective intentions of the two sides, NATO’s perception was that Russia was crippled and did not have to be taken into account in planning actions. Russia’s perception was that NATO continued to fear Russia and would not be content until it did become crippled. That evolved into the current issue over Ukraine’s future, as the Russians seem to be modernizing their military force in anticipation of further pressure from the West. The West faces a Russia apparently returning to the patterns that made NATO necessary in the first place.
This issue is particularly important in what used to be called (and should be called again) Eastern Europe. Central Europe contains countries like Germany and Austria, and the dynamics of Eastern Europe are wildly different than those of Central Europe. Eastern Europe finds itself caught between two forces. One is the European Union, still functional but increasingly fragmented and unable to act in concert. The second force is Russia. It is increasingly insecure and seeks to stabilize its western frontier, which means the Baltics, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are feeling the winds of a rising Russia.
From these countries’ standpoint, the EU’s fragmentation is replicated in NATO. Except for the presence of the United States and Canada, the two organizations are very similar. Eastern European countries are aware that except for the United States, NATO lacks the will and the force to create a major blocking power. A few battalions are shuffled around but nothing that would actually have military significance if the Russians were able to mount an attack.
Russia is posturing as a great power, but its internal economic problems are enormous. Much of its military force is a shadow of what it was under the Soviets, and its modernization program depends on finances, which are strained to near breaking point with declining oil prices. Still, Russia’s military force is greater than Eastern Europe’s, and NATO’s ability (excluding the United States) to deploy militarily decisive forces is limited. This region, which is part of NATO, may be able to count on some countries in the alliance, but cannot count on NATO itself because it lacks effective military force.
It is also a region in which the Russians loom larger than they are. This follows from 45 years of occupation by the Russians. The region’s vision of Russia still conjures hazy memories of Soviet armored guard divisions and a KGB that could hear the grass grow. The guard divisions are badly in need of repair and trained and motivated troops, and the FSB can shape individual politicians but cannot shape global events without their efforts blowing up in their face.
In fact, Eastern Europe, with some help from the rest of Europe and the United States, is quite capable not only of defending itself militarily against the current Russian reality, but also of protecting itself politically against Russian influence.
If Eastern European countries were to work together, they would be a formidable force. But the Slovaks and Hungarians have little trust in NATO, and the Poles and the Hungarians are under constant attack from the EU because their people elected governments the EU disapproves of.
NATO’s original mission was to contain Russia. But in this case, countries like Germany do not carry the primary burden. That burden falls on Eastern Europe. But the minimal support needed to secure the region – a few first-rate divisions and air wings – is not available.
The U.S. is recovering and perhaps preparing for another round of conflict in the Middle East, and the rest of Europe lacks the minimal capabilities needed for extended deployment a few hundred miles from home. Therefore, NATO’s core strategy cannot be implemented. Something that is well within the brief of NATO, and ought to be well within the ability of countries like German, is undoable. NATO solidarity on protecting Eastern Europe isn’t nearly as strong as it could be, and all the commitment in the world will not create anti-tank capabilities designed to make an unlikely Russian attack scenario impossible.
From a strategic point of view and regardless of internal politics, Poland and Hungary, as examples, are indispensable for deterring the Russians. While NATO’s brief includes this deterrence, the EU retains the right to lecture and condemn both countries even in the face of the political disorder in the rest of Europe. In other words, Eastern European countries have one relationship with NATO and another relationship with the EU. So at a NATO meeting the Germans speak one way, and at an EU meeting they speak another way. And the coalition that would protect Germany from far-fetched events (in a time when the farfetched has become routine) can’t take form.
The United States is a key member of NATO, and the U.S. is trying to figure out NATO’s usefulness. The answer is far from clear. In the one area where NATO can be helpful and can act within its mission, European members’ behavior is both contradictory and primarily theoretical. They simply have not built a military for a mission even clearly within NATO’s purview. To the extent the Russians have the ability to increase their influence on their western frontier, their European adversaries are inadvertently providing the opening.
In the end, there is no NATO problem. There is a European problem. A European consensus on defense does not exist any more than a consensus on economics does. Being in an alliance so unstable that a region the alliance must protect is under attack by the EU is too complicated for the simple and unsophisticated Americans. The sophisticated Europeans in the end are proving too much for the United States. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has laid down the price members must pay for NATO protection.
The Europeans will assume it is just talk and continue as they were. Having opted out of collective responsibility in the Middle East, the Europeans are also opting out of collective responsibility in Europe. U.S. action in Europe will take place as needed, but it will not be constrained by the votes of those not incurring some of the risk. This is not an opinion on my part, but simply a rational analysis by the U.S. Why submit to an organization that cannot share the risk?