NATO: slipping into confrontation

As NATO defence ministers met in Brussels this week, the principal items on the agenda have been the long-planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the fall-out from Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and instability in eastern Ukraine. Member states close to or bordering Russia are looking to their allies for stronger security assurances, particularly regarding Article V commitments implying that an attack on one will be treated as an attack on all. In the current climate of hostility to Putin’s Russia, stronger allies, particularly the United States, UK and France, seem only too ready to provide them.

Prior to yesterday’s discussion, President Obama announced in a speech in Poland his intention to allocate an extra bn budget to strengthen the deployment of US forces in central and eastern Europe, a mission he described as ‘sacrosanct’. More training, more exercises, more muscle-flexing in regard to Russia. Cohesion within the Alliance, alongside firm action, is highly valued by all member states.

It is still too early to tell where things are going in this crisis, and far too soon to be talking about a return to a cold war, but depression has certainly set in within the cautious arms control community and those strongly committed to cooperative approaches. Nevertheless, while there has been much bluster around Russia’s actions, it is clear at present that Washington has no intention of using direct military intervention to settle the issue. And though the NATO-Ukraine Commission met yesterday, a week after Petro Poroshenk’s election as president of Ukraine, NATO itself recognises that it has no direct role to play in Ukraine today. Yet.

Doubt has been lingering over NATO’s role more generally ever since the end of the cold war. At root, NATO is a military alliance with legacy missions and an emphasis on military approaches to security. And as President Obama himself said in a more progressive recent speech at the West Point military academy, when you are a hammer, things tend to look like a nail. The experience in Afghanistan forced NATO to adapt in a number of important ways, including greater integration with civilian agencies and a focus on governance. Yet despite years of experience and overwhelming capabilities on paper, it appears incapable of fighting an insurgency successfully, and still struggles to respond to other non-state threats like terrorism, piracy and cyber-attacks.

While it seems like paranoia for Russia to see NATO as a direct threat (how often is the word paranoid used to describe the approach of Russian ‘hardliners’?), it only takes a little imagination to see a kernel of truth. Consider NATO’s unquestionable collective capability as the most powerful alliance ever seen on this planet, its demonstrable willingness over the last two decades to intervene militarily without UN authorisation, and its march eastwards in response to self-determination for newly-liberated nations in central and eastern Europe.

From Moscow’s perspective, this NATO security agenda that is turning Russia’s neighbours against them is extremely threatening. In this respect, NATO’s relationship with Ukraine (alongside the EU, seen as a trojan horse for the Alliance in the expansion of both institutions eastwards) was a principal cause of Russia’s robust actions this year.

In a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 programme, Fit for Purpose, to be broadcast on Wednesday evening this week, Professor Mary Kaldor and I question the record of the Alliance over the last quarter century since the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. NATO’s first Secretary-General Lord Ismay openly described the core mission of the Alliance in 1949: to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”.

meeting at nato headquarters in belgium

Meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels

Some are tempted to think that little has changed. While there are token efforts to engage the Russians within the 29-member NATO-Russia Council, this has failed to integrate them, primarily because the 28 NATO members go through a prior process to hammer out positions in advance that are then inflexible, and the Russians experience a take-it-or-leave it situation.

This latest confrontation no doubt confirms abiding suspicions amongst NATO hawks about Russian intentions to maintain a sphere of influence. Others see this as Russian resistance to acknowledge the capitalist west’s full victory in the cold war. Our recent history here bears some attention. If those within political and military establishments across the United States and Europe believe that victory against the Soviets was achieved through military strength, endurance and coherence of the Alliance, this will clearly heavily influence future strategy.

But it is dangerously mistaken to view as capitulation the path of perestroika and rapprochement forged by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, his attempt to find a way out of the terrifyingly dangerous strategic stalemate we had fallen into. The attitude of triumphalism is one of the biggest strategic blunders of our time, and a massive missed opportunity. Today we are seeing the consequences in the reaction of the Russian people and their support for Putin’s reactionary approach in Russia’s near abroad and in his authoritarian repression of domestic dissent.

Cynicism around NATO intentions reigns today in Moscow. After the end of the cold war, the west rejected the choice of emphasising common security approaches that focused on establishing working relationships and strengthening institutions between former adversaries in favour of military alliances focused on external threat. The hunger within Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States for reconciliation based upon mutual pan-European security structures, seen in the many proposals for such approaches, has all but disappeared. We can expect Russia to respond to yesterday’s announcements with its own military build-up in western Russia. While it will not be a return to the cold war, it seems that we are slipping into a competitive relationship.

It is now more important than ever that we look back on the lessons from the cold war, which include the importance of arms control, dialogue, understanding and mutual (if grudging) respect. We need to dust off some of the visionary proposals that grew out of that dark stalemate that understood that security for one group of states cannot be sustainably established at the expense of another.

And while we do indeed need to stand up to tyranny and the unilateral use of force, and to protect ourselves and our allies, we need to balance this with a more positive ambition of genuine inclusion, and adapt our institutions accordingly. Unfortunately, there is little hope of NATO Defence Ministers considering such an approach this week. But if NATO members are truly interested in sustainable security for Europe, they will need to think imaginatively and show leadership in changing the tune.

This article was originally featured on OpenSecurity, a section of

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