Russia’s disrespect for Ukrainian sovereignty has captivated the Western media for months. The focus on Moscow’s bullish behaviour has, however, obscured both NATO’s recent attempts of joining the Ukrainian proxy war and its long-term strategy of Eastern expansion. The upcoming summit in Wales is only the most recent reminder that NATO should have been disbanded long ago.
Western journalists and think tankers are increasingly telling us that Russia is re-creating a bipolar order in Europe. The Kremlin’s support for separatists in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has sparked accusations that Russia is breathing new life into a confrontation that Europe thought to have overcome 25 years ago. Yet, while both the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and the Kremlin’s involvement in the 2014 Ukrainian civil war show that Russia is an important source of regional instability, it is not the only one. Western commentators often reduce NATO’s involvement in Ukraine to that of a passive bystander, but such a view is highly misleading.
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Over the last months, the alliance has sent fighter planes to Eastern Europe and increased its naval presence in the Black and Baltic Seas. NATO has unilaterally suspended its military and civilian cooperation with Russia and its deputy secretary general has downgraded Russia from “partner” to “more of an adversary“. Most controversially, NATO is wrapping up an aid package to modernise the Ukrainian army and is therefore fast becoming, like Russia, an active party in the Ukrainian civil war.
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While NATO has so far been careful not to pass heavy armoury to Kiev, the alliance has neither ruled out individual members from sending such weapons nor from participating in military exercises on Ukrainian soil – even during the ongoing war. Grateful for such allegiance, Kiev has recently decorated NATO’s outgoing Secretary General Anders Rasmussen with the Order of Liberty, Ukraine’s highest award for foreign nationals. In return, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko has received the honour of being invited to NATO’s September summit in Wales as the only non-NATO head of state.
This week’s much-awaited summit in Wales could bring a decisive boost to the North Atlantic alliance’s new proxy war. Already, the secretary general has announced his intention to beef up NATO’s rapid response force and to encourage increased military spending throughout the alliance. He has also called for permanent military bases to be installed in NATO’s Eastern members. The alliance has been careful not to call such bases “permanent” because they would breach a 1997 promise to Russia, but they will send an unambiguous signal to the Kremlin nevertheless. “The point is that any potential aggressor should know that if they were to even think of an attack against a NATO ally,” Rasmussen recently explained, “they will meet NATO troops.”
Beating the war drum
The most significant source of support for the new line comes from NATO’s most powerful member. In early June, Washington announced a $1bn fund to bolster the wider US military presence in Europe. US President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama has promised Poland and other Eastern European NATO members “unbreakable commitments”, backed both by “the strongest alliance in the world” and “the most powerful military in history”.
But it is not just Washington that is beating the war drum. Today, politicians like Poland’s Radek Sikorski, Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite or Estonia’s Toomas Hendrik Ilves are pursuing a similar line. The very states that were eager to host the controversial Missile Defence Shield in the 2000s are now lobbying for permanent military bases on their territory. Even Germany, sometimes considered a lethargic member of NATO, has stocked up troops in the Polish headquarters of the Multinational Corps North East, a facility concerned with the defence of NATO’s Eastern territorial border.
While these recent events have often been read as mere reactions to Russia’s imperial reflexes, it is important not to divorce them from their historical context. A crucial key to NATO’s current investment in Ukraine is the alliance’s longstanding identity crisis. Unlike the Warsaw Pact, which was disbanded in 1991, the North Atlantic alliance has survived the end of the Cold War. It has had to legitimate its further institutional existence in two distinct if rather contradictory ways.
Firstly, it replaced its Cold War policy of “forward defence” with that of “forward presence” (non-linear defence lines, scattered across the globe). This new mission was powerfully demonstrated by a number of “out of area” wars against Serbia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Libya in 2011, but also by combating pirates off the Horn of Africa. Given the fiasco in Afghanistan, this strategy is now widely considered to have failed.
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Secondly, it embarked on an ambitious enlargement agenda to Eastern Europe that saw the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland enter the alliance in 1999. Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia and the three Baltic states followed in 2004 as well as Croatia and Albania in 2009. NATO has furthermore developed close ties with a number of post-Soviet republics, particularly with Georgia and Ukraine, both of which have in the past declared an interest in joining the alliance.
NATO has held military exercises with these states and recently reiterated its continued support for Georgia’s plans to gain NATO membership. Tbilisi now builds units according to NATO standards so as to ensure interoperability in the future. It is this policy of regional involvement that is directly at odds with the alliance’s global mission. Indeed, it has helped to re-create the very linear defence line it claims to have abandoned in the early 1990s, but now further to the East.
In response to such allegations, NATO has held that its expansion to the former Warsaw Pact and its flirtation with the post-Soviet republics was never directed against Moscow, but merely an attempt to stabilise democratic transitions in these states. Russia has never quite believed that version of events, reminding the alliance that its most powerful member state once gave Russia an informal promise that NATO would not expand eastwards.
Perhaps more interestingly, NATO’s new members were also never fully committed to the story that NATO enlargement had nothing to do with Russia. It should be remembered that it was anti-Soviet politicians like Poland’s Lech Walesa and the Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel who originally lobbied for their countries to join NATO.
What should have been done 25 years ago
In the run up to the September summit it seems as if NATO’s 25-year identity crisis might finally have been resolved. As the US Secretary of State John Kerry has recently put it, the war in Ukraine has called NATO “back to the role that this alliance was originally created to perform”. As both NATO and Russia seem to be using the current Ukrainian crisis to re-enact their Cold War roles, a debate on the alliance’s purpose is more than timely.
Today’s critics of NATO frequently face charges of Kremlin apologism, quite in the same way that the anti-nuclear and peace protestors were ritually accused of being Soviet puppets during the Cold War. Yet, to take a critical stance on NATO does not mean to embrace Putin.
Unlike what some commentators have argued, we do not need more understanding for a nationalist, militarist and autocrat whose new Eastern Monroe doctrine is destabilising Eastern Europe while isolating his country. Instead, we need a better grasp of NATO and its drive to further militarise of Eastern Europe. This alliance is currently aiding a nationalist regime that did very little to diffuse its ethnic tensions in the aftermath of the Ukrainian revolution and that is now shelling its own citizens. Backing the Ukrainian military is about as sensible as Russia’s support for paramilitary forces in Eastern Ukraine.
The only reasonable response to the current crisis is a radical rethinking of European security that starts with the realisation that the continent has two problems: Russia and NATO. The West cannot disband Russia, but it can finally start a process that it should have started in 1991: the dissolution of its antiquated military alliance.
This solution is admittedly counter-intuitive in the light of Russia’s current assertiveness, but it is ultimately the only sane step towards a more peaceful continent. Perhaps it is important to remember that it was the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and not the West that called off the Cold War. Interestingly, this happened at a time when Washington was excessively funding terrorist paramilitaries and freedom fighters around the world while showing very little respect for the sovereignty of certain Latin American neighbours.
Ian Klinke is a researcher at the University of Oxford.