Offensive defence: How Putin saved NATO

In a period of great malaise in the West, the Russian president has given the military alliance new meaning, mission and drive.

NATO meeting at Vilnius
Leaders attend the opening high-level session of the 2023 NATO Summit on July 11, 2023 in Vilnius, Lithuania [Sean Gallup/Getty Images]

It feels like we are worlds away from the time when French President Emmanuel Macron declared NATO “brain dead” on the eve of its London summit in 2019. Since then, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has revived and reinvigorated the North Atlantic alliance like never before in its 74-year history, as demonstrated by the enthusiasm for its summit this week in Lithuania.

Macron had argued that the alliance had bickered needlessly on burden-sharing when its members had no shared vision or common objectives regarding security in Europe, claiming that terrorism was the common enemy that “hit all our countries”, not China or Russia. He also insisted that Europe had to become more autonomous in the security sphere because the United States was becoming less reliable.

President Donald Trump had heightened tensions over NATO’s burden-sharing, falsely accusing European members of lowering their military spending and undermining the alliance’s basic tenet of collective security. He even threatened to withdraw the US from the alliance. Indeed, NATO had barely survived four years of Trump.

For all practical matters, the North Atlantic alliance, which was conceived in Washington to keep the Soviets out, the Americans in and the Germans down, had lost its raison d’etre after the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the breakup of the Warsaw Pact and German unification symbolised the end of an era and the rise of a new, more united, secure and confident Europe.

Then came the Balkan wars, ushering in years of NATO intervention. This was followed by the 9/11 attacks on the United States, prompting the alliance to invoke Article 5 for the first time in its history, paving the way for NATO’s extended “out of area” operations in the greater Middle East and beyond and leading to further transformation of its military capabilities to confront new asymmetrical threats and enemies.

But divisions over the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq undermined the alliance’s political and military cohesion. NATO’s attempts to pick up some of the burden in 2004 failed to stem the tide of chaos and instability in Iraq, leading to its withdrawal in 2011. The US-NATO failures were further highlighted by the rise of the “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria.

If the occupation of Iraq was a disastrous American blunder, the occupation of Afghanistan was a terrible humiliation for NATO. The costly 20-year war ended in a shameful, poorly coordinated withdrawal in 2021 and the extraordinary return of the Taliban to rule the country as they did before the invasion.

And that’s not all. NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya was no less of a foolish bungle. Its intense pounding of Libyan forces through an estimated 7,000 bombing sorties over eight months may have dislodged Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, but it also paved the way for a costly civil war that continues to paralyse the country today. President Barack Obama later defined the intervention as “the worst mistake” of his presidency.

In short, despite its expansion eastwards, NATO had failed miserably to fulfil its military missions or define its core strategic mission for the 21st century. President Joe Biden’s 2021 declaration that “America is back” on the world stage and his attempts to reverse the harm caused to US reliability and credibility by his predecessors and reunite and salvage the alliance were met with a high degree of scepticism in Europe.

But all changed the following year. Scepticism suddenly vanished after Russia embarked on a full-scale invasion of Ukraine camouflaged as a “limited military operation” aimed at protecting its Russian-majority provinces.

President Vladimir Putin had long warned against US-NATO meddling in his region or area of influence and warned against its intention to expand eastwards to Georgia and Ukraine. But all his warnings fell on deaf ears in Washington, no less at the Biden White House, which was bent on reviving the transatlantic relationship.

After years of rapprochement, European leaders have felt particularly betrayed by Putin’s invasion, regardless of its motives and objectives. It has lent credibility to Biden’s suspicions and warnings and left them looking foolish. They reckoned they had little or no choice but to coalesce around an American-led NATO to face up to the new danger from the east.

Countries like Finland, which had long promised to stay out of NATO, are now vying to get in at any cost. Likewise, Sweden’s desperate efforts to join the alliance following Turkey’s objections illustrate to what extent Europeans are willing to go. In fact, only after the EU joined in the mediation efforts with enticements has Turkey lifted its objections.

Today, NATO is determined to confront and weaken Russia, albeit indirectly, on the battlefield and to deter Putin from attempting any such future folly. NATO powers have shown their readiness to provide Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars in assistance and with some of the most sophisticated and dangerous weapons, including cluster bombs, determined to fight until the last Ukrainian soldier.

In a period of great malaise in the West, Putin has given NATO a new meaning, mission and drive. Regardless of how his war goes or when it ends, Russia has already lost the moral and strategic high ground to an ever more offensive alliance that is sure to militarise the continent and expand its outreach worldwide.

Did someone say new NATO liaison office in Japan?