NATO toasts Putin.

The end of the Cold War left NATO without its raison d’être. Its creation was predicated on the existence of an existential threat emanating from the USSR, one that would take the military shape of high intensity warfare: waves of armored columns crossing the central European plains backed by massive infantry formations covered by blanketing air cover and even tactical nuclear weapons. NATO was designed as a collective security arrangement whereby superior counter-force on the part of the US and its Northern Hemisphere allies served as a deterrent to Soviet aggression. That strategic orientation was at the heart of the Cold War.

With the Soviet Union gone, so was the need for that strategy. NATO first sought to incorporate, over Russian objections, former Warsaw Pact states into its embrace. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined first, followed by  Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and, most recently, Albania and Croatia. It shifted its focus towards multinational peace-keeping and peace-enforcement, irregular low-intensity conflict operations such as those in Kosovo in the late 1990s (the size, scope, pace, depth and range of weapons used in kinetic operations determine the relative intensity of combat). Later it cast its collective gaze further afield, involving itself in the International Security Assistance Force occupation of Afghanistan and the ouster of the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

The irony is that these strategic shifts did nothing to allay Russian concerns that NATO’s  primary focus remained on curtailing its ability to project force to its West and South, but in Western capitals the belief was that NATO needed to re-boot given the shifting geopolitical landscape and strategic priorities of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

None of the new NATO missions substituted for those designed to counter the threat posed by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, and with the exception of the US, this was reflected in diminishing defense budgets, numbers of uniformed personnel and overall military significance within policy-making circles in member states. However it tried to redefine its core mission, NATO was increasingly seen by elites and public alike as a security organization without a purpose. Many felt that it should be disbanded and replaced by more flexible military agreements that would eliminate the costs of maintaining a permanent NATO infrastructure in Brussels and annually contributing, both militarily and financially, to its operations. It was believed in some quarters that this could be done without significantly impacting on any nation’s self-defense in what was seen as a largely benign European strategic environment where conflicts were more intra-rather than inter-state in nature.

It was for that reason that I penned this column as part of my late “Word from Afar” series as Scoop.

Now, thanks to the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, that has changed. In the eyes of its champions, NATO is once again confronted by hostile Russians on its Eastern flanks. Not surprisingly, US and European military-security officials, especially but not exclusively in places like Poland, have been quick to raise the specter of Russian imperialism in the former Eastern European bloc, calling for a revitalization of NATO’s original primary and core concern: containing the Bear.

The justification for NATO revitalization is based on the belief that Putin will not stop in Crimea or even the Eastern Ukraine, but has intentions to at the very least “Finlandize” a number of former Soviet Republics on Russia’s border that he feels have gotten too politically close to the EU and their Western neighbors. Given that the uprising in Ukraine was seen as a vote in favor of closer ties with the EU, the Russian response in Crimea is taken as indicative of its approach towards other “pro-EU” governments in its near abroad.

Just as Putin was able to capitalize on Russian nationalism as a generator of support for the invasion of Crimea, so too can conservative politicians in many European states use his actions as a catalyst for nationalistic appeals. Fear of the Bear is widespread and often visceral in many parts of Europe, especially those that suffered under Soviet occupation or at the hands of Soviet troops during the Great War. They and their descendants provide receptive audiences for anti-Russian appeals made on both politically opportunistic as well as principled grounds.

This is music to the ears of European defense bureaucrats, even if the US is not quite as capable of shouldering the burden of their collective defense in the measure that it once used to. For European security elites, the good ole days of robust defense spending, new weapons acquisitions, force expansion and significant military say in national policy making are now set to replace the politics of austerity and neglect that characterized the post Cold War period. Security decision-makers will make the argument that resurgent Russia is as much a threat today as it was back during the Cold War, even if its reach is now more regional than global in scope and its power is derived as much from its energy exports as it is from its military capabilities. Their argument will dove-tail nicely with those of anti-Russian nationalists, so the die is set for another re-casting of NATO’s mould.

Of course, while NATO went through contortions of re-defining itself after the Cold War, Russian strategists continued to focus primarily on defending their land borders and promoting Russian influence in neighboring states so as to provide a buffer to would-be aggressors, particularly from the West. For the Russians the “liberation” of Crimea is just a natural and justified reaction to the steady erosion of Russian influence in regions in which it has core historical, cultural and political interests. It is this “natural” reaction that has prompted the calls for NATO’s strategic re-orientation, which in turn means that the two strategic visions have once again been counterpoised.

This will be welcomed by Russian military and NATO officials because it marks the return to the common logics of collective defense that justify their positions and the arguments for counter-force deterrence that bound them together in opposition during the Cold War. However, for the citizens affected by a return to Cold War logics the prospects may not be so rosy.

Whatever the case, there are bound to be more than a  few NATO officials quietly hoisting a glass in honor of Vladimir Putin, for it is is he who has given them importance once again.

23 thoughts on “NATO toasts Putin.

  1. I suspect it is either that or more likely the final nail in the coffin of the NATO when we find the article 5 is just a blank cheque that bounce as there are a simple lack of wills & capability to honuor the Treaty.

    We are seeing a split of the NATO & EU opinion at the moment with the easten memebers states led by the Pole calling for stronger respond while the Western European led by German & French who prefer to more “engagement” with Uncle Vladmine. Even in Britain who tranditionally pro-war, there are no public support for the Ukriania in any sort and most quite happy to see the Russian “recover” Ukriane.

    The opinion of right-wing nationalist party in Britain, “UKIP” actually in favour of Putin action, they view EU as the enemy and the Russian model as a “liberiation” from the “EU imperialist”.

    and this view also share by most in Western & Southern Europe.

    And for those on the Left, as we all know they are just KGB/FSB funded morally bankrupted “fifth column”.

    There are no prospect incease of defence spending either after the event, there are no change of the planned budget cut as the put for reduction of national debt is what the government aiming for. And whatever few penny or cent that can spare are used for “vote-buying” in the “Grey” or “Mumnet” or “1st time homeowner” votes.

  2. The best current article I have seen is China is making serious inroads into previous Russian influence in former Soviet Central Asia. Regaining Siberia is an obvious geostrategic target for China.

    How many divisions does NATO have? None. Although there may be a few junior staff officers attached to NATO who may welcome the career opportunities posed by Russian aggression the simple reality is that each soldier comes from a home nation. There is no state of NATO and there is no pan European defence force. Each soldier looks to their own culture.

    Merkel is following in Schroder footsteps and ensuring that Germany stays closer to Russia. I remain utterly bemused on why German leaders are following energy policies guaranteeing that the German economy is dependent on Russia.

    As Wilson noted the NATO article 5 promises are simply paper. How may American tanks remain in Europe? None is the answer. If the governments behind NATO were serious they would be moving existing German bases to Poland. That is almost as likely as Obama cancelling Obamacare.

    That said the point of your article is to note an increased likelihood of EU & NATO defence money and additional focus on security vs austerity. The UK Sec Def was on radio this morning ruling out any additional money or troops for armed forces. The likely Western next steps are for the mighty SEC rather than NATO. Putin seems to care less about money and more about pride so it is less likely SEC money moves rather than military are unlikely to have much impact on Putin. That said they are sensible actions.

    Putin seems like a little boy poking a chained dog with a stick to show how brave he is to his mates.

    Will NATO get more toys? I doubt it as far as anything substantial is concerned. The post cold war complacency and defence cost cutting mentality remains in European governments.

  3. Phil,
    Most competented, experienced junior officers & NCOs of our ages had left the forces & out to the big wide world of security consultancy. Those who stay are mostly the unemployable youngest sons of the trust-fund class who waiting to cash their end-salary penison.

    in reality NATO is just US Armed force in Europe with a few British, Nordic & token Eastern European Auxiliary. It always have been a case of US taxpayers paying for the defence the Freedom of European while the European feasting themselves on welfare states. But the age of Pax American is ending and it is now everyone for themselves, and most European choose surrender.

    Well, Mrs Merkel is an Ex-FDJ, Russian speaking academic from East Germany and who know how red is it under her bed.

    Putin is no little boy poking a dog. More like the EU is the fool who poking the Russian bear and running away from the bear craws crying now.

  4. The point of the post is not that NATO can return to its Cold War deterrence posture or whether it can fight effectively. It is simply noting that defense/security bureaucrats and officials as well as conservative politicians will self-servingly use the Russian action as justification for renewed emphasis on collective defense.

  5. Pablo, I’m curious, how far do you think defence/security bureaucrats and conservative and nationalist politicians can push things? Back in the Cold War days there were no direct borders between the USSR and NATO (except of course the sea border in the Bering Strait – which hasn’t changed – and the Turkish borders with Georgia and Armenia), and I suppose one could argue that the Warsaw Pact states served as something of a limited buffer. Now Russia directly borders NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and, via Kaliningrad (the former East Prussian Koenigsberg), Poland. And, of course, Belarus sits conveniently between Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Kaliningrad and Russia-proper. Also, I have read of German moves to revisit ancestral homes in Kaliningrad/Koenigsberg, perhaps even reassert old ties there – perhaps giving a bit more fuel to ultra-nationalist types in Germany? Does the closer proximity of NATO assets to the Russian homeland combine with the Ukraine situation (important for Russian, Belarussian and Ukrainian historical and cultural identity – Kievan Rus, and all that) increase the chances of conflict turning hot if the defence/security bureaucrats get their way and conservative and nationalist hotheads manage to use this to gain more influence?

  6. Also: I’m curious as to how large ethnic Russian populations in the Baltics complicate matters, especially given Putin’s self-appointed role as Defender of All Russians. Could NATO hypothetically find itself fighting both a large, conventional battle like it was originally set up for and an irregular insurgency at the same time in the event of conflict in the Baltics?

  7. Chris:

    Even if NATO bureaucrats, security officials and conservative nationalists succeed in raising defense budgets and restoring military prestige/voice in policy-making, there is no way that NATO is going to try and confront Russian forces on a battle field unless Russian forces tried to take a country like Estonia or Poland. The other Baltic states and places like Belorus are basically now hostage to Russian ambition and will not be defended by NATO (not that Belorus would want to be).

    All NATO can do by increasing its spending on collective defense is reprise the Reagan strategy of (out) spending the Russians into bankruptcy.

    Trouble is the Russian have money to burn on defense thanks to their energy export revenues, so a strong sanctions regime curbing exports coupled with massively increased NATO defense spending is the only way to get Russia to over-spend on defense relative to other policy areas. And given the politics of austerity and European dependence on Russian energy exports, that is not going to happen.

    So all NATO can do is bark from the sidelines.

  8. I travel all over, As a redneck New Zealander I like the way Russia; you know he collected up his Russian people. We see this with our own eyes while USA was little, How come little people like me are looking at Russia and the world map.
    Is our currency Russia or China tell me now

  9. Paul, would you mind re-writing that in English. I think you are making a point but not sure what.

    Pablo. You say there would not be a confrontation unless Russian forces decided to take Estonia or Poland. Russian armor could easily proceed overland to Kaliningrad through Latvia and Lithuania establishing new facts on the ground. NATO armor is at bases in Germany. Do you really believe that NATO would go to war over the Baltic states. They are balking at any kind of real economic sanctions let alone military action. There would be harsh words and probably real sanctions. Look at the geographic proximity of Estonia to Moscow. The reality is that only Poland would be the battlefield. It seems to me that the Baltic states are a sort of unspoken demilitarized zone. But just because Putin could go to Poland does not mean he would.
    Russia’s problem is demography not lebensraum. It simply does not have the people. Is it possible that Putin has a much longer term strategy to make Russia strong again. I came across this article on Russian demography. Really interesting to note the changes that have happened whilst Putin has been in power. Russians are not emulating the drunken Yeltsin any more.

    At 140m people Russia is not able to face down either EU/USA or China. He knows that. He also knows that nationalism is a highly effective tool. That makes him a rational actor. Why would he aim at the low population Baltic states when the price paid would be very high. He is far more likely to aim at the FSR states in Russian Central Asia. Vastly more populous and with energy to boot.

  10. Phil, why on Earth would Putin drive Russian tanks through Latvia and Lithuania to Kaliningrad? Kaliningrad already is Russian territory, has been since WW2, and he could drive them through the (mostly, but not always entirely) friendly Belarus much more easily. But don’t forget the ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltics – only about 6ish% in Lithuania, but roughly 1/4 of the populations of Latvia and Estonia.

    But I agree on the extra juiciness of Central Asia, and I’ve been reading for a while now about a “New Great Game”, with Russia, China and the US vying for influence in the region.

  11. Phil: I may not have been clear in my comments, but I agree with you that NATO will do bumkus in the event of limited Russian incursions in Baltic states. If anything NATO should be acting now to bolster Baltic state defenses so as to raise the costs of even a limited Russian incursion. And that will not happen.

    Oh wait–I just read that the US is giving Moldova the equivalent of one fifth of John Key’s annual income to bolster its defenses. That will show Putin whose boss!

    I agree that Central Asia is a more important strategic arena.

  12. LA:

    Interesting. Let’s see if those rotations actually amount to something other than a token gesture of reassurance. When I wrote about bolstering defenses so as to raise the costs of Russian incursions I was thinking of something more permanent that would serve as a deterrent trip wire, but perhaps regular rotations of ground forces will suffice. Then again…

  13. Don’t forget the Baltic Air Policing mission, which sees permanent commitment of NATO forces to Siualai airbase in Lithuania. US forces are there now, to be relieved by a Polish-Danish-British squadron in May:

    PS: I read with interest Malcolm McKinnon’s article in the Dominion Post on Ukraine. Did you catch it? It seems to be gone from their website, but I can email you a transcript if you’d like.

  14. AL:

    I read that the troop rotations would be in addition to the BAP commitment, which could also be reinforced.

    I did not see the McKinnon article. Feel free to share it with me at

  15. The BAP has been reinforced in response to the Crimea crisis but it’s not clear if this is temporary or permanent. But BAP has always been seen as primarily a first-perimeter measure rather than a fully fledged defensive mechanism. It is the established policy of the militaries of all three Baltic states that, in the event of a Russian attack, they will not attempt to defend their entire territory but will concentrate on maintaining national redoubts in two or three strategic strongpoints and wait for NATO reinforcement.

    I’ve emailed you McKinnon’s article.

  16. Chris – poor wording but my point was only Poland would be defended seriously in military terms and the possibility is moot because Putin is not stupid. EU would be forced to act with economic sanctions that would hit Russia. He will gain far more from taking over again in Central Asia. Do you have any references to decent articles on the new Great Game?

  17. I think the big bear is looking East now, and after all why not, what a sell out the USSR was, I expect the bear to tell USA off, where is USA funding going to come from, US citizens? China?

  18. Paul: Please refrain from using profanity and racist words. I have deleted them from your last comment.

  19. Phil, sorry for the late reply. No references, sorry, because I’m pretty sure I’ve never read any **decent** articles on the New Great Game. I was referring to stuff generally I’ve read on the topic on the always interesting but often dodgy internet.

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