Estonian Defence League´s mortar platoon preparing for target shooting during NATO’s Exercise Steadfast Jazz in 2013
Early last month, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was quoted as saying that his organization, “always rises to every challenge, we stand ready to act together.” He went on to claim that, “NATO remains ready for the defense of all allies against any threat.” Bold words, certainly. Yet in examining NATO’s performance over the past decade and a half, nearly every word of that statement rings hollow. The emptiness of Rasmussen’s words are rightfully making Eastern European nations uneasy.
Since its intervention in the Balkans began in 1992, NATO’s rapacious expansion has been matched only by its underperformance. Following the collapse of the USSR and the virtual overnight disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, NATO began to lose its sense of purpose. Without the Soviet threat hanging over them, member states allowed their militaries to atrophy. Following the crises of the Balkans, NATO began to look outside of Europe for a new raison d’etre.
Even given NATO’s decline in capabilities and self-perceived decline in relevance, Russia nonetheless felt threatened by the organization’s expansion in the decade and a half following the collapse of the USSR. Consequently, Russia had-and continues to have-an incentive to act preemptively in Eastern European and Central Asian non-NATO member states in order to prevent the permanent loss of Russian influence. From the reaction of NATO to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and subsequently in Ukraine more recently, Russia, along with the rest of the world, has learned one key lesson: the only type of action NATO will respond to with force is the conventional military invasion of one of its member states.
This view of NATO is echoed in diplomatic circles. A senior US official, on condition of anonymity, recently remarked at an event at the University of Notre Dame that only “a gross violation of sovereignty” against a member state would likely prompt a forceful reaction by NATO. Non-member states should not expect the NATO cavalry coming to their rescue anytime soon. Even for member states, any sort of unconventional attack—including cyber-warfare, and so-called “hybrid warfare”—is unlikely to prompt any sort of NATO intervention.
The last twenty years have set the stage for a resurgent Russia to challenge the march of NATO and for the trans-Atlantic alliance to fail to respond. These failures endanger not only non-aligned states, but also peripheral NATO members, chiefly the Baltic countries.
Russia, buoyed by commodities exports, chiefly oil and natural gas, has embraced the revanchist policies of Vladimir Putin and embarked on a campaign to destabilize its periphery and reestablish the influence it lost at the end of the Cold War. To these ends, Russia has used the conflict in the Caucasus, repeated cyber-attacks on the Baltic states, the invasion of Georgia, and now the invasion of Ukraine as part of an overall strategy to train and test the capabilities of its increasingly modernized military. The targets of its training and probing efforts have grown in their importance while their means have become increasingly sophisticated. The Russian military that covertly infiltrated and subsequently annexed the Crimea is a far cry from the bumbling military that flattened Grozny.
Simultaneously, NATO has itself shown reluctance to engage in military operations unrelated to direct security threats to core members such as the UK or the US. Operations in Afghanistan and Libya were highly difficult to get NATO to meaningfully commit to. Where the alliance has agreed to commit, it has done so half-heartedly and its performance has been largely lackluster.
In a 2011 speech, former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates eviscerated the organization on these points:
“The [Afghanistan] mission has exposed significant shortcomings in NATO – in military capabilities, and in political will. Despite more than 2 million troops in uniform – NOT counting the U.S. military – NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25- to 40,000 troops.”
Regarding Libya, he was equally candid:
“It has become painfully clear that similar shortcomings — in capability and will — have the potential to jeopardize the alliance’s ability to conduct an integrated, effective and sustained air-sea campaign…. [While] every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission.”
Russia has clearly internalized the lessons of these words, even if NATO members themselves have not. Indeed, with the recent and largely unnoticed Russian cross-border abduction of a senior Estonian intelligence officer, one has to wonder what Russia has in store for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Each of the Baltic states is home to a sizeable ethnic-Russian minority population, with many others also speaking Russian. If Putin decides to “protect” these minorities and engage in the sort of covert warfare he has already tested out in eastern Ukraine, it would come as no great surprise if NATO decides the cost of defending the Baltic states is not worth the potential cost of escalation.
NATO, contrary to the confidence of its Secretary-General, does not rise to “every challenge”, does not “act together”, and will not “defend all allies against any threat”.
Chris Newton is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, pursuing a one-year fellowship with AVSI Foundation in Juba, South Sudan.