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Good work, Volodya! Putin resurrects NATO

Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column. 

PARIS — Barely two years after French President Emmanuel Macron declared it “brain-dead,” NATO has been resurrected by Russia’s threats over Ukraine, leaving the rusty but trusty United States-led defense alliance the only game in town for European security. 

How that serves Moscow’s decades-old strategic goal of pushing the U.S. out of Europe to better dominate the Continent, only Russian President Vladimir Putin knows. But to those of us not privy to his endgame, it seems counterintuitive, to say the least. 

Whatever Putin eventually chooses to do about Ukraine, if his aim was to weaken the Western alliance he has unquestionably scored a number of own goals.  

For one, he has boosted the appetite for NATO membership — or at least the determination to keep that option open — in Sweden and Finland. Both Nordic nations remained militarily unaligned when they joined the European Union after the Cold War but have been cooperating increasingly closely with the Atlantic alliance since Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

Additionally, his public ultimatums have forced even the least enthusiastic NATO members into a corner where they must reaffirm the alliance’s “open-door” policy, despite long-standing misgivings about the wisdom of admitting Ukraine and Georgia. No one wants to appease Putin with 100,000 Russian troops at Ukraine’s borders. 

The recent forced resignation of Germany’s navy chief, after voicing understanding for the Kremlin leader and saying that Crimea would never return to Ukraine — both widely held views among Berlin’s ruling elites — shows this clearly. 

By insisting on a Cold War-style “superpower-to-superpower” negotiation format with the U.S., and disdainfully rejecting any place for the EU at the table, Russia has also pulled the rug out from under those in Paris, Berlin and Brussels who dream of a new European security architecture devised among themselves. 

You can forget Macron’s call in a European Parliament speech last week for EU leaders to draw up their own blueprint for a new security order to be put to NATO and then Russia — that was probably more of an electoral exercise for back home than a serious diplomatic initiative anyway, given the EU’s well-known divisions on the subject. 

Finally, and rather ironically, Putin’s grandstanding has also dragged the U.S. back deeper into European security, just when two successive American presidents had tried to pivot Washington’s strategic focus toward China, and just as President Joe Biden was quietly angling to pass more of the European security burden on to the EU. We finally have a White House that is willing to embrace greater European “strategic autonomy” but instead finds itself dealing with European security day and night.  

Whether or not Russia launches military action in Ukraine once again — and Putin has raised the stakes so high that he may now need a big concession to back down peacefully — this crisis is bound to shape the kind of NATO that emerges from a landmark summit in June, where the alliance will adopt a new strategic concept for the first time in over a decade and pick the next secretary-general. 

The Russian threat, which had withered to a residual concern in the alliance’s previous strategy — far less pressing than fighting terrorism or crisis management and stabilization missions in far-flung places such as Afghanistan and Iraq — is now back, front and center. 

NATO faces increased pressure from its eastern members, those who endured Soviet domination, to shift from its current reinforcement strategy with minimal permanent forces on the eastern flank to a military posture closer to Cold War-style “forward defense.” This includes more troops and equipment positioned near the front line in response to Russian deployments in Belarus and around Ukraine. 

We are already seeing the first signs of this with the United Kingdom sending more troops to the Baltic states and Poland, and France offering to do the same in Romania, where the NATO supreme allied commander has recommended a ground presence, according to Der Spiegel magazine. The U.S. is also likely to deploy more enablers to the eastern flank, while previously coy NATO allies such as Spain are now planning to send warships to the Black Sea. 

The net result of Russia’s threatening behavior will clearly be to increase the NATO military footprint in Moscow’s former Eastern European satellites, not to remove Western forces from those countries as Putin has demanded.  

European countries only have one set of armed forces, and needs on the Eastern front are likely to loom larger in the coming months, as opposed to those in the Sahel or in Libya, where the Union is now or might have otherwise become engaged. 

To be sure, the EU will still have its own role, especially if it comes to tougher economic sanctions against Moscow or reducing European dependence on Russian gas. But it will not be at the table, shaping Europe’s future security architecture. 

This crisis may well also affect the profile of the next NATO secretary-general. After two successive incumbents from Nordic nations outside EU defense efforts, several European governments, but especially France, were determined to appoint a more pro-European candidate from a core EU country. Someone who could oversee a gradual shift to European allies taking more responsibility for their own continent, with America reassuringly present in the background. 

However, with the struggle over Ukraine set to endure and possibly escalate, there is sure to be pressure from Washington, London and Warsaw to choose a traditional Atlanticist who takes a firm line on Russia instead. Putin will only have himself to blame if we end up with a new Cold Warrior at NATO HQ for the next four years, rather than someone who wants to see the alliance evolve with a greater European leadership role. 

All these consequences appear to be baked in, even before a single shot has been fired — if one ever is. 

So perhaps it is time to stop assuming that Putin is a master strategist who knows how to exploit Europe’s weaknesses and divisions, and America’s inconstancy and penchant for distraction. His conduct of this crisis runs counter to Moscow’s own stated objectives.  

Putin may carry a big bazooka, but it seems to be aimed at his own foot. 

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