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In Madrid, NATO must focus on the long term

Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and host of the weekly podcast “World Review with Ivo Daalder.” 

Before going to war, Russian President Vladimir Putin believed NATO allies were too divided and weak to respond effectively to his country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine — he was wrong. Instead, NATO and the West responded swiftly, imposing severe sanctions, arming Ukraine and bolstering military deployments to the alliance’s east.  

Today, NATO is stronger and more united than at any point since the end of the Cold War. But what about tomorrow? 

This is the question hanging over the NATO summit in Madrid this week — whether the alliance can sustain the remarkable unity it has displayed so far, and if it will effectively respond to the challenge Russia’s invasion poses not only to Ukraine but to Euro-Atlantic security. 

While this year’s first two summits demonstrated the alliance’s resolve in the face of Russia’s aggression, this third one must focus on the long term. In Madrid, NATO leaders will have to answer three critical questions: What is the threat NATO seeks to counter? How will it defend against that threat? And who will it come to include as members? 

Clearly, Russia has reemerged as a principal threat. Its aggression not only violates international law and numerous security commitments Moscow signed in the wake of the Cold War, it has also reminded all NATO members that a military attack on their territory remains a very real possibility. 

Even so, while many members, especially those located nearest to Russia, will want NATO to singularly focus on this threat, others will insist on a broader perspective. As such, the new Strategic Concept that leaders will adopt in Madrid will likely reiterate NATO’s “360-degree approach,” underscoring the need to protect the alliance against threats from any direction. And the concept will, for the first time, include China among the threats it needs to be concerned about. 

All this raises the question of prioritization. Can NATO truly afford to focus on all threats simultaneously — threats from Russia to its east, terrorism and instability to its south, North Korea to its west and China from every direction? The alliance has limited military means, and it will take years before the promised increases in military spending will be translated into real capabilities. So, preparing for every threat necessarily means not preparing maximally for any. 

As such, for now, the alliance needs to concentrate on countering Russia. Even though Russia’s military has been battered significantly, NATO territory — not least in the Baltics — remains both exposed and in Putin’s crosshairs. Ensuring its defense against any military attack must be the immediate priority.  

And how should NATO’s most exposed positions be defended? The Baltic states have argued that it needs to replace its tripwire defense with sufficient force on their territories to repel any Russian attack from the outset. At minimum, they want the battalion-sized forces of 1,000 troops on their territories to be increased to a combat brigade, which typically consists of 5,000 troops or more. They seek an increase in air and naval defenses too. 

Along these lines, Germany, Britain and Canada have already pledged to make additional forces available. And the United States will likely announce a substantial permanent increase in its European-deployed forces, which in the wake of the Russian invasion already number 100,000. All NATO countries will pledge significant increases in deployable land, air and naval forces as well. 

Members of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment deploy to Germany to reassure NATO allies, deter Russian aggression and to be prepared to support a range of other requirements in the region on March 2, 2022 in Savannah, Georgia.

The big question then will be how much of this additional capability will need to be deployed forward on a permanent basis. 

The countries most exposed to Russia want as many forces on their territory as possible. But those providing troops will insist on more flexibility, both because the cost of permanent deployments is high, and also because their preparedness will suffer without constant training and exercise, which is easier on their home turf.  

Given this, Baltic leaders pressing for bigger permanent deployments of NATO forces on their territory will likely be disappointed. Some increases will happen — indeed, today NATO has 40,000 troops in the east under its command, ten times what it deployed there last October. But instead, the focus will be on increasing the availability of military forces for rapid deployment, to deter and defend against a Russian attack along a line that now stretches thousands of kilometers from the Barents to the Black Sea. 

This elongated defensive perimeter is a result of not just Russia’s aggression and the threat it poses to NATO territory, but also Finland’s and Sweden’s decision to seek the security of NATO membership. And the alliance will need to finalize a membership invitation to both countries in Madrid, which will, of course, require overcoming Turkey’s unexpected opposition to both countries’ accession. 

Ankara has a long history of exploiting NATO’s need for consensus to meet its own ends, and at some point, allies will balk at paying the price for its agreement. But this isn’t the time. Finland’s and Sweden’s decision to join NATO is a historic defeat for Russia, and it will significantly bolster NATO’s defenses, not least of the Baltic states. U.S. President Joe Biden and other NATO leaders will have to employ all their diplomatic skills — and muscle — to get Turkey to agree. 

Even if successful, however, NATO leaders will then have to confront another difficult question of enlargement — the status of Ukraine. In 2008, a deeply divided NATO promised that Ukraine (and Georgia) “will become members of NATO.” But the alliance did little to make that a reality — with the consequence that Russia could attack Ukraine, secure in knowing it wouldn’t directly intervene. 

NATO’s ambiguous stance on Ukrainian membership is untenable — especially now the European Union has moved to offer Kyiv candidate status. How could Ukraine be a member of the EU but not of NATO, assuming that is what it wants? In recent weeks, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials have downplayed their interest in joining NATO — but they’ve still all insisted that any negotiated settlement of its conflict with Russia would require security guarantees from major NATO powers. 

Alliance leaders may wish to paper over their differences regarding Ukraine’s future relationship with NATO. But with hundreds of Ukrainians dying each week in defense of not only their country but the democracy and freedom for which NATO stands, they can no longer avoid this issue.  

NATO won’t be whole until it includes all those in Europe who stand for freedom and democracy. The future of the alliance demands no less.

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