The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established in 1949 as a military alliance of 12, now 28, European and two North American countries that constitutes a system of collective defense. The process of joining is governed by Article 10 of the NATO Treaty which allows for invitation to European states only and by subsequent agreements. Countries wishing to join must meet certain requirements and complete a multi-step process involving political dialogue and military integration. The accession process is overseen by the NATO Council. As of June 2022, five additional states have formally informed NATO of their membership bid: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Georgia, Sweden, and Ukraine.
The founding purpose of NATO was to act as a powerful deterrent against military aggression and to unify and strengthen Western Allies’ military response to a possible invasion of Western Europe by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw pact allies. NATO’s success was that throughout the entire period of the cold war, NATO forces were not involved in a single military engagement.
Today, the fate of Europe hinges on NATO more than any time since the fall of the Soviet Union. Even historically neutral nations like Sweden and Finland have applied to join NATO, seeing Article 5 as the best guarantor of security and sovereignty: attack against one is attack against all.
At a landmark summit in Madrid on June 28-30, NATO unveiled a new once-in-a- decade ‘Strategic Concept’-its broad mission statement for a larger and stronger NATO. In a radical upgradation of its defences, NATO has raised its Rapid Response Force from 40,000 to more than 300,000 troops; a combination of land, sea and air assets which have already been sent to countries bordering Russia to boost NATO troops. On 29 June, the US also announced increased American troop deployments across Europe. From a ‘Strategic Partner’ status in 2010, Russia has been named the most significant and direct threat to allies’ security. China-some 3700 miles from the Atlantic-was also named as a source of ‘systemic challenges.’
The updated strategy also addresses newer forms of warfare, from cyber and artificial intelligence to disinformation. Climate change was also high on the agenda, and, for the first time, it was recognized as the ‘defining challenge of our time’, by NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg. Energy Security and Food security were also mentioned in the declaration.
Russia’s February 24 full scale invasion of Ukraine Has, thus, given‘rebirth’ to NATO, remarkably energized it, strengthened the Euro-Atlantic alliance,and put the European nations on high alert. Even earlier, NATO’s role had expanded to match Russia’s resurgence. Before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, NATO’s eastern members hosted no foreign troops. Afterward, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland received small battle groups of around a thousand each to symbolically ensure that any Russian aggression would be against NATO forces too and, in that eventuality, would thus trigger a full-scale response.
Building on these symbolic developments, discussions at the Madrid Summit involved expanding these defenses into brigades that can repel a Russian invasion. NATO also announced it will devise a comprehensive package to train and equip the Ukrainian armed forces. In addition, four new battle groups are being established in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia, reflecting a growing focus toward the Black Searegion blockaded by Russia.
Heightened spending has lent urgency to the target of each NATO member allocating 2% of its GDP to defence that many European nations until now had baulked at. For decades the US has been leaning on Europe to spend more on defence to the extent of previous US President Donald Trump threatening to walk out of NATO. The price of Europe’s military underinvestment became poignant as Russian tanks and artillery started rolling; just days into the war Germany announced a substantial increase of over a hundred billion dollars in military spending realizing that alongside economic strength strong military is also needed.
Paradoxically, it is NATO’s expansion in recent years with certain red lines crossed that had provided a reason for Russia to invade Ukraine. It is not as if NATO and Russia have always been enemies. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991,NATO and Russia frequently cooperated. Russia helped NATO negotiate an end to the 1992-1995 Bosnia war and then joined the peace accord implementation force. Still, NATO has since undergone five stages of expansion, while engaging in military operations in the Balkans, Middle East, and Africa.
Russia has always been suspicious of the bloc’s expansion-especially regarding Ukraine. When NATO was negotiating to admit Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary in 1997, it was made explicitly clear to Russia that Ukraine was ‘off limits’, hence there was a NATO-Ukraine Charter, which codified the relations between the bloc and a nation that was always intended to be outside. Several other rounds of NATO expansion continued during which Russia grumbled but gritted its teeth.
In 2008 Russia proposed a new European Security Treaty into which NATO members and Russia could be subsumed. The US rejected it outright, military experts say it was a blunder to do so, ‘at least the conversation could have been kept going’. At the NATO Summit in Bucharest the US President George W Bush alarmed everyone by proposing an action plan for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, which, however, remained on paper, repeated year after year in the summit declarations as a self- fulfilling prophecy. This was used by Russia for its own purposes.
Russia believes NATO has been encroaching on its area of political influence by accepting new members from eastern Europe-and thinks that admitting Ukraine would bring NATO into its backyard.In 2013, when the US engineered a regime change in Ukraine, Russia used it to justify annexation of Crimea. Thereafter, Ukraine made it a priority to join NATO. During its yearlong military buildup at the borders of Ukraine in 2021, Russia asked Ukraine to declare neutral status, but Ukraine dug its heels. History, thus, repeated itself in 2022 with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Ukraine is not a member ofNATO; thus, NATO is not obliged to come to its defence and decided against directly engaging with Russia as it would mean an all-out war. For this reason, NATO also refused a no-fly-zone over Ukraine. Individual NATO members are providing weapons to Ukraine such as missiles and armoured vehicles. With the geopolitical reality staring on its face, Ukraine has accepted that it cannot join NATO at present.Ukraine’s President V Zelensky spoke virtually at the Madrid Summit and appealed for $5b per month for its defence and protection.
In Madrid, Finland and Sweden were invited to join NATO after Turkey dropped its objection and the two nations signed a joint security pact with Turkey agreeing to clamp down on the activities of Kurdish separatists. NATO members must be democracies, treat minorities fairly, commit to resolving conflicts peacefully, help one another in the event of armed attack, and provide military support to the alliance. Likely to join within 2022, both nations have powerful and significant militaries; Finland adds 830miles of NATO border to Russia, ‘effectively making the Baltic Sea a NATO lake’. Finland already spends 2% of its GDP on defence, Sweden said it will do so “as soon as possible”.
Russia is resigned to their membership as the two countries have long been tightly integrated with NATO, through the Partnership for Peace Programme (Pfp). It is not clear at this stage whether NATO forces will be stationed on their soil, which might have serious consequences. Once ratification in the allied parliaments is done which could take a year, these two states will be covered by Art 5 and will come under the US’s protective nuclear umbrella.NATO may have failed to prevent a conflict in Europe, but this is because no member has yet been attacked.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine as a preemptive strike to stop Ukraine joining NATO has had a ricocheting and opposite effect-more expansion of NATO on the borders of Russia- leaving Russia in an even more vulnerable position. Originally 12, Finland and Sweden will take the membership to 32. The Russian war has changed the security balance in Europe, but not in the way Russia intended it. With the aim of strengthening itself, Russia now faces an alliance more united than any other time since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.On June 25 Russia threatened it would arm Belarus, a close ally, with Russian nuclear weapons and nuclear capable missiles.
At the Summit, other Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania called for armed NATO divisional headquarters to be stationed in each country. Lithuania is currently in conflict with Russia about Russian supplies being denied access to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between it and Poland, in compliance with EU sanctions. Estonia has complained of repeated incursion by Russian military helicopters into its airspace in recent days.
China’s backing of Russia has brought China into sharp focus of NATO. The bloc is expanding its remit to include a resurgent China. Notably Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand were invited to the NATO Summitas observers for the first time. Military experts have noted that history deserves to be recalled: after the end of WWI in 1919, Hitler leveraged German anger regarding onerous war reparations to justify his Third Reich. Significantly, NATO is not only expanding its membership, but it is also linking events in Europe with the US allies in the Pacific for the first time. With Russia already calling the expansion deal ‘destabilizing’,the question being asked is whether a more powerful and resurgent NATO risks once again dividing the world into hostile blocs!
Now comes the point how China retaliates as its Asian neighbours draw closer to NATO. At the recent Shangri La dialogue in Singapore, the US insisted, “we do not seek a new cold war, an Asian NATO or a region split into hostile blocs.” But when Asian security becomes chiefly about containing China, just like European security was all about deterring Russia, China might decide they are so isolated by western security architecture that they have no choice but to try and destroy it. The closer South Korea and Japan ally to NATO, the closer China ally with Russia.
Clearly Ukraine war has changed the European security architecture, with a new iron curtain dividing the continent in two, on the one side a revisionist Russia, and on the other, 40 European states, not all are in EU or NATO. Membership is not automatic and requires consent of all the member states including 67 US legislators when questions may still be raised (as in the case of Afghanistan) why America should come to the defense of any other country. NATO in the last five years spent a lot of time talking about China but were still not ready when Russia invaded a neighbor. The Russian invasion has shifted public attitudes swiftly, but are the lessons of history being forgotten?The rush to counter Russia in Ukraine may yet yield to sober thoughts at what the members really want their alliance to be and what inviting Sweden and Finland entails. There are rising internal political contradictions in some European countries too, such as Germany, Italy, and France.Europe may be at war with Russia today, tomorrow it willhave to find a way to work with its eastern neighbour. Where does it leave countries like India which is clearly seen as central to the emerging new international order; will it see the revival of non-alignment as well?
(Author is former Indian Ambassador. She also served as Counsellor/ Minister dealing with Trade Policy at the Indian Embassy in Brussels, accredited to EU, Belgium and Luxembourg. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).