It may be the political/military equivalent of a medical miracle, one worthy of the biblical raising of Lazarus. Almost single-handedly, “Dr.” Putin has managed to breathe new life into NATO. While there is little NATO can do militarily regarding Russian aggression in the Crimea, there are many steps that can be taken to impose political and economic consequences on Moscow and certainly measures to prepare NATO to respond should they attempt further action against Ukraine.
It was a near-death experience. By many standard measures – defense spending, deployable capabilities, logistics and sustainment, R&D and exercises – the Alliance was on its last leg. U.S. secretaries of defense from Donald Rumsfeld to Chuck Hagel had castigated our European allies for their failure to spend sufficient resources on defense or to apply available assets wisely. They also warned that Europe’s failure to assume a fair share of the burden of defending the continent was likely to cause the United States to pull back even more. The fact that absent the United States the other members of the Alliance spend nearly $300 billion annually on defense made the disparity between U.S. and allied capabilities all the more intolerable.
One of the major challenges facing NATO was the absence of a common threat. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the implications of the demise of the Warsaw Pact threat took hold in Europe, the divide in American and European views of what constituted a threat to national security grew. Despite collaboration in two major conflicts and a host of lesser operations, the political and ideological split between Europe and America has continued to widen. The Alliance’s inability to meet reasonable budgetary targets or to come together with respect to making prudent and strategic investments in future forces reflected a basic collapse of the political consensus that undergirded NATO for more than 50 years.
In a few short weeks, Vladimir Putin appears to have done more for Alliance solidarity than two decades of harangues by U.S. officials or warnings from Secretaries General. For the first time in more than half a century, naked force has been employed to change the political boundaries of a European nation. All Alliance members appreciate the dangers to their interests that stem from Putin’s attempts to salami slice Ukraine. The claim of a special responsibility for the security and political rights of ethnic and culturally-Russian populations is a direct threat not merely to the former Soviet Republics that are now members of NATO, but to the entire post-World War Two political restructuring of the continent.
NATO is already taking steps to address some of its perennial military shortcomings. NATO ministers are considering a range of measures in direct response both to Russia’s invasion of Crimea and to its troop mobilization along its border with Ukraine. The measures could include sending NATO soldiers and equipment to Eastern European allies, holding more exercises, ensuring NATO’s Response Force (NRF) could deploy more quickly, and reviewing NATO’s military plans. Enhancing the capabilities and responsiveness of the NRF is particularly important as a signal that NATO will match conventional aggression in the East with its own military forces.
Not long ago, NATO supporters were insisting that the Alliance would have to be expeditionary and accept the need to operate beyond Europe’s borders in order to remain relevant and for the United States to retain an interest in it. Now it turns out that NATO’s reason for living is much closer to home and quite straightforward. The central purpose of the Alliance remains what it always was: to ensure the freedom of its members from external threats. Vladimir Putin has reminded all 28 NATO governments how important this purpose is and, hence, the value of maintaining a militarily strong Alliance.