The current crisis in Ukraine has offered the opportunity to the “NATO-skeptics” on the one hand to criticize again the Alliance of passivity, on the other hand to renew their convictions towards a weak NATO. The emergence of skepticism was favored by a few years in which the Alliance’s ability to respond, especially during crisis periods, seemed to be non-existent or its impact too small compared to the magnitude of the crisis, Ukraine and Georgia being the most notable such episodes. Hence the question mark regarding NATO’s utility for the European continent. But is NATO weak or just a relic of the Cold War, or can it still play an important role on the European international relations stage?
Short historical context
Signs that the Soviet Union might collapse began to emerge in the early and mid 80’s. But the bulk of the Soviet political class did not have the ability to understand them. One of the few Russian politicians that eventually did was Mikhail Gorbachev. But Glasnost and Perestroika came too late and regardless, they could still not change in just a few years a decades-old system which still enjoyed considerable support - especially among the military -. The Soviet Union was by now caught in a vicious circle which imposed the necessity of reform in order to avoid imminent collapse, but if reforms were implemented the collapse would still occur, only that faster than if no reforms would have been made to begin with. Gorbachev foresaw the first possibility, but not the second. Thus Glasnost and Perestroika, even though they were meant to save the Soviet Union, paradoxically they hastened its end, which formally occurred in 1991.
What followed was a weak Russian state, which allowed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to begin a process of expansion that lasted 14 years (1991-2005) and which absorbed former members of the Warsaw Pact such as Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic States, thus extending to Russia’s borders. NATO’s expansion occurred simultaneously with the economic strengthening of Western Europe and the intensification of the European construction process, a combination that quickly led to the emergence among the western states of a false sense of security. Consequently the Alliance was no longer a priority. For these countries the Russian threat was in the past and it was not to resurface anytime soon. The error in this judgment was that Russia doesn’t need the borders it had before 1991 to be a threat, especially to Eastern and Central Europe. In fact Russia doesn’t even have to be a developed state to represent a threat to begin with. As history has proven repeatedly, no matter how weak Russia was internally, its huge size itself and its enormous amount of natural resources provided the means though which it remained a threat first to its own periphery and than to the countries West of the periphery.
In the first half of the 2000s, Putin managed to solve many of Russia’s internal problems – political problems mainly – and took the country out of a decade-long sleep. By taking advantage of the divisions between the Europeans and by the almost obsessive U.S. involvement in the Middle East, Russia began to gradually return to the forefront of European international relations. This re-emergence started almost simultaneously with the end of NATO’s expansion process. A period of several years in which Russia partially restored its old sphere of influence followed, in areas such as Central Asia and parts of Eastern and Central Europe. To achieve this it used the tools by now characteristic to Russia: coups (e.g. Kyrgyzstan), creating domestic instability (e.g. Kyrgyzstan, Romania), energy (almost the entire European continent) and of course military intervention (e.g. Georgia). It should however be noted that Russia could not and will not be able to restore its sphere of influence which it had before 1991 because NATO is already extended well beyond the old NATO-Warsaw Pact borders.
NATO’s relevance to Western Europe
As stated above, NATO’s expansion, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economic strengthening of Western Europe and the process of European construction – especially in the 90’s and early 2000s - led to the emergence of a false sense of security, most of which it so happens that they are also NATO members. The Western Europeans gradually began to reduce military spending as well and consequently their contribution to NATO too. Conflicts of interest among NATO allies also appeared on several occasions: during the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, due to the rapprochement Western Europe and Russia, and more recently due to the civil war in Syria, the civil war in Libya and again because of Russia. Obviously in the absence of a common enemy, as the Soviet Union was for 42 years, the Europeans tended to return to the disastrous policies they employed before the Second World War. Currently there are two camps in Western Europe with different views on the role that NATO should have in European international relations:
- the first camp, led by Germany, focuses on cooperation with Russia mainly due to commercial and geopolitical concerns, with NATO theoretically retaining its role of guarantor of military security. However, with Belarus and Poland between her and Russia, it’s hard to imagine that Germany actually takes the idea of a Russian attack seriously, which in turn questions the relevance of NATO. If this assumption is correct than we have the geographic reason between Germany’s geopolitical rapprochement to Russia in the past 10 years;
- the second camp, led by France, is composed of the countries that have a lower level of economic and geopolitical cooperation with Russia, but which sell military equipment and military technology and want NATO to become the means of exerting influence outside Europe.
Ironically though, between 1991 and 2011 there were numerous overt NATO operations because realistically speaking the U.S. doesn’t even need the military contributions of its European partners anymore in order to intervene militarily - a notable exception is the United Kingdom – and so it doesn’t need their approval either.
NATO’s relevance to Central and Eastern Europe
As in Western Europe, this geographic area has its differences of opinion too:
- the first category is that of the states which view Russia with great suspicion, and for whom the Russian military threat is very much real - not necessarily at them, but rather at their neighbors - and therefore would prefer the adoption of a tougher stance and a greater level of involvement by NATO in Central and Eastern Europe. Here we include countries such as Poland, the Baltic States and of course Romania;
- the second category is composed of smaller states such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which by virtue of their geographical location have a less hostile attitude towards Russia, but maintain of reservations which led for example to the creation of the Visegrad Group between Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which aims to be a regional alliance meant to compensate to some extent the lack of defensive capability on behalf of NATO.
In order to avoid being misunderstood I must underline that in truth it’s unlikely that any European country views Russia with too much trust, no matter where it is positioned, but in geopolitics more often than not the determining factor is not trust, but interests, needs and especially geography. Moreover, geography can influence the level of trust. So we can understand why Germany for example has a lesser hostile and defensive attitude towards Russia than Poland or the Baltic States, but it’s difficult to understand exactly how Western European countries imagined that they could sign economic and military deals with Russia without suffering any future geopolitical consequences. It’s difficult to understand because there are historical precedents, because Central and Eastern European countries have given for years warnings regarding Russia’s intentions, but also because a policy of interdependence with Russia - which Germany seems to have employed in the last decade - can only hinder and delay the European construction plan, especially and paradoxical Germany’s plan. Homogenization of the European Union and close economic relations with Russia are two incompatible policies because Russia’s geography will always impose the need for finding ways of creating dissensions and divisions exactly where the European political elite is trying to create common ground.
This was actually the strategy Russia used between 91′ and now. It seemed that Russia drew its lessons from the Cold War and tried as much as possible not to become a threat great enough to cause Western Europe to bind back together again under American – and NATO – flag. Instead, it tried to create divisions between the NATO and the EU members in order to create for itself room to maneuver in Central and Eastern Europe. So far this strategy has worked.
NATO’s relevance for the U.S.
The United States, I would say fortunately for the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, has a far more complex strategy in regards to NATO, which it uses to:
- maintain military superiority in Europe and use that advantage to put pressure on the European countries. Admittedly, this advantage is kept with a great degree of “help” from the Europeans, whom in their incontrollable urge to cut military spending, simply provided the Americans with a means to an end. If in 1980 the European troops composed approximately 40% of all NATO forces, starting with 1991 this percentage gradually decreased to aproximately 30 %;
- to maintain the balance of power in Europe. This strategy is not new, being applied quite successfully by the British Empire in the 19th century. And it’s particularly effective in preventing a German-Russian alliance, which would have potentially disastrous effects;
- to contain Russian influence.
Okay, so how and why the Americans would be interested in a reorientation of NATO to Eastern and Central Europe?
The last 14 years have shown to the United States that it can not find serious support among western European countries anymore. European geopolitical interests are too diverse and often diametrically opposed to the those of the Americans. But one thing is certain: Eastern and Central Europe is still and will always be threatened by Russia. And that means that the states in this geographic space and the United States will always have a common interest. Or for the balance of power strategy and for containing Russian influence to be effectively achieved, the U.S. needs allies with common interests whom are well positioned geographically as well. Since Western Europe hardly meets these criteria, we can understand the gradual positioning of military forces in Poland and Romania, plans which if we remember correctly began to take shape during the Bush mandate. We should also expect that Russia’s actions in Ukraine to accelerate the shift of NATO’s interest eastwards.
Realistically speaking, the only serious threat to U.S. power can arise only in the Eurasian space, provided the combination of Russia’s natural resources and Europe’s industrial power are combined. For this reason we can be sure that U.S interest towards Europe will persist, even if not always at the same level. This in turn arguments in the favor of NATO usefulness. For Romania, as a country located on the periphery of Russia, NATO remains and will remain the only viable option in ensuring its military security and to a certain extent its informational one too. Even if by absurd guarantees are made by the Western European countries, they could not be considered a serious option due to the division of the European continent and the variety of interests that characterized it since the Early Middle Ages, which means there will always be states either too afraid of Russia, or inclined to work with it. Besides, Romania has a negative historical precedent in the inter-war period, when European guarantees led the country to the brink of disaster. And coincidentally or not, the current course which the relations between Russia and Western Europe took was nearly identical to the inter-war one.