Russia and NATO: A New Cold War?

This is the second in a series of posts from members of the Defence Studies Department’s Regional Security Research Centre, focusing on Russia and the implications of its increasingly assertive posture on the international stage. This post examines NATO’s response to recent Russian actions, particularly in Ukraine. It will be followed subsequent Mondays with posts on implications for the European Union, nuclear non-proliferation, and for Britain.


As my colleague Tracey German observed last week, Russia’s new military doctrine makes it abundantly clear that both NATO, and the wider West, are conceived as fundamental threats to Russia’s national security. As the war in Ukraine looks set to escalate, NATO finds itself walking a precarious tightrope between providing reassurance to member states on the alliance’s eastern flank, yet also keeping ajar the door to future cooperation. While it is impossible to predict exactly what course the conflict in the Ukraine will take, Russia’s increasing assertiveness on the international stage is providing the alliance with a renewed sense of purpose.

To understand why this is so requires stepping back – briefly – and surveying the wider arc of NATO’s post-Cold War evolution. Prior to events in the Ukraine, NATO was facing an uncertain future as it prepared to wind down its decade-long ISAF mission in Afghanistan. That mission was a double-edged sword for NATO; it gave the alliance a sense of purpose following 9/11 but it also fuelled internal dissonances within what was an already fractured alliance. In an edited volume I co-authored in 2013, NATO Beyond 9/11, we argued the difficulties that afflicted NATO’s mission in Afghanistan were only the latest manifestation of a long sequence of periodic crises over burden-sharing and alliance solidarity, military transformation, political decision-making, and relations with Russia and the EU. By 2012, the animating principles and purposes that had sustained NATO through the Cold War and post-Cold War seemed moribund; NATO was operationally exhausted, politically fractured and with little appetite to push forward further rounds of enlargement. America was rebalancing to Asia-Pacific, and member states were engaged in painful processes of defence cuts that appeared to signal a firm end to the West’s nation-building adventures of the 2000s. As NATO began winding down from Afghanistan in 2014, it thus found itself already preparing for the next phase of its post-Cold War evolution: a shift from NATO ‘deployed’ to NATO ‘prepared.’

Russian actions in Ukraine thus served to reinforce assumptions that were already shaping NATO’s agenda as it built towards the Wales Summit. Some NATO member states, notably Poland, had long lamented that NATO’s global expeditionary focus was a distraction from the ‘real’ business of collective defence. Still, it took Putin’s bold gamble in the Crimea and the steady escalation of conflict in the Ukraine to truly re-animate the debate over collective defence. NATO’s Newport Summit was inevitably dominated by the need to provide ‘visible assurance’ to nervous allies, through measures such as the Readiness Action Plan (RAP). Last week, NATO announced plans to move ahead with bolstering the NATO Response Force (NRF) as well as a Spearhead Force (SF) that could be deployed at short notice, while small command units will be established in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described the measures as the ‘biggest reinforcement of its collective defence since the end of the Cold War.’

But this narrative, one that re-conceptualises NATO as the bastion of collective defence in Europe against a resurgent Russia, warrants some scepticism. First, the idea that Russia’s actions have restored alliance solidarity may be attractive, but cracks in the façade are already beginning to show, not least over the pace, scope and funding of the deployments. In a recent speech in Washington Victoria Nuland called on all allies to contribute to NATO’s SF, criticising some member states for ‘slinking backward.’ Maintaining thousands of troops on high readiness is by no means cheap, but falling defence budgets across Europe has left only a handful of nations with the capacity to do so.  Second, it paints a somewhat rose-tinted image of a benevolent alliance standing up to Russian aggression. Russia’s actions may have been an unacceptable violation of international law and Ukrainian sovereignty as far as the West is concerned, but it is an uncomfortable reality that for many Russians, NATO’s hands are far from clean, viewing NATO’s enlargement as a deliberate encroachment into Russia’s historic sphere of influences. Such a view is readily dismissed by NATO leaders claiming Putin is denuded by a ‘false narrative,’ and that NATO enlargement was aimed at ‘helping Russia to be more secure – not less, as Moscow now claims.’

Such divergent perceptions should not be dismissed as mere tit-for-tat; they matter because they are fuelling a growing and potentially irreversible rift between Russia and the West that could define NATO’s future for the next generation. And perhaps this brings us to the heart of what is at stake here: does NATO – and the West – risk pushing Putin into a new Cold War through its increased military presence in the region and supply of arms to the Ukraine? Or is it a prudent, pragmatic and necessary response to blatant Russian aggression that must be stopped if a ‘Europe whole and free’ is to be preserved? To what extent does NATO’s increased military presence in the region bolster EU-led diplomatic efforts, or risk undermining them?

Opinion is starkly divided on these difficult questions, within both academia and in the wider policy and defence community. In a provocative article for Foreign Affairs, John Mearsheimer lays the blame for the crisis squarely on NATO’s shoulders claiming that NATO enlargement is at the core of the crisis and should be understood as a ‘central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.’ In a robust response, Stephen Sestanovich and Michael McFaul argue Mearsheimer overstates the influence of NATO expansion, claiming Putin’s actions must be understood less as a response to NATO or US policies but in terms of Russian internal political dynamics, and a flawed ideology that falsely viewed the West’s heavy hand at play in the Ukrainian uprisings beginning in November 2013.

NATO member states are also divided on what the most appropriate response should be. German and French officials have cautioned against arming Ukraine as they push ahead with efforts at forging a diplomatic solution, while the Obama administration is under growing pressure from both Republicans and Democrats to arm Ukrainian government forces. Obama’s response thus far has been to urge ‘strategic patience’, but such an approach finds short shrift amongst former NATO officials who have urged a stronger stance; former Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has warned Putin is likely to test NATO’s resolve by intervening in one of the Baltic states, while former Deputy SACEUR General Sir Richard Shirreff has launched a withering critique of the UK government’s weak response.

However, the crisis plays out, two things can be said with some certainty. First, Ukrainian membership of NATO is now off the table for the foreseeable future, a concession to Russia that will inevitably form part of any peace deal should it happen and a deliberate attempt to pave the way for future cooperation. This will be a bitter pill for Ukraine to swallow and NATO must share some blame for holding out a promise of membership that was arguably always ephemeral. Second, despite its internal divisions, the crisis has re-energised NATO. It remains to be seen whether Putin will force NATO’s hand, but the challenge remains how to balance providing necessary security guarantees to member states while keeping the door open to rebuilding relations with Russia. Perhaps the final word should be left to Poland’s Defense Minister: ‘we want good weather in Europe, but we understand the need to invest in umbrellas nonetheless.’

Image: US Secretary of State John Kerry listens as then NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen opens a special discussion about Ukraine for newly installed Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and fellow foreign ministers during a series of meetings at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 25, 2014. Courtesy of the US State Department.

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