Ukraine may be in crisis – NATO is not

The alliance is at a crossroads, says Benjamin Zyla. But the Wales Summit can offer direction.
By: /
September 4, 2014
Professor in the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa

Historians and political scientists tend to yearn for turning points. The history of the Atlantic Alliance has been no exception to this and, in scholarly analysis, one ripe with defining moments. Since the signing of the Washington Treaty on April 4, 1949, NATO has been a principal witness to some of the seminal events of the Cold War, from the Korean War that paved the way for the creation of NATO’s integrated military command structure and the integration of West Germany into the alliance in 1955, to the travails of Suez and Vietnam. Its members have had to face the perils of the Berlin blockade and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s and confront the spectre of nuclear war, and have sealed forward through time in seas that were sometimes calm, sometimes stormy. A sense of crisis has often accompanied the alliance on its long and sometimes turbulent path through its sixty-fifth year.

The current crisis in Ukraine is no exception in this regard; it is very close to NATO members. It created a new sense of crisis in Europe because Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, for example, share a border with Ukraine and feel indirectly threatened by Russia while Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania actually maintain a border directly with Russia, which makes the threat even more eminent.

But NATO is not in crisis, it is at crossroads, and the Ukrainian conflict is not the only issue that NATO leaders must discuss at their summit meeting in Newport, Wales, which started Thursday.

The idea of NATO going global is done. At the meeting, the politicians will turn a page of NATO’s global presence. The failing experience to bring peace, security and development to Afghanistan as well as the most recent conflicts in Libya and now ISIS in Iraq have made a strategic reorientation of NATO towards the Pacific unlikely. In other words, the U.S. model of a global NATO reaching deeper into the Pacific is dead, in part because the Europeans are unable to do force projection as the U.S. does. NATO also should not go to Asia because of a risk of fostering regional competition, which would make the security dilemma there even worse.

What the summit needs to do primarily is to keep the allies allied — that is, to keep the alliance together by reassuring the new member states of the value of their membership. Especially the Baltic states and those that share a border with Ukraine have become nervous about the statements from the Kremlin this week that Russia could occupy Ukraine within two weeks if it wanted to. This type of language and the images that Putin sends out are reflective of a macho behaviour and intend to cover up deeper national problems. NATO should not respond in kind by using similar language or images as the outgoing Secretary General has done in recent weeks, but rather disarm verbally. Having said that, NATO should renew its insurance policy for help (Article 5) and reassure its Baltic member states that NATO will stand by them against a Russian threat.

While debating contemporary security issues, NATO leaders should recall some of the success stories that the alliance can show for, and tone down the military and rhetorical sabre rattling. Above all, its enlargement process helped to denationalize and civilianize the armed forces of Central and Eastern European countries and to increase transparency, trust and accountability among the new membership, all of which are not minor accomplishments. In light of this, the Summit should provide a clear perspective for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro, who want to join the alliance, and to underline the political character of the alliance as a crisis management organization.

The Summit must also provide some political guidance on Afghanistan, especially on civil-military as well as operational issues in light of the end of the ISAF mission later this year. NATO’s Afghanistan campaign has been a catalyst in terms of strengthening interoperability among the NATO members and underlining the importance of so-called partnership countries. What not many people realize is that NATO discusses its relations with, for example, Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia, Australia, and New Zealand under the partnership heading. What is needed from the summit here is explicit political guidance on how the alliance wants to maintain these partnerships and to further flush out what partners are there for and what they are supposed to do for NATO. NATO leaders must also decide on its plans how to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces from the start of next year as well as the future financial sustainment of the country and its political institutions.