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NATO is back where it belongs: On the defensive

NATO was founded in the name of collective defense against the Soviet Union. Emphasis on "defense."

A month into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden is in Brussels for an emergency meeting of NATO’s leaders. The onus on those leaders is to show continued solidarity even as relatively minor disagreements over matters like supplying old Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine threaten to rupture what’s been a highly coordinated response.

But there’s something bigger playing out at this summit: Moscow’s aggression has helped cut through nearly three decades of debate about NATO’s purpose and provoked an overdue return to form.

The North Atlantic Treaty’s original signers banded together as a defensive alliance to counter the Soviet military threat to Western Europe. But after the Soviet Union’s collapse, NATO, the organization that was created to enforce the treaty, lacked a raison d’être, let alone a clear strategic goal, even as its membership eventually expanded to 30 countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to bring Ukraine back into the fold of Greater Russia by force has ironically given the bloc a new reason to exist — and it’s the exact same as the old reason.

Moscow’s onslaught has “given the alliance greater unity and purpose than it has known in decades,” former German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière and A. Wess Mitchell, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, wrote recently. “After years of complacency, allies are boosting defense spending, sending weapons to Ukraine, rushing reinforcements to NATO’s eastern flank, and finally thinking about diversifying their energy supplies.”

That clarity of purpose means the policy differences Biden faces this week are nothing compared to existential crisis the organization faced in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. After the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s eastern counterpart, disbanded in 1991, there were calls for NATO to do the same. And yet it persisted, looking for a new mission to preserve the trans-Atlantic ties the alliance enabled.

Putin’s decision to bring Ukraine back into the fold of Greater Russia by force has ironically given the bloc a new reason to exist.

Starting in the mid-1990s, it looked like the bloc would find new purpose as primarily a peacekeeping and stabilization force. NATO forces were deployed in Bosnia under U.N. authorization to enforce a maritime blockade and a no-fly zone. Then, in 1999, NATO unilaterally launched a bombing campaign to halt Yugoslavia’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attack by Al Qaeda, the U.S. for the first time invoked Article V of the North Atlantic Charter, which deems an attack on one member an attack on all. In its first mission outside Europe and North America, NATO took command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan for over a decade. Then, in 2011, it enforced a no-fly zone over Libya, a mission that soon expanded to provide air support for the rebels who then overthrew longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The Libya intervention especially became an obsession of Putin’s and heightened his denouncement of NATO’s aggressive ambitions and the threat of its rhetoric promoting democracy.

Simultaneously, the alliance has spent these last 30 years debating how many, if any, members of the former East bloc it should bring into the fold. Germany was more or less a gimme after formerly communist East Germany’s reunification with West Germany. The other potential applicants were a thornier issue, with several former Warsaw Pact countries pressing for admission soon after the Iron Curtain fell. These were all countries that had been subject to Soviet military threats and outright invasions, and they looked to NATO for protection.

Eventually the advocates for expansion won out as the central and eastern European countries implemented the reforms NATO had laid out as requirements. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were invited to join in 1997 and officially admitted in 1999. Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and the Baltic states — the last of which had actually been a part of the Soviet Union — joined in 2004, and from 2009 to 2020, four more Eastern European countries became full members.

Given its newly outward-facing mission and steady expansion, Russia found more and more reason to distrust NATO’s intentions. That was one of the pretexts Putin gave ahead of his invasion of Ukraine, even as NATO has slow-walked any potential membership for Ukraine and Georgia. This isn’t to say Putin’s response is justified, as my colleague Zeeshan Aleem has pointed out. It’s merely to note that the last three decades have provided ample fodder for Putin to use NATO as a rhetorical punching bag. But rather than prove the West's weakness, his misguided adventure in Ukraine has inadvertently undercut his arguments about NATO’s being the real aggressor.

The last three decades have provided ample fodder for Putin to use NATO as a rhetorical punching bag.

NATO’s renewed commitment to serve as a shield in Europe doesn’t directly benefit Ukraine in the immediate term. Ukraine remains on the outside looking in, a partner but not a member of the alliance. That status makes it unlikely that NATO — which operates on a consensus basis — would risk a full-on war with Russia. That’s how it should be, though. The principle of collective security and defense is inherently responsive, and NATO has drifted far afield from that in the name of justifying its continued existence.

There’s no guarantee that this surge of revitalized support from NATO members is going to last or that Biden’s Brussels trip will have the impact the U.S. hopes it does. National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Tuesday that there will likely be an announcement of new sanctions against Russia and additional enforcement measures for the already punishing economic isolation the West has implemented. But for now, the unifying threat a revisionist and resurgent Moscow poses has reoriented NATO to the east. In committing to a full-scale invasion of its neighbor, Russia has placed NATO back where it belongs: on the defensive.