From Russia to Libya: NATO today

In July a NATO summit will be held in Warsaw. This is a chance to prove that it’s ready to defend member states from all threats, wherever they hail from.

In the collective imagination, NATO is a great defensive military alliance. But the implosion of the Soviet Union, between 1989 and 1992, left NATO without a fixed occupation. It reinvented itself, at first during the stabilisation of the Balkans in the ’90s and then again with its missions on foreign soil, particularly in Afghanistan and (briefly) in Libya. But it suffered a rude awakening in 2014 when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government annexed Crimea and actively supported the rebellion in Eastern Ukraine.

Reactions to these events have been contradictory. For some, NATO was once again engaged in what had been its original mission – going head to head with Russia. This was the prevailing sentiment, almost a sigh of relief, among Eastern European allies, who are never overly convinced of Moscow’s benevolence or the advisability of engaging in military actions in the Hindu Kush or the Middle East. Others, who don’t feel threatened by the Russian armed interference in Ukraine (the Donbass is far away), have had a hard time concealing their vexation. Russia has become an economic and energy partner for some European countries, especially Germany, France and Italy. Although paying lip service to Lithuanian and Polish apprehensions, most Western European capitals have tended to play down the need for military deterrence against Moscow. Aren’t the EU sanctions enough? Shouldn’t we rather join forces against Islamic State in Syria and the lethal brew of terrorism and jihadism that spans the Mediterranean and the Middle East? 

NATO has had to negotiate between these two extremes. It has engaged in military actions, in which Italy has taken part, to reassure its Asian and Baltic allies. But rotational deployment of a few hundred units, logistical set-ups and reduced-sized exercises cannot in any way be considered to be a display of aggressive intentions. This military dissuasion without any hint of escalation owes much to the converging views and division of roles between Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. The Chancellor has guaranteed European resolve on the sanctions; the US president has resisted strong domestic pressure to provide military aid (“lethal but defensive”) to Ukraine.

The NATO summit in Warsaw in July will maintain this balanced status quo. The timing is perfect, as it preempts the unknown quantities of 2017 – a new US president, elections in Germany and France, and the repercussions of London’s possible exit from the European Union (the strategic fallout from Brexit would be huge). NATO, however, performs a double political/military function that cannot be limited to deterring Russian attempts to re-establish areas of influence in Europe, albeit through force. Firstly, the Washington Treaty of 1949, in particular the key articles 3, 4 and 5, state that safety is a common good, shared across the Atlantic and among all European members. Second, it implicitly guarantees that the Americans will remain engaged in Europe through a multilateral framework. Neither of these could be taken for granted in 1949, nor can they today.

Dissuading Russia and its new military capacity is perhaps the most straightforward business among the many challenges NATO now finds itself facing. The message issued to Moscow is laconic: you don’t touch a member state. Whether Estonia or Canada, it makes no difference. In these terms, NATO can and must shed any offensive connotations: it must be clear that Russia has nothing to fear on a military level. It will then be up to the Russians to choose whether or not to engage in a relationship with NATO (or the EU) based on policies and ideas. If the fear, which explicitly surfaces in Putin’s concept of “sovereign democracy”, is cultural contagion and the attraction of Western soft power, the Russian problem is neither NATO’s nor Europe’s.

NATO cannot rely on mere dissuasion. It must also be able to speak to the Russians, and thus needs to offer to reopen dialogue channels with Moscow. Deterrence must not be an obstacle. On the contrary, it makes communication on a military level even more necessary and essential. The most serious weak spot in European security today is the loss of the network of transparency and inspections established by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), suspended by Moscow. Other instruments of dialogue exist, in particular the NATORussia Council (NRC). But the NRC is currently on ice and can only meet if both parties are willing. NATO can, however, indicate its readiness without reservations and leave the onus on the Russians to refuse.

Thus the relationship with Russia does not end with military dissuasion but includes political and military dialogue components and even the possibility of exploring areas of collaboration. But there are still two other challenges that need to be addressed. The first is the completion of the stabilisation of the Balkans.The second is the grey area in Europe, countries that are neither part of NATO nor the EU, including Ukraine. There is no singular solution; joining NATO cannot be the answer for all countries involved. But NATO has an important role to play, along and in conjunction with the EU. NATO has effective partnership tools for countries that wish collaborate rather than become members. In the EU, for example, collaborating countries include Finland, Sweden and Ireland. Serbia is also a collaborator in the Balkans. The important thing is that the NATO door remains open, even for new members, when they’re ready and conditions within and outside of NATO make it advisable. This was recently the case with Montenegro. In the Balkans, every new NATO or EU membership is a step towards achieving overall stability in the region.

The challenge that NATO still has to tackle is the “threat from the South”. Italy refers to it often but without outlining what it might expect from NATO in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. After the Paris attacks, France chose to cut NATO out completely, avoiding even a political consultation. That was a mistake. NATO’s North Atlantic Council was forced to discuss Syria a week later, by Turkish request, after the downing of the Russian Suhoi Su-24.

The Atlantic Alliance cannot afford to overlook the main threat to international security today. If it stays on the sidelines, there are two reasons that it might cease to exist. Firstly, solidarity around the concept of a single and shared security for all could gradually deteriorate. Secondly, NATO’s main ally, the United States, might prefer its own special brand of security. Or the US could very simply step away from all crises that are not viewed as a priority from the American perspective, those that may be left to the Europeans or others to respond to and manage.

The Balkans and the Mediterranean are part of our neighbourhood, and the latter area is the most critical today. The advance of IS in Libya could soon force Italy to make difficult choices. Libya won’t iron out its problems on its own. Either we resign ourselves to a stable terrorist presence in a bankrupt state on the other side of the Straits of Sicily, or we accept the need for a tough military response against the Islamic State. The EU is not equipped for such an endeavour. Who can it turn to if not NATO? 

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