More NATO to stop Russia

After several decades suffering from an identity crisis, NATO has returned to square one: Russia is not only its main enemy, but its reason for existing.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
31 March 2024 Sunday 10:21
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More NATO to stop Russia

After several decades suffering from an identity crisis, NATO has returned to square one: Russia is not only its main enemy, but its reason for existing.

Next July, the Alliance will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a grand summit in Washington that will highlight its strength. Not only does it have more members than ever – 32 – but most already spend 2% or more of their GDP on weapons.

Europe, however, is not here for celebrations. Their leaders beat the drums of war and skyrocket defense budgets. They are aware of their vulnerability to two threats that they do not control: Putin's territorial ambition and his enormous dependence on the United States. They cannot yet defend themselves and it is not clear that they will ever succeed. What's more, the transatlantic relationship could blow up in a few months if Trump regains the White House.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact did not portend such an uncertain present. The end of the Cold War opened a new stage of progress and cooperation. The US was confident that President Boris Yeltsin would transform Russia into a liberal, pro-Western democracy. The security of Europe seemed guaranteed.

Yeltsin had asked American President Bill Clinton not to expand NATO to the countries of the former Soviet sphere. Clinton agreed. He wanted to prioritize relations with Russia.

However, two leaders with extraordinary moral weight, Lech Walesa in Poland and Václav Havel in the Czech Republic, made him see that they had not defeated communism to remain in a gray zone, at the mercy of what Russia decided. They feared a war of “imperial reconquest” like the one that Vladimir Putin would unleash years later.

Within the Clinton administration, there was also the idea that countries freed from the Soviet yoke and converted into democracies with market economies had the right to choose their future and join NATO and the EU if they so decided. To prevent it was to perpetuate the division of Europe.

Also pressured by Republicans, who threatened his re-election and were firm supporters of expanding NATO, Clinton changed his position. In 1996, he won re-election and in 1997 NATO took two decisive steps. On the one hand, it invited Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and on the other, it signed a cooperation agreement with Russia to consolidate peace. There was talk of “an alliance within the Alliance” and a Permanent Joint Council was created. The Russian generals would have an office at NATO headquarters in Brussels and would attend all meetings. Maximum transparency for maximum trust.

Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined in March 1999. 25 years have passed since that momentous step, which opened the door to the incorporation in 2004 of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Since then, the inhabitants of these countries, who number more than one hundred million people, have enjoyed prosperity and stability that were unthinkable before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR.

The allies, satisfied with their relationship with Russia, reduced defense investments. That “peace dividend” served to strengthen the welfare state.

Yeltsin had accepted the new order led by the United States and his successor Vladimir Putin did the same when he assumed the presidency in 2000. Focused on regaining the reins of Russia, that is, on replacing the old oligarchs who were going on their own. for new ones who were subject to the Kremlin, Putin allowed himself to be loved at international summits, although inside he had begun to be suspicious. NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 without UN authorization because Russia and China opposed it. Claiming to prevent the Serbs from carrying out ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, the Alliance launched an air campaign that opened Putin's eyes. Although he did not formally oppose the 2004 enlargement, the following year he said that the collapse of the USSR had been one of the worst mistakes of the 20th century. In 2007, he also took advantage of his 30 minutes at the Munich conference, the most important security meeting in the world, to criticize Pax Americana and make it clear that Russia was not interested in a “free world” led by a single power. He gave the example of the Iraq war, which began in 2003, as proof that the US did not respect international law – it had fabricated evidence to justify the invasion – and that it would not do so whenever its interests were at stake.

In that same 2007, Russia abandoned the treaty on conventional weapons in Europe and in 2008 occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in Georgia.

US President Barack Obama tried to redirect the relationship in 2009, but by then Putin was determined to regain control over the territories of the former USSR, an empire that includes Ukraine, the Baltic republics and Moldova.

The occupation of Crimea and Donbass in 2014 began a war that still has no end in sight.

Ukraine has been asking Washington and Brussels for years to grant it the same right to choose its destiny that, in 1999 and 2004, the countries of Central Europe had.

NATO agreed in 2008 that Ukraine would join one day. Since then, however, Allied rhetoric camouflages the lack of a firm commitment.

At this July summit in Washington, the Alliance will again debate whether to give Ukraine a formal invitation or not. In favor are France, Poland and the rest of the countries of the former Warsaw Pact. The United States and Germany are opposed, fearing a direct clash with Russia.

This possibility, that is, that the risk of war in Europe is greater today than at any other time since 1945, shows that NATO today faces the same danger that gave rise to it. Progress and stability have not been enough to prevent Europe from dealing with the same old demons again.