More NATO to curb Russia

After several decades suffering an identity crisis, NATO is back to square one: Russia is not only its main enemy, but its raison d'être.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
31 March 2024 Sunday 11:20
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More NATO to curb Russia

After several decades suffering an identity crisis, NATO is back to square one: Russia is not only its main enemy, but its raison d'être.

Next July, the Alliance will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a magnificent 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 one for celebrations. Their leaders beat the drums of war and fire up defense budgets. They are aware of their vulnerability to two threats beyond their control: Putin's territorial ambitions and their enormous dependence on the United States. They still can't stand up for themselves and it's not clear that they ever will. What's more, the transatlantic relationship could explode 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 trusted 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, the Polish Lech Walesa and the Czech Václav Havel, showed him that they had not defeated communism to remain in a gray area, at the mercy of what Russia decided. They feared a war of "imperial reconquest" like the one Vladimir Putin would unleash years later.

Within the Clinton administration, moreover, took root 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 chose . To prevent them was to perpetuate the division of Europe.

Also pressured by the Republicans, who threatened his re-election and were firm supporters of expanding NATO, Clinton changed his position. In 1996 he was re-elected and in 1997 NATO took two decisive steps. On the one hand, he invited Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and on the other, he 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. 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 NATO in March 1999. It has been 25 years since that momentous step, which opened the door to the accession 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 leading the USA and so did his successor Vladimir Putin when he assumed the presidency in 2000. Focused on taking back the reigns of Russia, that is, replacing the old oligarchs who were freed by others who were subordinate to the Kremlin, Putin allowed himself to be loved at international summits, but inside he had begun to distrust.

NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 without UN authorization because Russia and China objected. Under the pretense of preventing 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, moreover, he used his 30 minutes at the Munich conference, the world's most important security meeting, to criticize the American peace 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 respect it whenever its interests were at stake.

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

US President Barack Obama tried to revive the relationship in 2009, but 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 started a war that still has no end in sight.

For years, Ukraine has been asking Washington and Brussels 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 one day join. Since then, however, allied rhetoric camouflages the lack of a firm commitment.

At the summit this July 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 old Warsaw Pact. It is opposed by the United States and Germany, who fear a direct clash with Russia.

This possibility, that is to say, that the risk of a war in Europe is greater today than at any other time since 1945, shows that NATO is now facing the same danger that gave birth to it.

Progress and stability have not been enough to prevent Europe from once again struggling with the demons of old.