Nato suffers existential crisis in the face of Russian muscle

Nato suffers existential crisis in the face of Russian muscle

Afghanistan is grabbing all the headlines within the Nato alliance these days - understandably. That is where Nato troops are engaged in their first expeditionary war. It is where soldiers are dying. It is where the outcome is still in grave doubt, FT reported.

Yet behind the great debate on whether the US and its allies should send thousands more troops to contain what may be an unwinnable war is an even bigger question: what is Nato for?

That was the issue lurking in the background of last week's meeting of Nato defence ministers in Bratislava. The doubts are about Russia as much as Afghanistan. In spite of all the brave words to the contrary, it has the potential to open up divisions not just between the US and Europe but within Europe, between its east and west.

The fundamental question is to what extent Nato should be an "expeditionary" alliance for future out-of-area intervention, as in Afghanistan, or a defensive alliance. How much of Nato's straitened military resources should be devoted to long-range, crisis-ready rapid reaction forces, and how much should be focused back home on bases in Europe, missile deployment and countering new security threats such as terrorism and cyber wars? A new strategic concept, to be finalised next year, will address the question.

Success or failure in Afghanistan will play a big role in determining Nato's future. Failure would undoubtedly cause the 28 member states to rethink out-of-area operations. But even success, or partial success, may leave deep divisions, if it is clear the war was fought with only token European support.
Perhaps even more important in the long run, however, is how to deal with Russia.

The perception of a continuing Russian threat to its near-abroad - not just to former Soviet republics such as Georgia and the Baltic states but also to former Warsaw Pact members such as Poland - motivates Nato's new members. They pay lip service to its expeditionary role, but really they want protection as defined by article 5 of the founding treaty: that an armed attack against one member will be considered as an attack against all. In eastern Europe, that means Russia.

Before the meeting in Bratislava, many attended a conference on the future of Nato, organised by the Slovak Atlantic Commission. What is the meaning of article 5, they were asked. The only time it has ever been invoked was after the 9/11 attacks in the US. The Bush administration was dismissive: they wanted the coalitions of the willing to support them, not Nato. It was a bitter blow to Nato loyalists.

But what about new threats to members, such as cyber warfare? Two countries have been hit by cyber attacks: Estonia and Georgia. Both coincided with a confrontation with Moscow. It seemed that Russia must have been the source of the attacks. Yet in spite of the clear threat to national security, Nato was powerless to respond. In the case of Estonia, a Nato member, no one dared to invoke article 5.

Barack Obama's administration wants it both ways in Europe: Nato solidarity, and re-engagement with Russia. Joe Biden, the vice- president, has just toured eastern Europe trying to sell a new missile defence system that will protect all Nato allies, without offending Moscow. Russia wants limits to missile defence written into the replacement strategic arms reduction treaty set to be finalised by December 5. Russia also wants it recognised that it has a "sphere of influence" in eastern Europe.

The two ambitions will be very hard to reconcile, as long as Russia is determined to flex its muscles and bully its near-abroad neighbours.
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