70 Years of the Russian Threat

A jubilee NATO summit dedicated to the organization’s 70th anniversary was held in England this week. Queen Elizabeth gave a reception at Buckingham Palace in honour of the anniversary. Donald Trump, this time, didn't pull any seemingly supernatural tricks. The "aggressive actions" of Russia were condemned again. Everything went along as it was, is now, and forever shall be.

Despite the ritual nature of the summit, NATO’s 70th anniversary presents a convenient opportunity to appreciate the retrospective of the Alliance, both during the Cold War and following its conclusion. Despite the absence of any mention of the USSR in the NATO charter, it was completely transparent and obvious that the main goal of creating this organisation was to oppose the Soviet Union. Everyone can choose whom they wish to target with the appropriate epithets: while some may invoked the need to combat the "Soviet threat", others might recall the "aggressive plans of the Western military". Epithets, however, aren't the point.

The heart of the matter was that European countries were unable to provide for their own security without an American nuclear and military umbrella (or were forced to do so). Attempts by a number of European countries to create a similar military alliance without the USA have led to nothing substantial. Created two years before NATO in 1947, the Western Union (renamed the Western European Union in 1954) was to a large extent a "sleeping" organisation that did not affect real politics. An attempt to create a European defence community in parallel with the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 with very ambitious goals up to the creation of a single European army failed outright. As a result, the European security architecture (and the role of NATO) from that time to the present days was based on two pillars: the immanent opposition against Russia and the quite obvious American dominance in the military matters of Europe. Over 70 years, there have been many examples underscoring that not all NATO members liked this situation, but it did not change its essence.

At the same time, all key security issues during the Cold War were resolved exclusively at the bilateral Soviet-American level. In this regard, the absence of NATO in the negotiations during the Caribbean crisis is very significant. Everything was decided between the leaders of the USSR and the USA, although if that crisis had developed into a “hot” war, other NATO members would have had to fulfil their obligations under Article 5 of the charter and, as a result, become legitimate targets for the Soviet response. On the whole, at that time, especially after the Caribbean crisis, the USSR and the USA, in spite of mutually threatening rhetoric, actually tried by all means to avoid a direct military conflict, using various proxies in case of local conflicts. So it happened in the Arab-Israeli wars, in Vietnam, and in Afghanistan. This understanding that local conflicts should not be allowed to develop into a big war has become perhaps one of the main lessons of that era. Now this lesson is becoming increasingly forgotten by a number of NATO members, and that is why there is no and will not be unity in today's NATO.

In the 1990s the situation changed. The Cold War ended, and the main purpose of the alliance also disappeared. The search began for a new context for NATO activities. Attempts to declare Islamist extremism a new major threat to NATO ruined the career (along with bribes) of then-NATO Secretary General Willy Claes. His statements about this were considered too politically incorrect. As a result, in 1999, NATO adopted a global strategy that expanded the scope of the alliance from Europe and the North Atlantic to the whole world. The largest (and still unsuccessful) NATO military operation during this period is being carried out outside of Europe, in Afghanistan.

In the same period, several rounds of NATO expansion took place. The new members of the alliance brought with them their historical/imaginary (epithet, again, everyone can have his own) hostility towards Russia. And therefore the anti-Russian vector of NATO activities was revived again.

At the same time, the alliance's key objective, judging by its charter documents, 'the collective defence', failed as soon as it came to the possibility of a direct, rather than virtual, clash with Russia. The first time this happened was in 1999 in Kosovo, after the famous march of the Russian military to the Pristina airfield. This action brought tangible disharmony into the already-developed plan for a NATO monopoly in post-war Kosovo, with sectors of responsibility divided only between members of the alliance. Despite the fact that some hotheads (mainly British) said that Russia should stop this landing operation and hoped to squeeze Russian soldiers out of the airport, most of the NATO countries involved in the operation (mainly French, but not only them) strongly opposed this direct confrontation and the risk of a local conflict escalating into a major Russia-NATO war.

The second example is even more obvious. It is associated with a Russian military aircraft being shot down by the Turks during the conflict in Syria. It was very interesting to observe how NATO officials immediately tried to distance themselves as much as possible from this incident. From their reaction, it was clear that what happened was a private and one-sided initiative of Turkey, and no matter how Russia reacted, there was no question of the introduction of Article 5 of the NATO charter. It is significant, that the dialogue and military-to-military interaction between Russia and the United States are now established and functioning precisely in Syria. It is only for this purpose: to reduce the risk of a direct collision.

In the same context, if we look at those military conflicts that have occurred in the post-Soviet space in recent years (events in Georgia in 2008 and in eastern Ukraine since 2014), despite all the anti-Russian rhetoric, the NATO members, in reality, do not send their military contingents there for direct participation in hostilities (mercenaries, advisers and arms deliveries is another matter). The reason is quite understandable: whatever the case may be, there's a reluctance to escalate the conflict into a large pan-European war with an unpredictable (or rather, predictably destructive) result.

So, we can make a very clear conclusion that there is at least no consensus among NATO members as to whether individual incidents with Russia should be automatically transferred under Article 5 of the charter. In fact, the prevailing stereotype of the “NATO umbrella” that the alliance will always protect any ally from the notorious “Russian threat” may look like nothing more than an illusion. Naturally, understanding this is not a reason to test the NATO umbrella for strength, but the very fact that the most important component of NATO’s unity in countering Russia is just an illusion - this, we will agree, is a very significant result of the seventy years of the alliance's existence.

NATO at 70: Reason to Celebrate?
Vincent Della Sala
We should not think that the anniversary celebrations in London will be the last for NATO. Despite all its internal tensions and growing mutual suspicion, security cooperation is hard-wired in the foreign and security infrastructure of its member states. With the exception of the United States and possibly Turkey, it is difficult for NATO’s member states to imagine any other security architecture.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.