Déjà Vu All Over Again? NATO Rediscovers Its Roots

The ambivalence of the NATO position is actually increasing compared to during the 2000s, when the organisation focused on the military operation in Afghanistan. The alliance has turned out to be a military bloc, but lacks proper military tasks.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which has survived several waves of transformation, can celebrate its 70th anniversary in its original role – as a military bloc. Amid the outset of the confrontation between Russia and the West in 2014, previous discussions about the transformation of NATO into a purely political organisation were finally discarded. Similarly, talk of expeditionary tasks and attempts to turn the alliance into a global security organisation have faded.

The observed return to the bloc’s roots and the assertion that Russia constitutes the main threat should resolve the problem of NATO’s search for institutional identity, which it faced acutely in the immediate aftermath of the bipolar period. Nevertheless, discussions about the purpose and nature of the alliance continue, and are even more bellicose. The common themes of these analytical and political discussions are statements about the crisis of transatlantic solidarity; the difference of values driving the divergence between the interests of the United States and its European allies.

The paradox of the current situation is that in practice, the alliance is demonstrating a higher degree of cohesion and activity than at any time throughout the entire post-bipolar period. Judging by the steps it has taken rather than by rhetoric, NATO remains a completely vital organisation. This situation is actually not surprising. Despite the confusions in the transatlantic family, the losses from a possible gap outweigh the costs of cooperation. 

Despite widespread antipathy towards Donald Trump, America’s European allies are unable to overcome their defence dependence on the United States. Moreover, they do not want to bear the burden of strategic autonomy. For Washington, the so-called ‘pivot-to-Asia’ does not entail indifference to the Euro-Atlantic area, especially because maintaining dominance in this part of the world is relatively inexpensive. Under these conditions, the Alliance may not be meeting the anniversary in harmony with itself, but it has relative confidence in its future.

New Cold War: NATO Washes the Car
Anatol Lieven
Why the current Western hysteria? Of course, as with all national hostilities, this builds to some extent on older foundations: the Cold War, around which western security institutions and western ideological propaganda were organised for two generations, and which created NATO itself; and the much older national hatred for Russia (sometimes of course justified) on the part of Poles, Balts, Jews and some Ukrainians.
Expert Opinions
Confrontation with Russia is a part of this foreseeable future. The primacy of establishing a deterrent to Moscow was consolidated both in the political discourse of the representatives of the Euro-Atlantic community and in the practical activity of the alliance. The recipes of the Cold War era are being taken out from their storerooms and are actively being implemented. Defence doctrines are adapted to accommodate the current international rivalry.

Nevertheless, there are also differences between today and the situation that exited 30 years ago, which cannot be underestimated.

In particular, the scale of NATO’s direct military deployment along the Russian borders remains relatively limited, although the military build-up, initiated in 2014, continues. Along with the widely-discussed deployment of four battalion groups in the Baltic States and Poland, the alliance has increased the intensity of joint-exercises in the region, and also created a number of new staff structures in the region. The number of visits of NATO warships to the Baltic and Black seas has also increased.

Activity conducted under the auspices of the alliance has been complemented by several US initiatives. Among them is the deployment of military equipment stocks in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the deployment of a mechanised infantry brigade in Poland on a rotational basis. Such steps are formally carried out within the framework of bilateral interaction with individual allies, but fit into the general logic of deterrence.

The establishment of mutual information channels between Russian and NATO forces indicates the latter’s desire to avoid provoking Moscow. However, the stabilisation of mutual deterrence is not being observed. The main concerns in this case are not the steps taken by the alliance itself, but the lack of clear criteria for military sufficiency that would ensure the predictability of its future activity.

On the contrary, in the West, belief in the advantages of tactical unpredictability as the basis for successful deterrence is increasing.

Largely impressed by Russia’s successes in increasing the mobility of the armed forces, the United States and its allies have made the operational deployment of troops and the increase of the flexibility of their use the central focus of the alliance’s development program.

Initially, this was expressed in the formation of the Joint High-Readiness Task Force, which included 4,000 troops capable of deploying within 48 hours near the borders of Russia. In 2018, a plan was adopted which presumed that 30 mechanised battalions, 30 air force squadrons and 30 warships should be ready to enter into a potential conflict within a month.

Two commands were also created, which are responsible for maintaining control over transatlantic communications, logistics and the planning of troop movements. The implementation of NATO’s plans is also being promoted by the “Schengen military initiative” within the European Union, This would involve the adaptation of the transport infrastructure of NATO member states to facilitate the transfer of forces, as well as simplify transit through Europe’s national borders. These actions are consistent with the concept of the dynamic use of force that was adopted by Washington. An example of the latter’s implementation was the sudden deployment of 1,500 US troops in Poland at the end of March 2019.

NATO Summit: Emotions Eclipse Systemic Problems
Dmitry Ofitserov-Belskiy
The meeting took place amid a trade war unfolding between the United States and European countries. Its reasons are not in Donald Trump’s specific views and political manners, but in the problems which have remained unsolved for many years, and could not be resolved by Barack Obama signing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement (TTIP).
Expert Opinions

The emphasis on mobility in conflict, the localised use of combat power, and operating with relatively small, but high-tech and professional forces significantly distinguishes the current situation from the second half of the 20th century, when confrontation was thought of in terms of total war, and the mobilisation of armies operating in a solid “from sea to sea.”

New strategic conditions in armed conflict have left limited time for policymakers to make decisions, increased their sensitivity to possible vulnerabilities, or address limited losses (due to the high cost of replenishing). Accordingly, traditional deterrence has become less reliable and requires more skilful strategic manoeuvring.

Optimism in the current situation is supported by the fact that the military dimension of deterrence has gained a secondary importance. The deliberate confrontation between Russia and NATO is still not considered a realistic scenario for exploring defence development. Most members of the alliance do not believe in the likelihood of violent aggression from Moscow, despite the popularisation of this topic by journalists and experts.

As a result, the ambivalence of the NATO position is actually increasing compared to during the 2000s, when the organisation focused on the military operation in Afghanistan. The alliance has turned out to be a military bloc, but lacks proper military tasks. Hence the aforementioned differences between today’s NATO and the alliance which existed during the 20th century’s Cold War, and the on-going bargaining between the United States and European participants with respect to the distribution of responsibility within NATO. The sluggish discord in the transatlantic community is inescapable until the enemy becomes more terrible.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.