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On 75th Anniversary, NATO is at a serious crossroads

It can continue a cold war trajectory by isolating and provoking Russia, or help end the war in Ukraine

Analysis | Europe

Seventy five years ago today – April 4, 1949 — foreign ministers of the United States, Canada, and 10 West European countries concluded the Treaty of Washington, creating what became the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The treaty committed U.S. (and Canadian) power and purpose to Western Europe to contain the Soviet Union. In the subsequent four decades, NATO was critical in ending the Cold War and Soviet suzerainty over Central and European Europe, and playing a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today the alliance is faced with a new challenge, that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and its encroachment from the East. Many observers and even some Western governments say Putin’s aggression in the 21st Century was inevitable: that he had always contrived to put the old Russian (Soviet) empire back together and to push Moscow’s influence Westward, perhaps even beyond Ukraine.

Not everyone would agree with that assessment, but the current challenge to the West is nevertheless palpable, beginning with the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014. In February 2022, Putin rolled tanks as far as the outskirts of Kyiv and today is determined to keep the Russian-speaking Oblasts, including Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, as well as Crimea. Leaders of many NATO countries are convinced that, if not stopped, Putin threatens the Baltic states, Poland, and NATO’s newest allies, Finland and Sweden.

Historians will contend it is useless to revisit events and pretend that what happened in 2014 and 2022 could have been deterred. But in this case, there were leaders just after the Cold War who did try to shape European security in a way that might have avoided the current confrontation with Russia. Perhaps Putin always had ambitions to swallow Ukraine and advance Russian influence farther West. But an equally plausible (I would argue more compelling) argument can be made that the West — and later Russia — ultimately forfeited the chance to develop “history” differently.

Even before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the H. W. Bush and later the Clinton administrations had a critical insight: A defeated Russia should not be treated with the harshness meted out to Germany in 1919, with the Versailles Treaty’s so-called War Guilt Clause that required Germany to accept total responsibility for causing the First World War. In Hitler’s rise to power, the treaty proved to be highly useful propaganda for targeting the demoralized and resentful German people.

Bush thus proclaimed the ambition of a “Europe whole and free” and at peace. As much as anything, that meant not stigmatizing Russia and, to the extent possible, enabling it to play a serious role in the new security architecture the West was putting into place instead of simply disbanding NATO and tempting fate.

NATO thus gained Russia’s membership in its flagship Partnership for Peace and Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. It also welcomed Russian troops in the post-Bosnia War Implementation Force (IFOR) – the first such military cooperation since U.S. and Soviet forces met on the Elbe River in 1945.

Because some Central European countries remained wary of a potentially revanchist Russia, NATO invited Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary to be full members in 1997. The Russians were not pleased, but they turned a blind eye to NATO membership for the first two of these new allies because of Moscow’s concern that at some point Germany might again pose a threat. It was thus useful to Russia to have Poland and the Czech Republic “surround” Germany with NATO and U.S. power, just as Moscow had agreed that united Germany could be a full NATO ally.

Along with that first enlargement of NATO, the alliance negotiated a NATO-Russia Founding Act, with a remarkable set of common principles, self-proclaimed limits on NATO military activities in Central Europe, and a long list of cooperative projects. At the same time, lest there be any concern that Ukraine, sited between NATO and Russia, would fall under Russia’s sway, NATO concluded a Charter with Ukraine, which complemented a 1994 three-power non-aggression pledge to Ukraine (U.S., UK, and Russia) — which Russia broke in 2014 and 2022 — in exchange for Kyiv relinquishing its Soviet nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War.

Then, new officials came to power in Washington who lacked historical perspective: they decided that Russia was of no account. Notably, the U.S. abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty — a symbol more than substance of Moscow’s desire still to be seen as a great power. Then the U.S. deployed anti-ballistic missiles in Central Europe, in violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. For its part, Russia also took negative steps, quitting the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty,. which led the U.S. to leave it.

Most damaging to the chances for building shared security and avoiding a new confrontation, in 2008 President George W. Bush pressured NATO to declare that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.” This was clearly beyond what any major country could accept (for the U.S.: think Cuba) and violated the 1997 tacit understandings on Ukraine’s position between East and West.

Both NATO and the United States have repeated that pledge regularly ever since — ironically so, since it is virtually inconceivable that the alliance could get the required consensus of its 33 members in order for Ukraine to join.

This geopolitical folly does not justify any of Putin’s actions. But, along with further NATO enlargements and a 2014 U.S.-led government coup in Kyiv, it has helped Putin make the case at home that NATO is seeking to surround Russia.

Today, NATO has made it clear that it must help Ukraine counter Russian aggression, while, following President Joe Biden’s lead, not putting member troops on the ground that could lead to miscalculations or escalation. Yes, the U.S. Congress must finally appropriate a new tranche of vitally-needed arms for Ukraine to defend itself, though it now appears that, even with more aid, Ukraine will not be able to make significant advances against Russian forces.

Beyond the critical importance of aiding Ukraine and showing Putin that there are limits to his military ambitions, at stake is the precious commodity of U.S. credibility, focusing on the security of all NATO allies and especially those that could become further targets of Russian aggression. This is today’s most fundamental charge on U.S. foreign and security policy: it must not be funked.

At the same time, it has become too easy and popular to proclaim a new cold war with Russia. That would mean high risks and costs, political and psychological rigidities, and constant fears of miscalculation and possible escalation from one war (Ukraine) to broader conflict on the Continent. One has to remember that from the time when the U.S.-Soviet confrontation stabilized strategically — about 1963 — it would be more than a quarter century before the Cold War ended.

Moreover, it has become too easy to ignore an incontrovertible geopolitical reality: that Russia cannot be wished away. At some point, it will again become a great power, though unlikely to be a superpower as was the Soviet Union. The West, beginning with the United States, will have to deal with this fact, in our own self-interest. That argues for caution, especially at this summer’s NATO summit, to keep from crossing the Rubicon to permanent confrontation with Russia.

NATO must not close off all avenues of non-military engagement, including navigating a pathway to a negotiated settlement to end the Russia-Ukraine war. It cannot abandon its strategic stabilization and arms control efforts, and should not promote a new division of Europe between friends and permanent foe. Support for Ukraine in its valiant defense, yes; thwarting alternatives to a new cold war, no.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pose with NATO Defence ministers for a family picture on the second day of a meeting at the NATO headquarter in Brussels, Belgium Feb, 15, 2023. (Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis)
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