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5 July 2016

The Warsaw NATO Summit: waking up (late) to reality

The coming NATO summit in Warsaw has some homework to do

NATO has often been hailed as “one of the most successful and enduring alliances in modern history.” Founded on April 4, 1949, the alliance celebrated its 67th anniversary this year. A product of the Cold War, the immediate motivations for NATO’s creation were the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, and Stalin’s Berlin blockade (from June 24, 1948, until May 12, 1949). Though the organization is decried by the Kremlin as a “Cold War relic,” it continues to retain a strong attraction: between January 1999 and January 2010, no less than twelve new countries became members, ten of which belonged to the former Warsaw Pact. The Kremlin has often repeated the mantra that NATO lost its raison d’être after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in March 1991, and that its cessation was the logical next step.

This reasoning is fundamentally flawed for two reasons. First, a huge difference existed between the two organizations. NATO membership was based on the free choice of democratic governments, the Warsaw Pact was not. The latter was a treaty, imposed by a totalitarian regime on its local satraps. A second difference was that NATO was founded to defend its members against external aggression. The Warsaw Pact, however, although nominally founded as a counterweight to NATO, functioned in practice as an internal police force, securing the Kremlin’s grip on its satellites. This became clear on several occasions. For instance, in 1956 when Hungarian revolutionaries decided to leave the Warsaw Pact, the uprising was crushed by Soviet troops. The same happened in Czechoslovakia in August 1968, when Soviet troops, assisted by the armies of four other Warsaw Pact countries, quelled the Prague Spring. Thirteen years later, this scenario risked being repeated in Poland. It was the threat of a Warsaw Pact intervention which enabled then Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski to impose martial law and suppress the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement.

NATO did not disappear after the end of the Cold War, but it underwent a fundamental change. The massive forward deployment of allied forces in Europe was no longer regarded as necessary, and the United States and its allies dramatically decreased the size of their troops. These were years of euphoria. Defense budgets were reduced, and governments announced much-touted “peace dividends” which would be invested in national economies. With a diminished presence in the heart of Europe, the alliance went “out of area”, looking for new missions. A first sign of this new approach was the decision to send peacekeepers to the war-torn former-Yugoslavia. In this euphoria, nothing seemed impossible. Analysts dreamed about transforming NATO into a new organization, encompassing the whole Northern hemisphere. American analyst, Charles A. Kupchan, for instance, proposed to establish an “Atlantic Union”, based on a merger of NATO and the European Union which would encompass not only North America, but also the former Soviet bloc - including a supposedly democratic Russia. This new “Atlantic Union,” wrote Kupchan, would create “a community of democratic nation-states among which war is unthinkable.”

A different proposal was to maintain NATO as a separate security organization, but giving it global tasks. In an article, “Global NATO,” Ivo Daalder and James Goldgeier wrote: “With little fanfare – and even less notice – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has gone global. Created to protect postwar Western Europe from the Soviet Union, the alliance is now seeking to bring stability to other parts of the world.” This new, global NATO was proposed by the U.S. at NATO’s 2006 Riga summit. It intended to deepen the existing partnerships with Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan, although not granting them full membership. I wrote at that time that “Europeans are skeptical of the proposal mainly out of fear that such a global NATO would draw U.S. attention still further away from Europe.” This risk was indeed real. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. was bogged down in protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which had become real quagmires.

However, even without “global NATO” the fear of Europeans that U.S. attention was being drawn away from Europe, seemed to be confirmed by facts on the ground. U.S. troop presence in Europe, which at the height of the Cold War reached about 420,000, went down to fewer than 75,000. The “pivot to Asia,” announced by the Obama administration in 2011, strengthened these fears. When Hillary Clinton spoke about a “strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific,” the feeling was that this would negatively impact the American commitment to European security.

The new NATO member states, in particular, felt vulnerable. They already had the feeling that the U.S. had misjudged the neo-imperialist tendencies of Putin’s Russia by offering the Kremlin a “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations shortly after Russia’s war in Georgia. A year before that war broke out, Yuliya Tymoshenko, a former Prime Minister of Ukraine, had already warned that “Russia must not be permitted to use Kosovo’s gaining its independence from Serbia as a precedent for promoting secessionist movements in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Trans-Dniestria, and, most important, Crimea, in an attempt to destabilize the national governments.” A warning showing great foresight should have been heeded, but was not.

The war in Georgia was for the Kremlin the start of a huge ten year $700 billion military modernization program. This happened at a time when on NATO’s side, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) Breedlove was forced to cancel 45 percent of the training exercises with European members because of budget problems.  It seemed as if the U.S. and NATO had forgotten the strategy lessons of Sun-Tzu, a Chinese strategist living in the 6th century BC, whose work is still widely read in Russian military academies. Sun-Tzu wrote that “ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting,” a rule that was applied in the Kremlin’s seizure of the Crimea. Sun-Tzu wrote further that “the skillful warrior first ensured his own invulnerability; then he waited for the enemy’s vulnerability,” adding, that he “can achieve his own invulnerability; but he can never bring about the enemy’s vulnerability.”

This is what in fact happened. While Putin’s Russia rearmed in a forced tempo – strengthening its own invulnerability - the U.S. reduced its troop presence, proposed a “reset,” and “rebalanced” to Asia. The majority of its European allies did no better. They eternalized the “peace dividends,” constantly cutting their defense budgets. It was, therefore, not Russia, but NATO that had made itself vulnerable. The wake-up call, which logically should have followed the Russian war of aggression in Georgia, came only six years later, after Moscow’s occupation of Crimea.

These six lost years weigh heavy. One can almost observe a sense of panic in NATO circles concerning the vulnerability of NATO’s eastern flank in Europe, in particular of the Baltic states. Measures that should have been taken years ago, such as the deployment in the Baltic countries of rotating international brigades, are being implemented in haste. Will it be enough to deter a Russian attack? There are disconcerting facts.

The huge Zapad maneuvers of 2009 and 2013 were, in fact, nothing else than realistic rehearsals of an invasion of the Baltic states. In 2015 the 1st Guards Tank Army, a unity formed in the Second World War and disbanded in 1999, was reconstituted. Composed of 500-600 tanks, 600-800 infantry fighting vehicles and 35,000 to 50,000 soldiers, the army paper Zvezda touted it was an army, “able to neutralize the threat from the Baltic countries.”  “Is Russia really preparing for a war with the Baltic countries?” asked Vadim Shtepa. “The overwhelming opinion in the West is that this is unlikely; but it should be noted that just three years ago, the forcible annexation of Crimea and the presence of Russian tanks in eastern Ukraine also would have sounded like nonsense.”

Of course, the Baltic states are NATO members and are covered by the principle of the collective defence under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. The Kremlin also has to weigh the enormous risks it would take to invade the Baltic states, including the risk of an armed conflict with 28 Western countries which could spiral out of control and ignite a world war.  One thing is clear: the coming NATO summit in Warsaw has some homework to do. 

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