Atlantic Council
April 01, 2014
The Natocracy is fired up. The crisis in Ukraine, which climaxed with a bogus referendum, a fig leaf to legitimize a Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula, has given the Atlantic alliance, strategically adrift since the end of the Cold War, a fresh and compelling reason for being. The panjandrums at NATO headquarters in Brussels proclaim that Russia's move on Ukraine is testimony to the threats and instabilities that continue to make the pact pertinent despite the demise of the Red Army, and that the Crimean crisis will strengthen NATO's unity and resolve.

Such cheerleading is to be expected—bureaucracies facing problems of diminished relevance are wont to fall back on PR—but the reality is this: What NATO is likely to face in the years ahead is even less strategic coherence and comity, deeper divisions about means and ends, and decreased security for its post-Cold War members, particularly those nearest Russia.

First, some context.

When the USSR was alive and well, one could easily compose a bumper-sticker-size logo encapsulating NATO's purpose. It might have read like this: NATO Exists to Deter, and If Necessary, Defeat, a Warsaw Pact Attack on Europe. Was the Pact created to ensure Soviet domination over Eastern Europe's communist bloc? Or did Moscow entertain hopes of using it to conquer or Finlandize Western Europe? These questions will continue to be contentious; but what mattered was that there were millions of Western Europeans who didn't want to find out and who therefore believed that NATO was essential, had a mission that they understood, and was relevant to their lives. When asked to explain the alliance's raison d' etre, NATO officials could invoke the words of its first Secretary-General, Lord Ismay, who quipped that it was to "keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down," a witticism that offered the added advantage of tying NATO to European stability generally, not just the Soviet threat.

Once the Soviet Union imploded, it was no longer easy to provide pithy formulations about NATO's purpose. One way in which the alliance sought to gain new vigor and élan was by expanding its membership eastward. But that produced two problems.

First, it made Russia suspicious and resentful. This sentiment was by no means one that Putin has conjured up, though he has certainly strengthened it. It was evident even during the halcyon years when Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin reveled in their curious camaraderie and the latter, despite assaulting the parliament with tanks in 1993, staging a fraudulent election three years later, and presiding over the stripping and fire sale of state-owned economic assets, was hailed as a democrat and compared, during the brutal Russian war in Chechnya no less, to Abraham Lincoln. But even in the heady days, when Western hopes for a democratic Russia ran high, most Russians, regardless of political orientation, could not understand why an alliance that symbolized the Cold War, was creeping toward their borders when, all the while, the West was hailing Russian democracy, prattling about bringing Russia into the West, and declaring that the era of ideological and military rivalry was over. Most Americans were tone deaf to this perplexity and resentment, which Putin has fanned in devising his brand of chest-thumping Russian nationalism. NATO expansion has turned out to be net minus for the West's relationship with Moscow, though it's ludicrous to claim that Putin annexed Crimea to avenge it.

The second problem produced by NATO expansion was that it made achieving strategic consensus within the alliance harder, not least because what Donald Rumsfeld famously called "old" and "new" Europe necessarily had different views of what the threats were, particularly as regards Russia. To an extent the dissonance was a matter of arithmetic. An alliance that, at its Cold War peak, had sixteen members—twelve in 1949, the year it was established—grew in six stages and by 2009 had become a club of twenty-nine. It's much harder to reach agreement when a grouping almost doubles in size: anyone who has chaired a large committee can attest to this iron law of numbers. At no point was this more apparent than when the alliance split over the Iraq war, with much of New Europe eager to please America and Old Europe, well, not so much.

The Iraq war was also an example (though not the first) of another way in which NATO readied itself for the new, non-Soviet, century: it embraced "out-of-area operations," in plain English, expeditionary missions beyond Europe. This was more than an adaptation; it was a transformation inasmuch as the alliance had for a generation hewed to a Europe-centered purpose. Combine a rapid increase in numbers with a move toward a new mission and what happens to an alliance? Answer: Confusion and disunity. Whether one considers Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, one finds that NATO's involvement in these "out-of-area" conflicts increased its problems. Discussion of extra-European campaigns had always been controversial within the alliance; Europe, understandably, wanted a continental focus. But when, after the Cold War, the alliance actually began to get involved in conflicts beyond Europe, the contention increased.

Iraq and the other conflicts I've listed gave rise to disputes about "burden sharing" (essentially, America's insistence that Europe spend more on defense to increase equity and fairness within NATO). They also demonstrated the extent to which most of non-US NATO had been able to limit defense spending and avoid increasing military size and strength thanks to the security blanket long provided by Uncle Sam. True, there were variations within NATO as regards the percentage of GDP accounted for by defense spending. Still, the European allies' defense load was much lighter than America's. Inevitably, when it came to airlift, power projection, and the various forms of firepower, the extra-European conflicts illuminated the degree to which the alliance was, militarily, largely an American operation, with able assists from some members, such as France and the UK. During the Cold War this imbalance didn't matter much, but with the advent of a post-Soviet world, tolerance in Washington began to wear thin.

Another source of friction was the contrasting European and American willingness to undertake combat missions in nettlesome non-European conflicts. This was revealed most vividly by the war in Afghanistan. The heavy lifting on counterinsurgency—as opposed to participation in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams created to secure areas so as to enable economic development—was done by American forces and those deployed by a few other allies, some of whom were not in NATO. Iraq revealed the same pattern. Thus going global hasn't been quite the tonic for NATO that the originators of the scheme had hoped.

Now NATO is confronted with a crisis in Ukraine. What makes this challenge different for the alliance is that it's very much "in area" if you will. Moreover, several members, above all Poland and the three Baltic states, have been unnerved by Russia's brazen seizure of Crimea. So is Putin's power play the Deux ex machina that will finally define NATO's post–Cold War purpose and induce all twenty-eight allies to pull—and hard—in the same direction? To officials in Brussels and other European capitals, especially NATO's Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the answer is unambiguous: Russia's move in Ukraine amounts to a cold shower of reality for the alliance, and the same assessment is evident in the DC beltway and in much of the American and European press.

The prevailing wisdom is almost certainly wrong; the fracas between Russia and the West over Ukraine will aggravate NATO's waywardness, not attenuate it—and this for several reasons.

First, the expansion vs. ease of consensus tradeoff I've mentioned will remain. Once the dust dispersed by Crimea's annexation descends, differences will emerge within NATO on how best to manage the Russia problem, and even the extent of it. Here's what the pattern will be: The closer to the Russian border the ally, the more often and insistently it will seek verbal reassurances and practical demonstrations of NATO commitment to its security; the further from Russia the ally, the more disinclined it will be to oblige because it will not want to provoke Russian counterreactions and does not experience the visceral vulnerability propinquity produces.

Second, rather than energizing NATO to resume expansion, Putin's Crimea gambit is likely to make the most powerful NATO states—those who will assume the biggest risks in the event of a war—reticent to extend protection to non-members states on Russia's doorstep. That's because the ones that fear Moscow the most are weak and are therefore unable therefore to deter Russia even by making it more costly for the Kremlin to use military power. Furthermore, they have a history of conflict with Russia, which increases the odds that might seek to redeem a pledge of protection. As vulnerable as Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine presently feel, the Crimean crisis makes it less likely that they will be invited into NATO, not more. It's conceivable that they will be given Membership Action Plans, though even that's unlikely anytime soon and may, should it happen, be a sop that amounts to an indefinite holding operation.

How many members of Old NATO do you imagine heaved a sigh of relief in 2008 that Georgia was not part of the alliance and couldn't invoke the Article V of the North Atlantic Treatyto seek protection against Russia? I think that several did and that an equal number were relieved that Ukraine wasn't a NATO ally as they watched Russia grab Crimea recently. President Obama wasn't alone in stressing that a war with Russia over Ukraine was a nonstarter; so did his hard-line critics, such Senator John McCain, to say nothing of European leaders.

Third, for all of the talk for over a decade now about resolving NATO's burden-sharing dispute, precious little has been done. The disparity between America's contribution to the common defense and the proportion of GDP that it devotes to military spending and the military muscle and defense-to-GDP ratio of its alliance partners remains glaring, and has not been reduced. Now it's true that the US defense will necessarily dwarf that of any individual NATO member, and even the alliance as a whole, given that America is a superpower with worldwide military commitments. But that isn't the relevant measure. What counts is the share of GDP devoted to defense and the steps NATO states have taken (or not) to increase the military capabilities relevant to their own defense and that of their fellow allies.

Seen thus, there's still a lot a free riding within NATO. It beggars belief that twenty-three years after the Cold War, and nearly seventy years after World War II, a period during which Europe recovered from the shattering effects of war and emerged as a center of global economic power, non-US NATO cannot do more in behalf of its own defense. In 2010, the EU accounted for 26 percent of global GDP, the United States for 23 percent. Whatever the reasons for the burden-sharing imbalance, Europe's inability to afford it isn't one of them.

Yet the disparity in burden sharing continues, as witness the contrast in the relative proportion of GDP that alliance members allocate to defense. The average for European NATO in 2013 was 1.6 percent; for the United States it was 4.3 percent. What's more, there has been a near-steady decline in European NATO's relative contribution as the data on the sequential four-year averages between 1990 and 2009 shows. The highpoint was 1990-94, 2.7 percent, but the average annual percentage fell from 1.7 in 2010 to 1.6 and has since been stationary. For the United States, by contrast, the average percentage between 2010 and 2013 was 4.6. Only three states—France, Greece, and the UK—devoted 2 percent or more, none exceeded 2.4 percent, and 19 were at or below 1.5 percent. What's clear from these numbers is that it's hard claim that America's European allies are bearing the appropriate burden for their own defense. GDP-defense ratio comparisons have their limits, but the picture doesn't change if one focuses on the operational front and examines, for instance, coordinated European efforts to improve efficiency in procurement, increase firepower and power-projection capabilities, or devise a sensible division of responsibility.

The prospects for change are slim. Simply stated, political support within Europe for ramping up defense spending is weak at best; and as the population continues to age the claims of the elderly on the welfare state will increase, reducing further whatever enthusiasm there is now for boosting military strength. True, Europe is trying to trim expenses on public services but the tradition of the state providing various social services and benefits and the power of unions has been and will remain far more resilient in Europe than in America.

The burden-sharing question was muted during the Cold War partly because war-battered Europe was recovering during the early decades while America was thriving. But in recent years, particularly since the Great Recession, polls show that Americans are apprehensive about their job prospects, income inequality, social mobility, the quality of the schools that educate their children, and the aging infrastructure and want to limit or even cut defense spending. Hence they're much less likely to be convinced—to the extent that this case can be made with a straight face—that their wealthy allies can't do more to protect themselves. Expect NATO's burden-sharing debate to intensify.

The final reason why Ukraine won't be the shot in the arm for the alliance that many commentators anticipate it will be is that Europe's major powers will eventually come around and make their peace with Russia, not only because they don't want to poke the bear in the eye but also because they have a significant stake in doing business, in the literal sense, with Russia.

The value of Russia-EU trade totaled 337 billion Euros in 2012, more than a threefold increase over the 2002 figure, and is today nearly ten times the dollar value of US-Russia trade. There are lots of jobs at stake for Europeans, and lots of money, too. The EU is Russia's top trade partner, Russia the EU's third largest. Despite the Crimean imbroglio, business between Russia and Europe is proceeding. As the New York Times reported recently, the French energy giant Total is moving forward to cooperate with Russia's Lukoil to tap Siberian shale oil deposits, and just last week Russia placed an order with Airbus for 13 planes. What's true of France holds for other major European countries. They may become leerier about investing in Russia and will doubtless seek to reduce their dependence on Russian natural gas, which is close to 30 percent on average for the EU but far higher for the Baltic trio, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Greece, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, where the reliance ranges from 75-100 percent. The EU will certainly seek to diversify energy imports and use more LNG, but its energy dependence on Russia will still remain substantial, and European energy companies will continue signing deals with Gazprom and Rosneft worth billions of dollars.

The most revealing indicator of the power of the profit motive may be whether, post-Crimea, French and German military sales to Russia continue. For France, and more so for its flagging defense industries, revenue from sales to Russia is especially important, a case in point being the $1.7 billion deal reached in 2011 to sell four Mistral-class amphibious-assault ships. French president François Hollande and foreign minister Laurent Fabius have hinted that additional Russian moves into Ukraine could put military transactions at risk—and they well could—but it's worth recalling that the Mistral agreement was inked just three years after Russia went to war against Georgia. The cancellation of existing contracts will almost certainly provoke a Russian reaction. Deputy prime minister and defense-industry czar Dmitry Rogozin has already warned that Russia will demand a refund if France fails to deliver the Mistral-class vessels on schedule.

The Ukraine crisis has revealed that the West, Europe in particular, is reluctant to inflict acute economic pain on Russia through measures such as restrictions on trade and banking and bans on investments in its energy sector. Even Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, who, like many of his fellow citizens considers Russia a serious threat, pointed to the realities of geography when asked why Europe was unwilling to slap stringent sanctions on Russia and was much more reticent about using economic pressure against Moscow than United States.

Putin, for his part, will limit his victory to Crimea, absent clashes between Russians and Ukrainians in the Donbass, and move to stabilize, and then improve, relations with the West—not that that will be easy or achievable quickly. He well understands that continued confrontation with the West or efforts to annex parts of eastern Ukraine could provoke draconian sanctions that go beyond the current wrist-slapping: targeted travel bans and asset freezes on Russian tycoons and officials. He also realizes, as do other Russians, that burning bridges with the West will leave Russia isolated to face a rising China on its southern flank.

Paradoxically, among Putin's advantages is the West's strength in numbers. NATO and the EU each contain over two-dozen states, and Moscow has demonstrated repeatedly its adeptness at deploying assorted bilateral enticements to thwart a cohesive, sustained Western policy toward Russia. The waves generated by Russia's assault on Ukraine will take time to settle, but settle they will, and because of efforts from Moscow, Washington and Europe. We are not headed toward a latter-day Cold War, or even a long-term break between Russia and the West. The notion that the fear of a resurgent Russia in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis will create stronger solidity and strategic consensus within NATO, let alone provide it with a coherent post-Cold War mission, is wishful thinking. NATO has to figure out its future. It shouldn't assume that what Russia has done in Ukraine will make the task easier.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007).

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