5 Mar 2023
In Vladimir Putin’s book of strategic blunders, a hefty, as yet unpublished tome to which new chapters are constantly added, the revival of Nato is among his more amazing own goals. Written off as “experiencing brain death” by Emmanuel Macron and derided by Donald Trump, the 30-member cold war-era military alliance is now enjoying a renaissance – thanks, almost entirely, to Russia’s president.
Prior to Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, few Nato combat forces were stationed in the east European countries that signed up after the Soviet collapse. Last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine turned a trickle of eastward deployments into a torrent. Bungling Putin had provoked the world’s largest, best-armed military force into setting up camp slap bang on Russia’s doorstep.
The Ukraine invasion has given Nato a new lease on life, strengthening its members’ sense of mutual support, reinforcing the US commitment to Europe, raising defence budgets and inducing neutral Sweden and Finland to join. Conversely, Nato is again locked into a dangerous eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Russia that will probably outlast the current conflict.
This was never the plan. Nato states will doubtless congratulate themselves at their annual summit in July on presenting a united front. Problem is, the Russian invasion also produced the worst setback in Nato’s history. A catastrophic failure of deterrence – Nato’s traditional raison d’être – led Putin to think he could seize a European country and get away with it. Presumably, he still thinks he might. Even when the fighting eventually stops, this renewed military, ideological, political and economic east-west confrontation looks set to continue indefinitely – and grow more deeply entrenched.
Nato’s figures give a measure of Putin’s ineptitude. “Over 40,000 troops, along with significant air and naval assets, are now under direct Nato command” in the east, it says, with “hundreds of thousands more” held in reserve. Eight multinational battle groups, in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, guard a bristling Nato frontline with Russia, extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Putin argues today’s standoff was not sparked by his murderous mistakes. He claims it’s the result of a long-plotted Nato strategy to contain, isolate and ultimately destroy Russia that dates back to the west’s broken promise, supposedly made in 1990, not to enlarge the alliance eastwards. In his telling, Nato is pursuing a historic goal: “to disband the former Soviet Union and its principal entity, the Russian Federation”.
This claim is central to Putin’s self-justificatory narrative of Russia as victim, not predator. And it feeds an even more basic Russia-Nato disagreement: whether they are actually at war. Seeking to explain battlefield reverses, Putin has repeatedly told Russians the west is the true enemy. In contrast, Nato leaders are adamant: they are not fighting Russia, they are helping Ukraine defend itself.
As sophisticated western arms, defence and security assistance and economic aid pour into Ukraine – and Russian losses mount – this distinction is growing harder to maintain. The level of Nato military support now being provided far exceeds what was envisaged a year ago.
It’s a great pity, in truth, that the US president, Joe Biden, and European leaders were not bolder, earlier, in providing tanks and other advanced weaponry. Ukraine is still waiting for fighter planes to enforce no-fly zones and prevent air raids. Much foreseeable suffering and destruction might have been avoided had a too cautious Nato acted sooner and with more grit.
The debate over how far to go, and how quickly, in assisting Ukraine reflects another key problem – Nato’s lack of clearly defined war aims. Does the west seek Russia’s defeat and a generational victory over autocracy and tyranny, or merely Ukraine’s liberation?
Biden gave his answer in Warsaw last month. Ukraine, he suggested, was ground zero in the global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Yet French and German leaders are sticking to their view that, in the longer term, an accommodation must be reached with Moscow. Britain, Poland and the Baltic republics take a harder line. Such public divisions only help Putin.
Nato unity is also threatened by rightwing, Putin-friendly Turkish and Hungarian leaders, who are obstructing Sweden’s and Finland’s membership. The Finnish parliament voted overwhelmingly last week to press ahead anyway. Turkey’s behaviour is particularly disloyal. It should be told to drop its veto on the Swedes or face suspension from the alliance.
Differences persist, meanwhile, over Ukraine’s ambition to join Nato. The country’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, argues it is already a member de facto. Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, worried about triggering a wider war, demurs. This is irrational. Putin has shown he needs no excuse to up the ante. Kyiv should be given all the security assurances it requires – and to which it is legally entitled under the 1994 Budapest memorandum.
This question leads back to the fundamental dilemma of the “new Nato”. Is it still purely a defensive alliance? Or will its leaders accept the inherent logic of the emerging situation? That is to say, Putin’s continuing military, geopolitical and rhetorical escalations, and the deepening involvement of individual western nations, mean Nato’s unassertive, semi-detached posture is no longer tenable or practicable, if indeed it ever was.
It’s not just about Ukraine. The western democracies must accept that the wider, head-on confrontation with Moscow that they have striven in vain to avoid is now upon them, exploding around their ears. Putin is mobilising Russian society for a second great patriotic war. He is going all out. French “ifs”, German “buts” and American “maybes” are increasingly unaffordable.
This is a fight the west cannot afford to lose – but cannot hope to win while a chronically reactive Nato, unsure of its purpose and aims, pulls its punches and lets Putin set the pace.
Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator. He has been a foreign leader writer, foreign editor and US editor for the Guardian. He joined The Guardian in 1979. From 1989–94, he was the newspaper’s US Editor and White House correspondent. From 1994–98, he was Foreign Editor. During 1996–98, he was the Foreign Editor of The Observer. From 1971 to 1974, he studied history, politics and philosophy at Downing College, Cambridge.