At the Wales summit set to begin tomorrow, President Obama and his fellow NATO member heads of state will try to project an image of resolve firm enough to convince Russian leader Vladimir Putin to keep his hands off alliance members like the Baltics, and secondarily to reverse his campaign against Ukraine. To do so, they’ll need to dispel another impression that NATO has surely been creating since the Cold War ended – one of utter confusion.
A controversy has recently re-emerged over whether the NATO expansion that began in the 1990s is ultimately responsible for turning Russia into a deeply revanchist nation once again. I accept the proposition, and have proposed a Ukraine – and broader – peace plan that involves explicit U.S. acknowledgement of this mistake. But nothing like this plan is on the U.S. or Western agenda, and given Putin’s record in recent years, it’s also reasonable to believe that he’s reached another, equally worrisome conclusion about NATO that could well coexist with initial feelings of betrayal – that it’s an alliance literally without a clue regarding Eastern Europe and Russia’s “near abroad.”
Here’s the record, in brief. As a senior NATO official has written, following the Berlin Wall’s fall, in the context of discussions over the future of a unified Germany, in “countless personal conversations…[Mikhail] Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.” More specifically, “Some statements of Western politicians – particularly German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher and his American counterpart James A. Baker…[could] indeed be interpreted as a general rejection of any NATO enlargement beyond East Germany.”
Barely five years later, though, the alliance was offering Russia and former members of the dissolved Warsaw Pact so-called “Partnership for Peace” relationships that explicitly were intended to launch the full membership process for the latter. In 1999, the admission of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary officially began the latest phase of NATO expansion.
At the same time, NATO clearly tried to square the circle to prevent the return of Cold War-type hostilities and a new division of Europe. In addition to the PFF with Russia, in 1997, the alliance signed with Moscow a Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security. In it, the West stated that it had “no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members” and with Moscow, pledged “to exercise restraint during the period of negotiations, as foreseen in the Document on Scope and Parameters, in relation to the current postures and capabilities of their conventional armed forces – in particular with respect to their levels of forces and deployments – in the Treaty’s area of application, in order to avoid developments in the security situation in Europe diminishing the security of any State Party.”
In practice, this meant that, although NATO’s new members would be extended “Article V” protection – meaning that all NATO members were pledged to go to war to defend them – most of the actual alliance forces that could greatly and concretely enhance the deterrent effect of NATO membership would be denied them. In other words, their territories (including those of the vulnerable Baltics that were once part of the Soviet Union proper) would contain no U.S. or other NATO-member armed units that could serve as tripwires aimed at making their armed defense unavoidable. As Estonia’s president has bitterly observed, “In reality, we have a two-tiered NATO now.”
During the run up to the Wales summit, Putin’s provocations have moved the alliance to retreat from this position. Although the new members will still be denied permanent bases, the alliance will pre-position on their soil equipment and supplies intended to support – and receive – a new rapid reaction force.
So the alliance is moving to plug possible or perceived gaps in the Article V coverage, right? Not so fast. Congress and even almost genetically Atlanticist American foreign policy elites are becoming so frustrated with what they view as Europe’s excessively soft line toward Putin, and with the allies chronic refusal to maintain adequate armed forces, that plans are being floated to create an ostensibly leaner, meaner NATO – but one that paradoxically could re-open gigantic tears in the continent’s defense umbrella.
For example, the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum has suggested that “Maybe those who want to be covered by Article 5…should now be obligated to pay. Perhaps those who contribute less than 1 percent of their national budget should be told that the guarantee no longer applies to them. Certainly there don’t need to be any NATO bases in countries that refuse to contribute.” Gary J. Schmitt of the conservative and hawkish American Enterprise Institute agrees. One immediate problem: Almost none of the alliance’s European members would be eligible for its protection under these criteria, including cornerstone Germany.
It’s (remotely) possible that these contradictory actions and statements are part of an elaborate NATO plot to throw Russia off guard and keep it off balance. But I don’t see any Clausewitz’s or Sun Tzus among its leaders – or their top advisors. Nor, do I suspect, does Vladimir Putin.