LONDON >> NATO is the alliance that keeps finding reasons to exist, to the surprise of some and the annoyance of Moscow.
With the Russian annexation of Crimea and incursions in eastern Ukraine, NATO found renewed rationale in at least two-thirds of its old mantra for European security: Keep the Russians out, the United States in, and the Germans down.
NATO recently opened its doors to a new member, tiny Montenegro, which has been eager to join for nine years. But the invitation, six years after the organization’s last enlargement, NATO officials and analysts say, is a direct message to Moscow after the annexation of Crimea that NATO will continue to welcome countries that want to join, no matter the anger in Moscow.
“Before Ukraine, the question on Montenegro was, ‘What’s the point, it’s so small,’” said Derek Chollet, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. “After Ukraine, it was, ‘Why not?’”
There are always existential questions for NATO, which was formed in 1949 to defend Western Europe from any Soviet invasion.
With a NATO summit meeting scheduled for early July in Warsaw, Poland, security officials from the 28-member alliance are deep in talks about how to deal simultaneously with current and potential threats from Russia and from the chaos in the Middle East.
For Chollet, now at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, “the question isn’t whether NATO is relevant, but what is NATO relevant for?” With the “re-emergence of the Russian threat, Ukraine, concerns in Central Europe and the Balkans, we need NATO,” he said. “But how relevant is NATO for the threats from the south? That’s the big subject now.”
The pressure from an openly revanchist Russia has brought new U.S. military and budgetary commitments to the defense of Europe, in the interests of deterrence and reassurance, the Obama administration says.
At the same time, Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet has pulled NATO closer to engagement in the south — the battle against the Islamic State, which has carried out an attack on the civilians of at least one NATO country, France.
Tensions between NATO members bordering Russia, like Poland and the Baltic nations, and members closer to Syria and the migrant flow, like Greece and Italy, have been eased by Russia’s direct military involvement in Syria.
“There has been a tug of war between eastern and southern members about priorities, but now the east sees a Russian threat in the south, too, while the south sees a new conventional threat, as in the east,” said Rem Korteweg of the Center for European Reform, a research group based in London.
“Now we see a decision to boost air defenses off Turkey and put guided missile destroyers in the Black Sea and have more naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean — it’s a similar program of reassurance as the one for the east.”
After years of studies about threats outside Europe and worries that NATO would have little meaning after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the commitment to collective defense of member states in Europe itself has again become central.
“Ever since Russia went into Crimea and eastern Ukraine, people see NATO’s traditional mission of Article 5 as more important again,” a senior Obama administration official said, referring to the principle that an attack on one of the members is an attack on all of them. “It was always in the background, but people were sitting around doing contingency planning on possible threats. Now that’s changed.”
So the main conversation at the meeting in Warsaw will be how to carry out decisions made in 2014 in Wales — how many troops to put in the east, with what equipment and where to position them. The Poles, for example, want troops and equipment in their east, close to the Russian border, while other NATO countries, mindful of Moscow, want them closer to the German border.
“There’s a new urgency” about reassuring eastern members like Poland and the Baltics, “which feel under a lot of pressure,” Michael Fallon, British defense secretary, said in an interview. “NATO has just woken up in time, but it has woken up.”
There are contentious debates about how to speed up NATO decision-making in times of crisis, while preserving the principle of unanimity. Should the NATO commander, a U.S. general, be given “preauthorization” by NATO members to deploy new rapid reaction forces, still on national bases and under national command, and move equipment without getting further approval from national governments? Should the representatives of those governments, who sit on the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s decision-making body, reduce the number of intermediary steps necessary before action is taken?
For example, Korteweg said, the council must approve each stage. If intelligence sees a threat, the council must discuss it and unanimously agree to start military planning. It must then meet to approve the plans and vote again to generate forces, and then again to deploy them. All that now takes at least several days.
As for preauthorization, even the United States is wary, acknowledging issues of sovereignty.
Poland’s new right-wing government is pushing for permanent deployments of NATO troops, preferably American, on Polish soil. But Washington and Britain still prefer what officials call “a persistent and continuous presence” of NATO troops under various national commands to a “permanent” presence.
And Washington is not happy with loud calls by the Poles for nuclear weapons to be based in Poland, even if President Vladimir Putin of Russia talks more often than Soviet leaders used to about the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.
“The more searching conversation has to do with the south, and what NATO can do to backstop the counter-ISIL campaign,” the Obama administration official said, referring to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, “to backstop Turkey, to help partners in the Mediterranean, the Gulf and northern Africa” on issues like terrorism and the uncontrolled flow of migrants.
As usual, there will be pressure from the United States for NATO members to live up to their pledge to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, as Britain finally agreed to do this year. “I hope that will be welcomed in Washington,” Fallon said, also citing Britain’s decision to join the campaign against the Islamic State in Syria.
But the United States still accounts for some 75 percent of all NATO military spending; Germany, for example, spends only about 1.3 percent of GDP on defense.
Fallon noted that while only five members currently spend 2 percent, seven more have increased their military spending since the events in Ukraine and the last summit meeting in 2014, citing France, Poland, Norway, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Romania.
Russian military exercises have many countries anxious, which is their point. One exercise in March practiced an invasion of the Baltic States including the seizure of nearby territory from Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, intended to show NATO how hard it would be to retake the Baltic nations, even under Article 5, should they be occupied by Russia.
Russian actions, however, are prompting countries like Sweden and Finland, which have never been NATO members, to study it seriously. With other Balkan countries also seeking membership, Montenegro is unlikely to be the last.