French President Emmanuel Macron famously said in 2019 that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was in a state of “brain death”. But the alliance has formed a united front since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Could Russia’s war mark the start of NATO’s lasting revival?
In a first for the organization, NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, deployed its rapid response force of 40,000 troops, to fortify European borders in response to the war in Ukraine. Operational since 2004, NATO’s troops – including land, air, maritime and special operations forces – have only previously been used to respond to natural disasters and to coordinate the departure from Afghanistan in 2021.
In Romania, 500 French soldiers are now expected near a NATO base in the country, while 1,000 troops have been sent to bolster deterrent forces in Poland and the Baltic states. Fighter planes have also been deployed to ensure air security in countries neighboring Ukraine and Russia.
NATO’S firm and extensive response to the crisis has encouraged Finland and Sweden, two countries that have never been in the alliance, to review whether they want to join. This unexpected announcement highlights the central role the organization is playing in the war in Ukraine.
‘NATO is returning to its original purpose’
Divided, discredited by Macron and former US President Donald Trump, and destabilized by the chaos of the US exit from Afghanistan, a short time ago, the alliance seemed weaker than ever.
“Vladimir Putin’s actions have enabled NATO to strengthen its ties and relaunch itself,” Jenny Rafik, researcher and specialist in the history of NATO at the University of Nantes told FRANCE 24. “With the Russian invasion, NATO has returned to its original purpose, which also causes the least conflict between member countries.”
NATO was founded in 1949 during the Cold War to defend countries in Western Europe against the Soviet Bloc in the east. Today it is rediscovering this calling with “unprecedented” fervor, Samantha de Bendern, a researcher with the think tank Chatham House told FRANCE 24. “NATO is a defensive organization, that aims to put occidental countries under the US ‘nuclear umbrella’. Even though it has been divided for years, the threat from Russia has now swept away the main points of disagreement.”
The end of divisions
This has resolved longstanding differences of opinion between NATO’s eastern and western members. After the fall of the USSR, countries formerly in the Soviet Bloc, such as Hungary and Poland, joined NATO to defend themselves against their powerful Russian neighbor. Recent events have justified their fears to France, Spain, and the US, who wanted to see the alliance shift its focus to the Mediterranean, China, and the risks of terrorism.
It has also resolved criticism from the US over the lack of military investment from European countries, and Germany in particular. Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced on February 27 a historic volte-face for German military policy. As well as a €100 billion defense budget, Berlin will now spend more than 2% of its GDP on the armed forces up until 2024, something the US has been demanding for years.
Doubts over the loyalty of some members have also been put to bed. US President Joe Biden said on February 24 that he would defend “every inch” of NATO territory against Russia. “For some years Europe has been concerned that the US would not fulfill its duties in NATO,” said de Bendern. Smaller countries, in particular, have doubted that the US would respond with force if they were attacked.
“The position Joe Biden [over Ukraine] has taken has allayed this fear, even if Europeans will only be completely reassured when the US has proved its loyalty by defending them in armed conflict.”
Turkey has also aligned with NATO, when some were worried it would not. “Recep Tayyip Erdogan has maintained a fairly close relationship with Vladimir Putin,” said Bendern. “The decision by the Turkish president to deliver weapons to Ukraine and to close the Bosphorous and the Dardanelles Strait [between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea] to warships has dissipated any doubts.”
However, there is no guarantee that the current united front will lead to a long-term consensus against Russia. Even though Ukraine is not a NATO member, the country’s drift towards the alliance was justification for the Russian invasion. As such, it remains unlikely that Finland and Sweden will risk joining the group and finding out if Russian threats against them materialize into reprisals.
After the Second World War, Finland declared a form of neutrality towards Moscow that favored neither the east or the west. Sweden too has refrained from sending weapons to conflict zones in the past.
Both have now broken with tradition and said they will send arms to Ukraine. Nonetheless, “neutralizing Finland was one of the major issues of the Cold War,” said Raflik. “There is no guarantee that the members of NATO would accept running the risk of provoking Russian anger by letting Finland in.”
The stakes have been heightened by Putin announcing on February 27 that he had placed Russia’s nuclear arsenal on high alert. Trying to de-escalate the situation, the US publicly reiterated that it would not send troops to Ukraine.
This means that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request to NATO for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would have to be enforced by the US military, has so far been denied.
The EU has sent fighter jets into Ukraine, and air defense is “the best chance Ukraine has to win the military conflict,” says de Bendern. But Biden has been clear: there will be no air intervention from NATO in Ukraine in order to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia.
As such, the future for NATO, and the potential for expanding its influence, remains uncertain beyond the conflict in Ukraine. “It’s hard to predict how the situation could evolve amid the current high emotions in the context of war,” said Raflik. “For now, public opinion in Europe is in favor of spending on defense and supporting the development of NATO operations. But when the situation calms down, will people feel the same?”