Capstones: Unity in NATO, Courage in Ukraine

March 2022

What many of us feared has come to pass: Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, attempted to decapitate Ukraine’s democratically elected government, laid siege to Ukraine’s cities, and officially opened a new and darker era in Europe. If there’s any good news amidst all of this terrible news, it’s that Putin’s criminal war on Ukraine has made the NATO alliance more united than at any time since 9/11—and more important than at any time since 11/9. This is the very opposite of what Putin expected.

NATO’s renewed unity and importance

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the transatlantic community scrambled to address numerous post-Cold War crises. For example, NATO members formed the core of the campaigns that liberated Kuwait, flattened the ISIS caliphate, and protected Libyans from their own government; NATO contained the war in Bosnia and protected Kosovo; and NATO helped avenge al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks. But through all of this, NATO remained an important insurance policy just in case Moscow reverted to its old ways. And here we are.

Indeed, since its founding in 1949, NATO has been in the insurance business. Prudent people hope they never have to use insurance, but they realize that paying a little each month or each year protects them against having to pay a lot—or losing everything—if disaster strikes. The deterrent represented by Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty has always been an insurance policy against worst-case scenarios.

Importantly, this NATO insurance policy—this tool for deterring aggression against its members, building political consensus, promoting military interoperability, and containing war—is something pre-World War II Europe didn’t have. NATO embodies one other thing pre-World War II Europe didn’t have: America’s commitment. For NATO’s European members, NATO is a security guarantee backed by America. Without that guarantee, there’s no security, as history has a way of reminding those on the outside looking in, from Cold War Hungary to post-Cold War Ukraine. And for America, NATO is a hedge against another European-wide conflict triggering another great-power war.

It’s impossible to read Putin’s mind, but the rapidity and unity of NATO’s response to his buildup and bluster surely came as a surprise to the Russian strongman.

The 30-member alliance swiftly rejected Putin’s December diktat—and then set about the task of bolstering its easternmost members.

The U.S. has deployed B-52s to Britain; F-35s to Germany and “several operating locations along NATO’s eastern flank,” according to the Pentagon; F-15s to Poland and Estonia; F-16s to Romania; dozens of AH-64 attack helicopters to the Baltics and Poland; an armored brigade combat team of 7,000 soldiers to Germany; thousands of ground troops to Poland; hundreds of troops to Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania; and 800 combat troops to the Baltics. In addition, Washington approved a long-delayed sale of 250 M1A2 tanks to Poland, and surged the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman to join carrier strike groups from Italy and France in a remarkable show of force in the northern Mediterranean.

Britain has deployed hundreds of troops to Poland; sent warships to the Black Sea and eastern Med; dispatched Challenger tanks to the Baltics; doubled its troop commitment in Estonia; and based fighter-bombers in Romania and Poland. Canada has deployed hundreds of additional troops to augment its battlegroup in Latvia. Germany has sent troops to reinforce its contingent in Lithuania. France has deployed hundreds of combat troops to Romania. Denmark rushed F-16s to Lithuania and sent a frigate to the Baltic Sea. Spain deployed two warships to join a NATO taskforce in the Black Sea. Dutch F-35s and Spanish Eurofighters deployed to Bulgaria.

In January, several allies put key units on standby as NATO readied its rapid-response force to take up defensive positions. In February, that multinational force was activated for the first time in history. And in a stunning reversal, Germany announced that it would increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, something Washington and NATO have been begging Berlin to do since 2006. Germany also announced it would create a $112.7-billion modernization and rearmament fund.

The alliance hasn’t limited its response within the NATO footprint. In a crippling blow to Russia’s economy, the U.S., Britain, Canada, the EU and Japan disconnected Russian banks from SWIFT, the global messaging system that enables financial transfers among 11,000 banks in 200 countries. Britain, Canada and the EU joined the U.S. and other partners in imposing “unprecedented export control measures” to block Russia’s access to high-tech products.

Specific to Ukraine, the U.S. has flown reconnaissance flights over eastern and western Ukraine, and shared the intel with Kiev. The U.S. also formed an airbridge linking NATO bases with Kiev, enabling delivery of defensive weapons from North America, Britain, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Turkey and the Czech Republic. The U.S. has shipped tons of small-arms ammunition, mortar and artillery shells, antitank systems, and grenade launchers to Kiev. Britain has delivered thousands of antitank missiles, trained 22,000 Ukrainian troops, and provided weapons systems and infrastructure for Ukraine’s coastal defenses. The Balts have sent Ukraine antiaircraft missiles and antitank systems. Poland sent antiaircraft weapons. Turkey has delivered ground-attack drones. Germany—in yet another stunning reversal—is rushing 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine. Non-NATO member Sweden is sending 5,000 antitank systems to Ukraine’s gallant defenders. EU members in Eastern Europe crafted a clever plan to share their Russian-built warplanes with Ukraine, thus eliminating the need to retrain Ukrainian pilots. All told, 28 countries are shipping military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Pentagon and State Department officials have made clear the U.S. intends to continue supplying Ukraine weapons, if necessary via overland and Black Sea routes.

Of course, this may not be enough to preserve Ukraine. With tens of thousands of Russian troops now within its borders, Ukraine is not only maimed but also badly mismatched. Faced with a terrible choice of a) trying to wage conventional warfare against a full-spectrum military force capable of flattening the whole of Ukraine, b) mounting a guerilla insurgency that would surely make Russia bleed (see above) but also turn Ukraine into a latter-day Bosnia, or c) capitulating to Putin and thus sacrificing its sovereignty in order to limit death and destruction, Ukraine’s Churchillian leader and courageous people have chosen a mix of those first two options. It’s a just and honorable course. Indeed, in this opening chapter of Putin’s criminal war, the Ukrainian people have proven themselves to be a nation of warriors and earned NATO’s respect—and if they survive the hell Putin has unleashed, a seat at NATO’s table.

But as we have already seen, this path is bloody and brutal. And Russia’s sheer mass could be enough to overwhelm Ukraine, especially as Putin employs the beastly scorched-earth tactics he used in Chechnya and Syria.

Revival of Turkey-NATO bonds

For individuals and nations alike, times of crisis have a way of putting things in perspective. That appears to be what’s happening for Turkey and NATO.

The longtime NATO member has been somewhat estranged from the alliance due to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies at home and wayward actions abroad. The most glaring was his 2017 decision to purchase and deploy—over Washington’s strong objection—Russia’s S-400 air-defense system. As a consequence, Turkey was thrown out of the F-35 consortium—a select group of U.S. allies invited to participate in the production and deployment of one of the world’s most sophisticated stealth fighter-bombers. Understandably, Washington worried that the S-400 system—and its Russian trainers and technicians—would be able to tap into the F-35’s technology.

Washington was not only livid with Erdogan, but concerned about his drift into Putin’s orbit. Erdogan was equally furious with Washington. Yet Putin’s war on Ukraine has reminded these old allies that they have a common enemy and common interests. That’s what brought them together during Cold War I, and that’s what is pulling them back together in these early hours of Cold War II.

Turkey has shown itself to be firmly on the side of Ukraine’s sovereignty and democracy. In addition to shipping those ground-attack drones to Ukraine (which have been lethally effective against Putin’s invasion forces), Erdogan visited Kiev in February for defense talks, joined NATO’s other 29 members in roundly rejecting Putin’s outrageous demands, and served as one of Ukraine’s emissaries to Moscow. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has leaned on Erdogan throughout the crisis. Erdogan has called Putin’s invasion “a clear violation of Ukraine’s political unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity” and “unacceptable.” And most dramatic of all, for just the second time in history, Turkey closed the Black Sea to Russian warships—something Turkey is empowered to do under the Montreux Convention.

As Putin tries to reconstitute the Russian Empire, Erdogan is realizing, finally, that Turkey’s future is far better served by its alliance with NATO—which has stood by Turkey for seven decades—than by a marriage of convenience with Russia—which is an ancient foe of the Turkish people, a serial violator of treaties, and a pariah state.

As Turkey comes in from the cold, it seems likely that Erdogan will give up Russia’s S-400s, which would allow Turkey to rejoin the F-35 partnership. This is not to countenance or forgive Erdogan’s actions, especially his authoritarian moves at home. But with Russia on the march, NATO and Turkey need each other—in Europe, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean—just as they did during Cold War I.

Clarity at home and abroad

From Europe to America, Putin’s war should cause the scales to fall from the eyes of those who offered silly photo-ops and hushed promises of “flexibility” to this us ruthless dictator, who thought MREs and blankets and radios could somehow deter aggression, who mockingly dismissed concerns about Russian revisionism, who pronounced NATO obsolete or brain dead, who assured us we could turn inward and focus on nation-building at home, who tried to use troop deployments to settle geopolitical scores, who slashed NATO’s deterrent strength (see here, here, here and here). Putin’s actions have exposed these policies and positions as misguided. Some have recognized this; some have not.

Putin is not another Hitler. However, what Putin has set in motion serves as an echo of 1938. That was the year Hitler threatened war over German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia and was rewarded at Munich for threatening to wage a war of aggression—and then went on to wage a war of aggression. Though not invited to Munich, Czechoslovakia was not silent. “Today it is our turn,” Czech Foreign Minister Kamil Krofta said, as a stronger, bigger neighbor gobbled up his country. “Tomorrow it will be the turn of others.” He was right.

There’s another echo here. Like history’s other revisionist autocrats, Putin masters in the double-standard and in contriving historical grievances. He labels Ukraine “Novorossiya,” a czarist-era term for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. He laments how the collapse of the USSR meant that “historically Russian territories with a historically Russian population, primarily in Ukraine, had found themselves living outside Russia.” He calls Ukraine “an integral part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” He claims Ukraine is building “an anti-Russia” and “stockpiling the latest weapons…Just imagine how Russia must live and carry on.” 

This would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high. Russia, which invaded Ukraine, has a $1.7-trillion GDP, a population of 145 million, 1.4 million men under arms, a $61.7-billion military budget, and 4,500 nuclear warheads. Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia, has a $153-billion GDP, a population of 44 million, 297,000 men under arms, a $5.9-billion defense budget, and zero nuclear weapons. In fact, Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal in exchange for a commitment from Russia to “refrain from the threat or use of force” and respect Ukraine’s “independence…sovereignty and the existing borders.”

That’s a reminder that Putin—like his Soviet predecessors, like Hitler—doesn’t keep his word and doesn’t care about treaties.

Opportunity for foreign-policy consensus

Throughout American history, external threats have served as a powerful unifying force. The British army’s massacre of colonists in Boston and the British government’s “intolerable acts” united planters and merchants, Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. Imperial Germany’s “warfare against mankind” and diplomatic treachery spurred a pacifist America into the Great War. Japan’s “unprovoked and dastardly attack” transformed an isolationist America into a global military juggernaut. The communist bloc’s attempt to seize West Berlin and South Korea rallied Americans for the Cold War.

Just as the made-in-China pandemic proved that the PRC’s internal political system is an international problem—and quieted those who convinced themselves that such a regime could somehow be reformed by access to Buicks and Kentucky Fried Chicken—what Putin is doing to Ukraine and in Ukraine confirms to the naïve what Putin wants. And that is, as Churchill said of Putin’s predecessors, “the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.” For Putin, that translates into a neutered NATO and a reconstituted Russian Empire.

Putin’s actions also point the way toward what America and its NATO allies must do to prevent him from getting what he wants. The venerable alliance seems awake to that in these early phases of Cold War II.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Providence.

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