“More NATO” – How the Alliance has responded to the conflict in Ukraine

By Professor Amelia Hadfield and Christian Turner.

There are certain dates that live in infamy. Where the world seems a very different place, where language is of a pre- and post-date world. 1st August 1914, 3rd September 1939, 11th September 2001. It is clear that 24th February 2022 has now been added to that list. The Russian invasion of Ukraine; brazen in nature, horrific in action, has seen the tectonic plates of European security and defence shift at lightening pace. NATO, which only three years ago was described as ‘brain dead’ by French President Emmanuel Macron, has been revitalised and stands on the verge of expanding its territorial border with Russia.

A flatpack expansion

The most telling sign of the revitalisation of NATO has been its impending expansion by the association of Finland and Sweden. Historically neutral, it was in the immediate weeks before February 24th that some political commentators were calling for the ‘Finlandisation’ of Ukraine – in effect, the military and perhaps political neutrality of Kyiv. It referred to the Cold War era where Helsinki looked to balance its strategic interests between the East and West. In practice though, Finland was always more Western in nature. In the 1990s, with the might of the USSR collapsing, Finland quickly associated to the European Union and more recently has been part of the Joint Expeditionary Force, a British-led military endeavour comprising of 10 European nations.

The decision of Finland and Sweden to join NATO reflects a two-pronged approach: Firstly, it can no longer take assurances from Moscow at face value. Finland in particular is vulnerable due to its long border with Russia, whilst there have been concerns that Russia may have eyes on the Swedish island of Gotland Island, a strategic vantage point along the Baltic Sea. Secondly, public opinion in the two countries towards NATO has shifted to such an extent since February that a referendum has not been deemed necessary. Polling has put support at joining NATO at 76% in Finland and 57% in Sweden.

The withdrawal of the Turkish veto on the two Nordic states will soon see just four EU member states outside of NATO: Austria, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta, none of which are realistic targets for an impending Russian assault. Denmark, for its part, recently voted to overturn its opt-out of the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) – reflecting a realisation across European capitals that strength in numbers and a common approach where possible is needed.

Continuing support of Ukraine

Four months on and it appears clear that the war shows no signs of abating. Russia continues to slowly pick up Ukrainian territory, but at a pace that shows no signs of impending victory and risks a counterinsurgency from Ukraine. NATO, for its part, continues to provide military support to Ukraine.

The problem right now is that NATO is doing enough to prevent Ukraine being stream rolled – to in effect keep the conflict relatively static but not enough to allow Ukraine to reclaim sufficient territory. This may be in part due to concerns that Russia could perceive certain offensive weaponry as a declaration of war by NATO. The existing strategy seems to instead depend on a shifting of mood within the Kremlin – either through a deposing of President Putin or a realisation that ‘victory’ may bear too high of a cost.

At the NATO summit in Madrid, Olaf Scholz conceded that it was down to the US to decide whether European states should provide tanks to Ukraine. Concerns are that this may be seen as a step too far by Russia whilst also reflecting the difficulty to get the hardware physically into Ukraine. Conversely, the recent recapture of Snake Island by Ukrainian` forces (or voluntary surrender by Russia according to the Kremlin), does suggest a Ukrainian offensive is possible and in the case of the island, gives hope of relieving the de-facto blockade on Ukrainian grain exports.

Protecting its Eastern members

NATO has also been resolute in ensuring its existing members in Eastern Europe have the security protections in place to counter concerns of an expanding Russian invasion. This comes at a delicate time where concerns exist over the Sulwaki Gap, as well as Russian intentions over Moldova, in particular the disputed state of Transnistria.

The NATO Summit in Madrid that took place between the 28th-30th June included some noteworthy announcements. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that 300,000 troops would be placed on ‘high readiness’ to deter Russian aggression – although the details and the specific deployments from each member have not yet been spelled out. The United Kingdom increased its military aid support by £1 billion during the NATO summit, with the new funding allowing Ukraine to make offensive efforts to regain Russian held territory. Whilst other members opted not to join in, Stoltenberg underlined NATO’s resolve to Ukraine by starting that “Ukraine can count on us for as long as it takes.”

Facing threats both old and new

In the face of a post 24th February world, NATO released its Strategic Concept during the summit at the June Madrid Summit. For some, NATO may appear something of a strategy factory, churning out updated responses in reaction to external events, or laying down its own objectives to stay geopolitically relevant. The 2022 Strategic Concept however is not simply the latest in a barrage of renovations. As made clear during its launch:

The Strategic Concept is a key document for the Alliance, second only to NATO’s founding North Atlantic Treaty in importance. It reaffirms NATO’s values and purpose, and provides a collective assessment of the security environment. It also drives NATO’s strategic adaptation and guides its future political and military development. Since the end of the Cold War, it has been updated approximately every 10 years, to take account of changes to the global security environment.

The key drivers are clear. Europe has altered, the EU has expanded and NATO itself has transformed in its identity, interests and policies. Post-war changes have been both piecemeal and dramatic, with shifts since 2010 emerging as the key push factor, producing an unpredictable, highly contested security environment, requiring the rearticulation of “a shared vision of the threats, challenges and opportunities” facing NATO and Europe together.

The 2022 Strategic Concept is therefore the most radical update of Euro-Atlantic security seen since the end of the Second World War, making clear not only that the area finds itself under profound threat, but that Russia and China together represent the key antagonists in this transformed landscape. As a regionally hegemonic actor, China is identified both in terms of its current ambitions and its anticipated coercive policies, which taken together represent a significant challenge to Euro-Atlantic “interests, security and values”. China is however physically at a material remove from NATO theatre of activity. Russia is therefore the principal target of NATO’s new Strategic Concept, its “brutal war of aggression against Ukraine” having upended European peace, as well as thoroughly violating the full structure of norms, and enumerated principles upon which the post-war and post-Cold war European security order has rested for decades. The Russian invasion of Ukraine therefore represents “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area”.

Perhaps the most significant observation however is not merely the enumeration of known antagonists, or the enumerated threats and risks now facing NATO and its partners, but the clear statement that China and Russia are natural partners, operating disruptively and provocatively to materially damage the Euro-Atlantic terrain and normatively undermine global principles more generally. More worryingly, the two have their own plans:

Russia and China are developing a strategic partnership and are at the forefront of an authoritarian pushback against the rules-based international order. Terrorism remains a persistent threat, and is the most direct asymmetric threat to our citizens’ security. We also face a number of other global and interconnected threats and challenges, including from climate change, as well as emerging and disruptive technologies, and the erosion of the arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation architecture.

On paper, the response is a coordinated 5-point plan:

  • Reaffirm NATO’s key purpose and of guaranteeing the the collective defence of Allies.
  • Reassert NATO’s trinity of goals: deterrence and defence; crisis prevention and management; and cooperative security.
  • Restate its relevance in relation to the specific Ukraine crisis through response and prevention of further crises “that could affect Allied security”, as well as reiterating Ukraine’s sovereign right to uphold its self-defence, as enshrined in the United Nations Charter.
  • Remind itself, its partners and the wider world that cooperative security is central to NATO’s modus operandi.
  • Rearticulate the comprehensive, integrated approach to tackling multiple problems; badged as resilience but in practice aligned coherence to ensure national and Alliance-wide coordination.

In terms of hardware, NATO allies have written the closest thing it can to a blank cheque, by agreeing to not only increase the sheer concentration in its delivery of humanitarian and non-lethal aid, but in doing so, to sustain their support for Ukraine as long as necessary. This includes boosting its regional holdings by placing more than 300,000 troops on a state of high readiness, alongside the expected cache of weapons, ammunition, light and heavy military equipment, including anti-tank and anti-air systems, howitzers and drones. Collectively, this  constitutes NATO’s singe largest overhaul since the Cold War itself. Equally, some limits remain clearly in place, including the suggestion of raising the 2% target of GDP on defence spending will be taken up in 2023 in Vilnius at the earliest.

What the world needs now is… more NATO?

Taken together however, the implications are strategic indeed, with some suggesting that a ‘Global NATO’ of sorts may be on the cards. This globality rests on threats that are both cross-border and pervasive, and the need for a uniquely cross-border and effective response. 

There used to be the joke in the early post-World War Two era that NATO was designed to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down. In the first two cases, this appears to be very much the modus operandi. Under President Biden, the USA’s commitment to the NATO alliance is without dispute and its why so many in Europe will begin to look with unease at the 2024 presidential election, in particular in the face of declining support for the Democrats since his inauguration. For Russia, it has managed to achieve ‘more NATO’, which was always likely to be the case when Europe was faced with its greatest security crisis of the century. The greatest indication of change comes in Germany, long criticised for under investment in its military, having revered course in March by announcing a special 100 billion euros for military spending for this year and a commitment to meet the GDP target of 2% from next year. Unless there are uplifts in London or Paris, it will make Germany the largest military spender in Europe and the third largest in the world. For a country that spent years trying to work economically with Putin’s Russia, it’s this complete change of policy that represents the most indicative reflection of a shift in European security.  

The communiqué issued at the Brussels summit in June acknowledges both the very real risks as well as the opportunities that might lie ahead. In typically diplomatic language, the document indicates that the 30 NATO allies “remain open to a periodic, focused, and meaningful dialogue with a Russia willing to engage on the basis of reciprocity” to reduce the chances of miscommunication at best and escalation at worst”. It remains to be seen where along this available spectrum the outcome of the Ukraine crisis, including NATO’s role in facilitating an ending, may fall.

Professor Amelia Hadfield is Dean International and Head of Department of Politics at the University of Surrey, as well as the Founder and former Co-Director of the Centre for Britain and Europe. Christian Turner is a Ph.D. candidate and Junior Fellow with the Centre for Britain and Europe.