This week, NATO will hold a summit in Newport, Wales. It could prove a milestone in the organisation’s history. Since the last such event in Chicago in 2012, the security landscape has changed dramatically and important questions about NATO’s performance, rationale and future direction will need to be addressed.
The agenda will be threefold: to reinforce the collective security of NATO members, to consider the problems of the Afghanistan withdrawal, and to ponder the future of NATO in the twenty-first century.
The first item is about responding to Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. Russian security forces have been engaging in ‘hybrid warfare’ using irregulars and arming dissidents to undermine the stability of a sovereign state. The tragic consequences include the shooting down of MH17 in July, with the appalling result of 298 innocent civilians killed.
The arms-length nature of Russia’s actions pose real problems for NATO’s collective defence. Here we have citizens of NATO countries murdered and yet no accountability as Russia denies its responsibility for the outcome. Hybrid warfare falls between Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that ‘The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened’ and Article 5 which commits all the parties to consider ‘an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America’ as ‘an attack against them all’.
The difficulty lies in how far support for dissident movements, including the arming of rebels, constitutes an ‘armed attack’. If collective security is to be meaningful, NATO members will have to consider how to deal with what policymakers are calling ‘Article 4.5’ activities (including cyber attacks), and where they will draw the line. Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), are, and they have significant Russian minorities. President Putin has found stirring up trouble on Russia’s borders a useful way of shoring up domestic support. NATO needs to ensure that collective security guarantees are robust in the face of Russian subversion.
The larger problem is whether NATO needs to rethink its whole strategic relationship with Russia. Many European countries are reliant on Russian energy supplies and others, such as the UK, have strong investment links with the country. The British Chairman of JCB, Lord Bamford, has decried European sanctions as “absurd” and risking British jobs. But there is no trade without security and the rule of law. Europe has to demonstrate that it will respond to aggression or risk further destabilisation in the future.
Understandably, Western policymakers do not want a return to Cold War animosities when their economic recovery is so fragile. But the Cold War analogy is wrong. Russia does not promote an alternative ideological position to the West in the way that the Soviet Union did. Instead, it is reverting to a nineteenth century pattern of spheres of influence and great power politics to assert national pride. Such a policy is dangerous. The anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War is a reminder that national pride and great power rivalry can have terrible consequences.