Those were the words of Lord Ismay, its first Secretary General, and those goals largely defined NATO’s mission over its first 40 years.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, however, NATO’s primary purpose has become obsolete. The Soviet organized Warsaw Pact has disappeared. Indeed, many of its former members are now part of NATO. The prospect of a Russian invasion of western Europe has largely vanished. Even if it wanted to, Russia simply lacks the force structure to execute such an invasion, much less successfully occupy western Europe.
While Western Europe has little to fear from an armed Russian attack, NATO’s newest members in eastern Europe, especially those states that were once part of the Soviet Union, are particularly concerned about the Kremlin’s attempts to intimidate and subvert them.
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Judging by Russia’s actions in Ukraine and to a lesser extent Georgia, Russian threats in the future are likely to consist of a combination of cyber-warfare, subversion and insurgency, especially among ethnic Russians living in targeted countries, and ongoing attempts at political and economic manipulation.
By producing domestic chaos and instability, the Kremlin has a pretext to intervene with Russian military forces, either in the guise of peacekeepers to protect ethnic Russians or in an unofficial capacity as volunteers of unspecified origins. The latter also gives the Kremlin plausible deniability for its actions. This type of threat is very real and is completely different from the mission that NATO was designed to serve.
Since 1989, NATO has been steadily expanding its membership across Eastern Europe, while at the same time accepting responsibilities well outside of its original mandate. The immediate consequences have been a significant mismatch between its military capabilities and the external threats, either directly or indirectly, that its members face.
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NATO’s eastern expansion was motivated by the corresponding eastern expansion of the EU and the desire to incorporate those countries into a European-wide system of collective defence. There was also an element of atonement for the decision made at Yalta two generations ago to abandon the region to Soviet hegemony.
This expansion, especially when it involved some of the former states of the Soviet Union, was seen by the Kremlin as a provocation and ran counter to what Russia claimed was an unofficial agreement reached with the United States to forego NATO’s eastern expansion in return for Soviet acquiescence to German reunification.
Of late, Russia has become increasingly provocative toward the nations that make up what the Kremlin calls the “near abroad.” These are countries that Russia sees as geographically essential to its defence and whose participation in NATO is deemed by the Kremlin as threatening to Russia.
These provocations have taken the form of frequent overflights of armed Russian fighter-bombers operating with their transponders turned off, numerous instances of cyber-warfare, blackmail threats to interrupt Russian supplies of natural gas or electrical power, attempts to stir up organized dissent among ethnic Russian citizens in those countries, military intimidation and heavy-handed attempts at political and economic manipulation.
In the case of Georgia, once a candidate member to join NATO, this also involved an invasion by Russian special forces. In Ukraine’s case, similar actions, including Russian seizure of the Crimea and portions of the Donbass Basin whose population was predominantly ethnic Russians, was organized to forestall any moves by Kiev to pursue NATO membership. Particularly worrisome is the fact that all three of the Baltic Republics – Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia – have been seeing an intensifying pattern of Russian provocation and attempts at political intimidation.
In June 2016, NATO added cyber-warfare as an “operational domain of war,” no different than land, naval or aerial warfare. While cyber-warfare now qualifies as a form of attack that can trigger the Article V mutual defence provision, the nature of cyber-attacks makes it difficult to always know who the antagonist is. The other types of Russian tactics, while no less threatening, are a lot more diffuse than an armed attack.
These kinds of provocations do not explicitly come under the provisions of what constitutes an attack under Article V. They are a lot more subjective and open to interpretation or dispute. Ethnic unrest, for example, may result from legitimate domestic grievances as well as foreign manipulation.
Many NATO members are reluctant to make what appear to be purely domestic issues a pretext for triggering the mutual defence clause. NATO needs to redefine the kinds of threats it is designed to oppose to reflect the tactics in the Kremlin’s playbook. To date, there is no consensus within NATO on what this new threat definition should be or how it should be determined.
For NATO’s eastern European members and for the Baltic Republics in particular, this new definition of NATO’s security mission can’t come soon enough.
Joseph Micallef is a historian, best-selling author and commentator on world politics.