EYE ON THE WORLD

Nato on a comeback

Russia's actions in Crimea have led the alliance to rediscover its usefulness since the end of Cold War. American leadership is vital.

THE Cold War won't come back. Regardless of how assertive today's Russia may become, it will never be the Soviet Union. Nor is there a new aggressive ideology which needs to be combated.

But in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, one of the key props of the Cold War period - the United States-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) alliance, is back. Almost exactly 65 years after it was established, that venerable old European lady is gearing itself up for a new life, as though the Cold War had never ended.

Yet strangely, few of Nato's current military commanders relish this comeback. For they know that history never quite repeats itself, that Nato's previous successes cannot be easily replicated. The world's most powerful military alliance may have recovered its purpose, but it has yet to recover its poise.

Past achievements

FOUNDED in Washington in April 1949, Nato was always expected to fix many security needs at the same time. The alliance's purpose was summarised in the immortal words of Lord Ismay - its British-born, first secretary-general - as "to keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in".

Nato accomplished all these tasks. The tens of thousands of tanks and armoured personnel carriers which the Soviet Union amassed in the heart of the continent never crossed Europe's East-West dividing line. The Germans rose from the ashes of World War II and resumed their natural role as Europe's most powerful nation, without threatening their neighbours. Meanwhile, Nato was the organisation through which the Americans happily paid the bulk of Europe's defence bills.

More impressively still, Nato achieved all these objectives without firing a single shot in anger. The alliance's baptism of fire came only during the 1990s in the Balkans, long after the Soviet Union disappeared. And the only time Nato invoked the famous collective security guarantee it gives each one of its members was in 2001; ironically this was in support of none other than the US, the alliance's strongest member, then reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The idea that European security would have been improved had Nato disbanded when the Cold War ended may sound appealing, but is thoroughly misconceived. For if Nato had disappeared in the early 1990s, the result would have been a security disaster of global proportions. It would have unleashed US isolationism worldwide, as US troops went home from Europe. Individual European nations would have started providing for their own security, often at the expense of others. And nobody would have bothered to douse the flames of vicious civil wars such as those of the Balkans.

Nor is it true that Nato should have refused to include the former communist countries of Eastern Europe as full alliance members. For, quite apart from the fact that it made no sense to keep Europe's Cold War division in place after the Soviet Union collapsed, if the East Europeans were isolated, the result would have been more, not less conflict. Countries such as Poland or Romania would have banded together to stave off what they perceived as a perennial Russian military threat. Only Nato calmed the East Europeans down; only the alliance has kept a modicum of stability on the continent since the end of the Cold War.

One of Nato's least noticed but important achievements is that it accustomed Europeans to plan for their defence collectively, rather than in purely national terms. And that makes for a less complicated and less aggressive continent: The most frequent criticism levelled against Europe is not that it rushes into conflicts, but rather that it's often too reluctant to use force, when only force would do.

And it's also likely that Nato tamed America's instincts to act alone around the world. If Nato remains Europe's indispensable alliance, its European members are also America's indispensable allies.

A renewed sense of purpose

STILL, left to its own devices and in the absence of any major crisis in Europe, the alliance seemed destined to atrophy and decay. It led the troops which intervened in Libya in 2011, and still commands the international forces in Afghanistan.

But both operations are exceptions to Nato's core mission, and the Afghanistan adventure ends later this year, with everyone agreeing that the experience should never be repeated.

So until a few weeks ago, the British, who are hosting the next Nato summit in September, were scratching their heads thinking of what to put on the agenda. The best they came up with were suggestions for some Nato anti-piracy operations on the coastlines of Africa, and new "partnership agreements" with countries around the world, hardly stirring material.

The man who changed all that is, of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose military intervention in Crimea overturned most of Europe's security assumptions. For the first time since World War II, a European border was changed by force. And, for the first time in decades, a Russian invasion is now again within the realm of the possible. These are precisely the kind of threats Nato was designed to deal with; "the alliance is coming home" is the slogan currently popular with officials at its Brussels headquarters.

In the short term, Nato knows what it has to do: reassure its member-states that they will never face Ukraine's fate.

As early as this week, alliance aircraft will be deployed to the Baltic states, while US Marines will go to Romania, in a clear warning to Russia that the US-backed Nato security guarantee remains as solid as ever. But that's a largely political message which is easy to convey; the far more difficult job is what the alliance does in the mid term.

Europe's armed forces have spent the past two decades transforming themselves from the old, top-heavy structures with lots of tanks, artillery pieces and conscripts tasked with defending the national territory, into nimble, flexible and much smaller outfits ready for expeditionary operations anywhere around the globe. The assumption was that - as Germany's Defence White Paper put it last year - there was "little likelihood" that any European country will face the need to defend its borders.

Now, however, that looks like a misconception, but returning to the territorial defence tasks of the past won't be easy.

Nato military planners are also forced now to discard their previous assessments of Russian capabilities.

Gone are the days when Russian troops were demoralised, disorganised and badly supplied: The operation in Crimea was accomplished by elite Russian units which were well trained, well fed and very well equipped with the latest communications systems. And Russia's military modernisation is set to continue: By next year, the country will be spending US$100 billion (S$126 billion) on its armed forces yearly.

If Nato is determined to deter such crack Russian troops from ever crossing the alliance's borders, it will have to pre-position both soldiers and a great deal of equipment in central Europe, near Russia's frontiers; Poland alone has already demanded the stationing of no less than 10,000 alliance troops on its soil.

Challenges ahead

FOR the moment, nobody in Europe is prepared to contemplate such permanent deployments. Yet without these, the alliance is unable to really defend many of its members: As the tiny Baltic states often point out, they could be overwhelmed by Russian forces within hours, and well before any Nato reinforcements arrive.

To make matters worse, Nato's new missions come at the worst economic juncture, just as European governments are tightening their expenditure. Defence budgets are going down everywhere, with the biggest cuts planned in the US military. Reversing such cuts seems unthinkable now.

Still, Europe remains a very rich continent, and Nato has at least a 10-year technological lead over the Russian military in all the critical weapons systems.

Meanwhile, the US military is still outspending the Russian one five times over, yearly. So, if Nato is determined to retain the upper hand in this showdown, it can definitely do so.

But none of this can be achieved without US leadership and, at least for the moment, the Americans have given no indication which way they want Nato to go.

It is noticeable that, while US President Barack Obama has spent many hours on the telephone talking about Ukraine to various European leaders, he has not considered it important to address his own American people even once about a European crisis which may ultimately require fresh US sacrifices.

But Mr Obama will soon have to make up his mind. For without a clear, firm message from its American paymasters, Nato will remain incapable of meeting the current challenge and may unravel from within, ironically at precisely the moment when the alliance has rediscovered its usefulness.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 7, 2014