Russia-NATO differences over Ukraine distract Western powers from other long-term priorities, such as addressing the growing threat of terrorism in the Middle East or reducing instability in Afghanistan.
U.S. President Barack Obama, center, is seated at a table with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, left, and British Prime Minister David Cameron as they meet about Ukraine at the NATO summit at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales. Photo: AP
While the international security agenda of late has been defined by the proliferation of violent regional conflicts around the globe, the upcoming NATO summit appears to be focused on a problem much closer to home: the crisis in Ukraine.
This NATO summit, unlike previous summits, has the potential to prove consequential both in terms of the future strategic direction of NATO development and how NATO responds to the most pressing issues of international agenda.
There are a few aspects of the summit that require particularly close attention.
First of all, the summit is to confirm the ongoing strategic readjustment of the Alliance. Since the early 2000s, the U.S. has been seeking to transform NATO into an expeditionary organization able to conduct operations around the globe. This approach was natural for Washington, which viewed the organization as an extension of its own military capabilities.
Yet, it sharply contrasted with the Alliance mandate during the Cold War, which envisioned the provision of territorial defense for its members. The renewed NATO Strategic Concept adopted in 2010 incorporated both missions, but with a clear inclination towards an expeditionary force.
Now, just a few years later, the situation has changed dramatically. The shrinking financial resources as well as results that have been ambiguous at best for NATO interventions in Afghanistan and the Middle East have diminished the appetite for new ‘Non-Article 5’ operations [external operations such as military intervention or humanitarian aid – Editor’s note]. The Expeditionary Alliance appeared too expansive and inefficient for its members.
This internal disillusionment in the projection of force around the world could have led to a renewed debate on the Alliance mandate. However, escalation in Ukraine provided NATO with a renewed purpose and brought back to the forefront the territorial defense rationale.
As Russia was not only blamed for being responsible for destabilization in Ukraine, but also suspected in asserting its influence in relations with its neighbors, the logic of containment was released from the archives and the Alliance was tasked to come back to Europe.
As of today, NATO has provided only moderate support to the struggling Kiev authorities, but it couldn’t overlook the concerns of its own members, such as Poland, Romania and the Baltic states. Still, it’s important to remember that current measures - including the announced launch of a Readiness Action Plan and basing arrangements in Central and Eastern Europe - are more of symbolic rather than substantive nature.
While military conflict between Russia and NATO remains unthinkable, despite harsh rhetoric and sanctions, there is certain restraint in actions on both sides.
Particular limits of this restraint could change over time, however. In this regard, the Summit will provide U.S. President Barack Obama one more opportunity to persuade his more reluctant European colleagues to toughen their message to Moscow. In this pursuit, he would probably focus not so much on the Alliance policies themselves. While his administration demonstrates interest in more substantive ways to affect Russia’s behavior, the NATO Summit will enable it to lobby European leaders for additional actions on behalf of the EU.
The NATO strategic adjustment could be tracked not only in measures under consideration of the Alliance leaders, but also in the issues which are not on the table, such as NATO’s engagement in the fight against Jihadists across the Middle East. Despite the fact that the situation in such countries as Iraq, Libya and Syria will be on the agenda, the Alliance (or more specifically its European allies) is clearly unwilling to commit to meaningful actions in the area. Therefore, this Summit it is unlikely that the NATO leaders will go beyond mere political statements on deterioration in the Middle East.
The one issue of the expeditionary nature, which is still relatively high on the agenda, is Afghanistan. Although the mandate of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces in this country is due to expire on January 1, 2015, the NATO allies will try to agree on a plan for continuous engagement in Afghanistan.
The current prolonged inability of local forces to come to an agreement on the results of presidential elections demonstrates the urgency of external involvement in Afghan stabilization. Ironically, the Euro-Atlantic leaders will have to discuss the critical questions related to the future of Afghanistan in the absence of its relevant representation in meetings because the new president of the country isn’t yet announced.
The real possibility of a violent clash between supporters of two major candidates for the recent Afghan elections revealed the fragility of the latest NATO-sponsored pacification in the country. In Wales, the Allies will need at least to attempt to address these disturbing developments, even though creative solutions in this regard haven’t been announced so far.
The packed agenda of the NATO Summit proves the continued relevance of the Alliance to its Members. However, the recent trend towards regional focus cannot be lasting. The premise of a Russian threat as a justification for defensive precautions is unsustainable in the long run, as it distracts Western powers from their long-term priorities.
The real and substantial challenges, related to the rising tensions in Asia Pacific, unfavorable demographic trends and flows of migration, as well as economic misbalances and a decrease in global competitiveness cannot be resolved simply by beefing up its presence in Central and Eastern Europe.
Even more, both the U.S. and their allies should be interested in reduction of security expenditures, rather than escalation of confrontation with Russia. Therefore, the Alliance will probably need soon rethink its core mission once again.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.