It was one great historical irony that when NATO’s famous Article 5 – an attack on any member is an attack on all and demands their assistance – was invoked, it would be not in the aid of the European states for which the Treaty was designed but for the U.S. Nor did the 9/11 attack come from NATO’s anticipated enemy, the Soviet Union, but the new international jihadist terror network.
Thus history’s most successful alliance – it protected Western Europe at the highwater mark of Communism both without and within for a half century until the Soviet Union imploded — met a new challenge in far-off Afghanistan. Yes, the German contingent spent too much time drinking beer and refusing night warfare, most of the Europeans sent token forces, and “the Anglo-Saxons” [certainly not excluding the Australians!] as usual carried the weight to a quick military victory despite outrageous rules of engagement. And, with the current kind of political impasse in “nation building” in Kabul, the longest war in U.S. history might still come to less. But the Treaty obligations worked.
Now, almost two decades after Moscow seemed a convert to a new universalism of free elections, an independent judiciary and media, a civil society and market economics, the European leadership is back to square one. A lying, hypocritical Russian dictatorship in all but name – if basically weak — has challenged with naked aggression the whole benign concept of what the Obama Administration keeps preaching is a new universal morality. Somehow, Putin doesn’t seem to have heard that sermon.
No, the Russian threat it is not now against a member of NATO. Only now, belatedly, has Kyiv decided to press for admission. But with Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin’s infamous remark that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, it doesn’t take much imagination to see what is his goal. It is the restitution of domination of the Soviets over the old Tsarist Empire including much of eastern and central Europe [and Central Asia].
A good deal of fiery rhetoric from all the usual suspects in the West including the President of the United States as been launched against this new threat to more than a half century of relative European peace and stability. And even a learned professor, Dr. John Mearsheimer, is now willing to argue that it was all the fault of the U.S. and European leadership that Putin has been seduced into naked aggression. The fault, we are told, is that too many including our liberal government and media elite, had accepted pronouncement that the nature of world affairs had changed. [It certainly doesn’t take a call up of a lot of examples of the new horrors to make the case that human nature and world affairs hasn’t changed all that much.] But it hadn’t and so we should have recognized, this contrarian interpreter insists, that winning the 30 million people of Ukraine to Western values and prosperity was a trap we set for ourselves: we were messing around on Putin’s doorstep. We should have known better. But his obvious contradiction is clear: if one believes that international power politics are what they always have been [and by and large, I do], expressions of power and the will to use it, why would it have not been incumbent on the the West to welcome Ukraine and strengthen it precisely so it could resist potential aggression from a Russian neighbor dedicated to the old values?
If NATO falls away, it would have not been the first successful human institution to have fallen into decay precisely because of its success. At the moment, that certainly seems the case. America under the Obama Administration has chosen to join a multilateral cheering section rather than to lead a military alliance. The Europeans, for the most part, refuse to maintain their military effort at agreed standards of expenditure and discipline. Turkey, once looked to as a reservoir of strength for both its birthrate and historical fighting skills, has turned into the ragtail end of the alliance, often defying Brussels’ policies at the same time it asks for additional NATO support along its eroding Syrian border.
But most of all, NATO has no answer to anything less than an all out Russian aggression which, of course, however ad hoc his strategy, Putin will not choose.
Instead, whether by design or because of the nature of his regime, Putin has borrowed all the old tools of Hitler’s strategy which sapped European democracies’ will in the 1930s leading up to the final denouement of the attack on Poland and World War II. He has harked back to old territorial claims, only enforced in the past by Tsarist and Soviet power. He has claimed extraterritoriality for Russian ethnics in former Tsarist and Soviet territories liberated in the 1990 implosion. He has sent “volunteers” masquerading as locals to aid insurgencies he has initiated. And he has taken the old Josef Goebbels’ advice that the bigger a lie the easier the propaganda can be sold. [That has even brought the ultra-conservative Pat Buchanan as well as professors to his side.]
The miracle on the Don, in fact, is that a corrupt, inefficient and unstable Ukraine has nevertheless been able to achieve initial victories against the insurgents. It gives the lie, at least in part, to the generally accepted hypothesis in the Western media that Russian-speakers necessarily sided with Moscow in its effort to undermine Ukrainian unity. The word creeping out of relatively large numbers of prisoners taken by Ukrainian forces and deaths of Russians in the fighting being masked by the Moscow regime further confirms that not for the first time the Western mainstream media have it all wrong.
Perhaps the most serious threat to the cause of reinforcing a NATO peace is in diplomatic circles. Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel has talked the talk, and to some extent, given her country’s corrupt dependence on Russian energy, walked the walk, she is now becoming the principal negotiator between the West and Moscow. There is a growing suspicion that she – with the tacit agreement of American Secretary of State John Kerry who appears less and less competent – are acceding to Putin’s calls for an imposed Ukrainian “federalism”. Confederations, however accommodating they might appear to libertarians and other democrats, are the most difficult form of government. A Ukrainian federation, with its history of unique top-down bureaucratic government, might well lead to just the sort of watered-down independence that Putin aims to dominate, rather than another outrageous carving out of territory such as his grab of the Crimea.
Unfortunately, a pattern established in Ukraine could be all too much a template for all of the former Soviet-occupied Eastern and Central Europe – save perhaps the increasingly prosperous and successful Poland. Most have significant Russian-speaking minorities. Only tiny Estonia is bestirring itself to begin the kind of mobilization of military force that could make any Moscow feint difficult if not embarrassing. [The memory of The Winter War comes floating back; a defeat for the Finns but probably as much as anything a sacrifice which maintained their independence and eventually their incorporation in the European prosperity sphere.]
It doesn’t take a military genius nor, indeed, an amateur strategist to understand that NATO now needs to move quickly toward not only reinforcing its overall shield but in stiffening the resolve of its more exposed members in Eastern and Central Europe. That would include polished boots on the ground, a generally significant expansion of U.S. presence – including the re institution of the anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic which Obama so cavalierly dismantled in his “flexible” approach at winning Putin’s friendship.
That’s the agenda awaiting the world but above all Washington at the meeting this week in Wales. Only the wildest optimist can hope it will be met.