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A Reinvigorated NATO Looks to the Future

5 MINS READSep 3, 2014 | 09:04 GMT
NATO headquarters in Brussels.
(GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)
NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Editor's Note: In light of the crisis in Ukraine and the NATO Summit of Heads of State and Government in Newport, Wales, from Sept. 4 to Sept. 5, included below is an update to Stratfor's three-part series on NATO.  

Any recent discussions, debates or moves by NATO are dominated by the crisis in eastern Ukraine. NATO has sought to increase its assistance to the Ukrainian military, particularly by providing intelligence support and establishing four trust funds to help finance forces loyal to the elected government in Kiev. A number of NATO countries have also called for the delivery of substantial weaponry to Ukraine. Member states including the United States, Hungary and Croatia have already delivered or put in motion programs to improve Ukrainian military equipment. With continuing Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine, military aid to Ukraine from NATO may very well increase in the near future and will likely be a topic of discussion in Wales. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said Aug. 29 that he would ask the parliament in Kiev to put Ukraine on a path toward NATO membership, a process that NATO has not ruled out but one that is unlikely to proceed in the short term.

The admission of close but non-member state allies to the organization is an important and occasionally contentious topic in Europe. NATO is reportedly on the verge of signing long-negotiated agreements with Sweden and Finland that would facilitate the entry of NATO forces into each country if invited by host governments. Such an arrangement would enable forces to transit through these countries and to assist with emergencies ranging from natural disasters to external threats. Moscow has strongly decried any move that appears to strengthen NATO's position, and in an apparent sign of displeasure, Russian aircraft violated Finnish airspace three times over the last week of August.

NATO also moved to strengthen its defenses along the new "Iron Curtain," specifically among former Warsaw Pact members in Eastern Europe that have subsequently become NATO members. As the Ukrainian crisis escalated, the United States enhanced its training presence in Romania, Bulgaria and the Black Sea while rotating forces — first from the 173rd airborne brigade and now from the 1st cavalry division — to Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Other NATO countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, increased their air power presence in the region as well.

The military alliance is also considering the establishment of quasi-permanent facilities in Poland, Romania and the Baltic states. Such a program would see NATO forces consistently rotating through bases in the region to facilitate the rapid deployment of significant forces if necessary, as well as reassuring the eastern NATO member states of the alliance's commitment.

NATO is finding itself with renewed purpose after suffering considerable angst over its perceived demise and challenges to its reason for being. Currently, this second wind consists mainly of expansion activities and "framework" tasks rather than the permanent stationing of NATO troops along the new Iron Curtain. Commitments focus more on establishing command and control frameworks and logistical nodes to support potential deployments, underpinned by interoperability training and rotations to support any requirement for rapid reaction forces to move. The Ukrainian crisis continues to highlight the inherent differences between member states, however, with a particular distinction between eastern states close to Russia and Western European states that feel more secure and insulated from the events in Ukraine.

The attempts within the NATO hierarchy to deal with a perceived Russian military threat, especially among its easternmost members, also triggered a reaction from the Kremlin. Moscow announced that it might reorient its military doctrine toward NATO, identifying the alliance as its main threat. This could mean Russia would conduct more large-scale conventional military exercises rather than practicing internal security operations and that it would prioritize its western military districts in terms of equipment, personnel, training and readiness.

NATO: The Evolution of the Alliance

NATO was originally created as a counterweight to the might of the Soviet Union after World War II. The deep yet fractious roots that enabled the alliance to prosper have also presented challenges to its leadership and management. More than an organization, NATO is best envisioned as an overarching structure made up of individual, autonomous parts, each with different thought processes, competencies and imperatives. NATO adapted to survive beyond the Cold War, but its continued existence remains under threat.

NATO: The Current State of Play

NATO weathered the Cold War significantly better than its Warsaw Pact rivals, but it did not escape unscathed. Without the anchor of the Soviet bloc, NATO was cut adrift from its strategic imperative, suffering diminished budgets and dwindling force levels. Despite this, NATO has conducted more operations since the fall of the Soviet Union than it did during the previous four decades of carefully orchestrated stalemate. A modern NATO has been forced to learn new lessons, forged in the crucible of intervention, global terrorism and numerous Balkan winters. The new, adaptive framework of NATO has enabled members to conserve resources and avoid the associated costs of large standing forces. However, without these large armies, the alliance has lost some of its deterrence capability, forcing it to be a relatively slow reactor to world events.

NATO: The Future of the Alliance

The escalating crisis in Ukraine serves as an illuminating case study of a measured response by NATO. Barring an extreme flashpoint, the crisis will de-escalate in time, perhaps leaving more questions than answers for NATO's leadership, which will be forced once again to consider the alliance's position in an ever changing global security environment. A conventional Russian attack against an alliance member beyond Ukraine, although extreme, would be a relatively straightforward proposition for even a depleted NATO, which was originally built for such an eventuality. However, the absence of a major adversary remains a quandary, fueling the uncertainty that plagues any organization lacking a defining purpose or prominent challenger.

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