Leaders of NATO countries meeting in Wales this week face two utterly different tasks. The first, much more complex yet all too familiar, is the mission to halt Russia from expanding into the former Soviet periphery. The second is a short-term mission to contain Islamic State expansion in the Middle East. The missions draw on NATO's experience containing the Soviets in the 20th century and its counterterrorism operations in the 21st century, respectively. In both cases, NATO members face budgetary and electoral constraints that will limit the alliance's ability to respond, leaving the United States to shoulder most of the burden. No matter how the alliance does respond, its continued relevance will be harder to question.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is in attendance at the NATO summit, where he has met the leaders of several NATO members. Even as Kiev and the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine appear to be moving toward a cease-fire depending upon how direct negotiations in Minsk go Sept. 5, Poroshenko still wants help from NATO against Moscow and the separatists. But his attempts to garner support from NATO will likely prove fruitless.
On a tactical level, any support from NATO apart from actual military intervention would probably not tip the balance on the battlefield. The delivery of non-lethal support, and even the deliveries of weapon systems, would not help Ukraine's primary concern: lack of manpower. Several of its units have been rendered combat ineffective in the east while those that remain are stretched thin. But NATO countries are much less eager to commit forces to this conflict than Russia, something that for the foreseeable future leaves Poroshenko without a military solution to the conflict.
Though the arrival of winter or a cease-fire, whichever comes first, will likely transform the situation in eastern Ukraine into a so-called Frozen Conflict, in the short-term, NATO support could become instrumental in Ukraine's attempts to rebuild its military in the long term. Existing NATO cooperation with Ukraine plus new supplies of military equipment could go a long way toward this. The challenge will be funding such efforts, given that Ukraine and NATO member countries face serious budgetary limitations.
Such financial constraints are hampering NATO attempts to reorient its posture to face the Russian resurgence. Of all NATO members, only Estonia, Greece, the United Kingdom and the United States currently meet the alliance's proposed minimum defense spending of 2 percent of gross domestic product. Though the summit will see calls for more countries to join these four, the EU sovereign debt crisis will make it hard for others to reach the 2 percent threshold.
NATO can try to overcome this problem and extend its ability to mount interventions in response to Russian expansion by increasing the rotations of forces into frontline member states and by deepening NATO partnerships with non-member states, in particular countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Finland and Sweden. While granting full membership to such countries may prove politically untenable, informal cooperation and integration could see these countries become de facto NATO members.
Though lacking membership would mean NATO members would not be obligated to the non-members' aid should the latter come under attack, NATO partnership programs and joint exercises and deployments create a high degree of integration on aspects such as communications and logistics. Apart from their inclusion in periodic NATO exercises, Sweden, Finland, Ukraine and Georgia already rotate forces through the NATO Response Force, the spearhead force that NATO would depend on in the event it needed to mount a military intervention, and their association with NATO would doubtless have some deterrent effect to outside aggression. NATO will thus shift its focus east, following its usual course of establishing a foundation to facilitate potential military action as needed rather than through large standing military formations.
Iraq and Syria
On a more short-term trajectory, the NATO summit will also focus on whether to intervene in Iraq and perhaps Syria in response to the continued expansion of the Islamic State. Here, the most likely approach for NATO would be an air campaign. U.S. air assets are already operating over Iraq, and a simple rebranding of this activity into a NATO operation followed by reinforcements from other NATO countries could be accomplished quickly. Expanding operations into Syria would take longer given the lack of forward deployment in the area, though British air assets in nearby Cyprus and Turkey might be willing to take part, making airstrikes possible on short notice.
The main limit to NATO moves against the Islamic State, however, are not physical, but electoral. European popular sentiment has broadly opposed further engagement in foreign conflicts ever since the War in Afghanistan. An extensive air campaign against the Islamic State could thus prove a tough sell for policymakers on the Continent, though British Prime Minister David Cameron might welcome a distraction from the upcoming Scottish independence referendum.
Assuming this opposition could be overcome, the effectiveness of a NATO air campaign would depend on the level of coordination NATO forces would enjoy with local forces on the ground.
The current challenges the alliance faces are the strongest confirmation of its utility since the end of the Cold War. Even so, European political and economical considerations will continue to hamper NATO's ability to pursue the interests of all its member states. This in turn might prompt stronger member states, particularly the United States, to act upon their interests in Eastern Europe outside NATO's framework.