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Back to the Future? NATO after Madrid

Back to the Future? NATO after Madrid
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

This time around the electric shock hit hard. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea proved insufficient to reenergize the transatlantic alliance still heavily engaged in Afghanistan. Six years later, the violence of Russia’s aggression right when “Atlanticists” are back in the White House and State Department convinced NATO to rekindle its founding mission: collective defense against military attack. As a result, the drawdown of US troops in Europe, which started under Obama and continued under Trump, finally gave way to reinforcement.   

Unsurprisingly, when NATO leaders gathered in Madrid June 29-30, the second summit in only a few months, they made every effort to show unity and consistency. Even the most reluctant of them all – namely the Hungarian and Turkish presidents who try to avoid squabbling with Moscow – were reasonable (thankfully, since Russia is known to feed off and exploit loopholes in the Alliance).    

The NATO-Russia Founding Act was all but scrapped in Madrid, a few days after its 25th anniversary. NATO took its time: it’s been years since the Act’s provisions, aiming to usher in a new era of cooperation with Moscow and reassure it of the West’s intentions, had lost any relevance. Russia is no longer the “strategic partner” it still was in 2010.  Instead, it is now “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area”.

Militarily and politically, this marks a de facto return to a strategy of “forward defense”: under no circumstances will a single inch of territory be given to the enemy in case of an attack. Since 2014, the organization limited itself to deploying “enhanced forward presence” elements to its northeastern flank. Enough to highlight the solidarity among allies and serve as a “tripwire” in the event of aggression, but too little to withstand a Russian blitzkrieg. Estonia Prime Minister Kaja Kallas reminded the world a few days ahead of the summit that her country would be wiped off the map under NATO’s current plans.

Militarily and politically, this marks a de facto return to a strategy of “forward defense”: under no circumstances will a single inch of territory be given to the enemy in case of an attack.

This set-up – meant to placate Tallinn and Warsaw, as well as Moscow – had been bolstered in the southeast with the deployment of additional troops to Romania in February, prior to the invasion of Ukraine. NATO’s Response Force (NRF), the rapid reaction unit, was also activated for the first time on February 25, 2022. Will NATO decide to send the troops Estonia is calling for? Either way, military presence in the Baltic states will quickly ramp up, and NATO’s new defense model implies the capacity to mobilize 100,000 troops in 10 days, and at least 300,000 in six months.

Needs like these are precisely the reason why allies committed to spend the symbolic minimum of 2% of their gross domestic product on national defense, a threshold that major allies have already met or will soon reach.

Predictably, Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling over the last few months – serving more as a reminder of Russia’s capabilities than a real threat – underscored the importance of extended deterrence arrangements in Europe. Such arrangements include permanently stationing American weapons and allowing allies to access these, along with NATO’s SNOWCAT program, which enables allies to cooperate in nuclear raids. NATO is now aiming to integrate the new guided B61-12 nuclear bomb , which when carried on the F-35 stealth fighter, will lend new credibility to this “made in the USA” capability.

Understandably, the French are upset that Germany is purchasing F-35s and thus anchoring their air force in US defense for the long haul. However, any reasonable French official should be pleased that Berlin is hinting, at last, at a new commitment to participate in nuclear sharing arrangements, since this acquiring F-35s is the key to long-term German participation in a culture of nuclear deterrence in the country.

In addition to the four countries whose air forces would be required to execute nuclear missions at relatively short notice – Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands – others may also want to be involved again in such missions as soon as their aircraft is capable of carrying the B61-12s. Poland could also require US bombs, particularly if Russia were to station troops in Belarus. In addition, it has been learned that the Pentagon is financing the upgrade of its nuclear weapons storage facilities in the UK. For the time being, two texts have been adopted.

Any reasonable French official should be pleased that Berlin is hinting, at last, at a new commitment to participate in nuclear sharing arrangements.

First, the ceremonial Statement by NATO Heads of State and Government which doesn’t just send political messages to Moscow but also updates NATO’s posture on deterrence and defense  in real time. Second, the “Strategic Concept”, a document defining NATO's strategy over the next several years. One can wonder if it was wise to do this in a full-blown war, but there is no denying that it was becoming a pressing matter as the last edition was published in 2010 (nobody dared touch it while Trump was in office).

But can we go as far as saying that NATO is reverting to its Cold War policies? After all, there have been some major changes.

  • First, geographically speaking, NATO’s footprint doubled in terms of members over thirty years. “Enlargement” can be considered a burden as smaller countries like Montenegro contribute little to the defense of its allies. The “open door policy” can nevertheless be viewed as an advantage. When Finland and Sweden officially tie the knot with NATO, defending northeastern Europe and the Baltics becomes entirely different. While Russia carefully hid its annoyance – believing both countries were not a part of its sphere of influence and were already under a US one – the fact remains that enlargement of this scope is tantamount to shooting itself in the foot. A NATO country will now share a 1,300 kilometers border with Russia.

  • Second, functionally speaking, while Article 5 is at the heart of NATO's founding treaty, it has become subject to broad interpretation, particularly for what constitutes an “armed attack” in the eyes of the law. Member states recently announced that cyber attacks and attacks in space could be treated, on a case-by-case basis, as constituting an armed attack.

  • Last, strategically speaking, China is increasingly turning into a challenge. Beijing does not fall within the geographic scope of the Washington Treaty, and any conflict occurring in Asia would not immediately affect NATO. But due to US insistence – and under the watchful eye of France, which believes it is good for the Europeans to be sensibilized to global strategic issues – NATO now acknowledges that Beijing’s investments in European infrastructure and telecommunications, influence in cybersecurity and disinformation campaigns are a concern. Not to mention the possibility that Beijing threatens the territory of a NATO country if a conflict were to emerge with the United States. In short, China poses “systemic challenges”. And the presence of Australia, Japan and South Korea in Madrid was not unnoticed.

Erdogan obtained assurances from Helsinki and Stockholm that they would reverse their policies on Kurdish political groups, including the PKK, which the Turkish president views as a terrorist organization. Several countries, including France, offered Finland and Sweden interim security guarantees against any form of Russian aggression while the two Nordic countries wait to formally join NATO.

If an operation were launched to break the Black Sea blockade, it would undoubtedly be led by an ad hoc coalition, not NATO.

Transatlantic unity exists only because it is not NATO per se that is engaged in the Ukraine war but its member states (and not even all of them are). The organization’s collective efforts have been limited to monitoring activity in combat zones. If an operation were launched to break the Black Sea blockade, it would undoubtedly be led by an ad hoc coalition, not NATO. Let’s also keep in mind that present-day unity could be undermined if the conflict escalated or if strong disagreement emerged over the best strategy to follow should Ukrainian forces breach enemy lines and tempt Kyiv to send forces down to Crimea.

A final scenario can also be envisioned: one where a new crisis is triggered by Erdogan’s impulsive actions as 2023 elections loom, or by the return of a temperamental or pusillanimous president to the White House. It is now known that Trump was on the brink of shattering the transatlantic organization and that he might have pulled out of NATO had he been reelected. NATO bought some time but its long-term survival is still at stake. More tensions would likely arise if the United States suddenly chose to strengthen its presence in Asia at a time when Russia was still a threat.

What about France? True to itself, it has shown to be a loyal but demanding ally. The enhanced forward presence elements were deployed in Romania based on France’s recommendations. Paris was especially pleased with the new emphasis given to the role of deterrence (as it had repeatedly insisted that NATO define itself as a “nuclear alliance”). It also refused to group Russia and China, who are not allies in the military sense, as one common threat. While France garnered greater acceptance, with US support, on bolstering European defense capabilities as a complement to NATO, Paris is unlikely to make progress on this initiative under the current circumstances. In the eyes of some French allies, “strategic autonomy” in defense will become less relevant in an environment of increasing transatlantic cooperation. And as Finland and Sweden join NATO, not only will there be much less urgency to strengthen EU defense capabilities, but the notion of “European pillar of the Alliance” will gain in credibility. Additionally, Paris’s positions on Russia have had a dampening effect on the relationships of trust between France and its Central European allies.  


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