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Experts react: How a year of war in Europe remade NATO, and what comes next

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What is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for? What should it do, and how? Will the Europeans spend more on defense? Will the United States stay committed? These were the questions bedeviling Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and Washington a year and a bit ago.  


No more. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine one year ago, an Alliance some had left for “brain dead,” in French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2019 phrasing, hit pause on its existential crisis and mobilized an unprecedented flow of military aid to Ukraine.  

The shifts in the Alliance’s purpose, posture, and politics didn’t happen all at once. It took slow and imperfect consensus-building, and some of the plans announced over the past year are still to be implemented. But that the war re-invigorated NATO—with visible battlefield results—is undeniable. Just how much has changed? Below, Atlantic Council experts from the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Transatlantic Security Initiative weigh in on the state of NATO and where the allies should go from here. 

NATO acting without fingerprints is still NATO

At the inception of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, I preemptively warned about worrying too much about a lack of consensus at NATO in supporting Ukraine. On the one hand, given the remarkable unity among NATO allies over the past year, that warning seems gratuitous. A year into the war, NATO allies have shown remarkable unanimity and resolve in facing down Vladimir Putin, such that NATO’s role as an effective political actor in the crisis is indisputable.  

On the other hand, the gritty operational work of arming and training Ukrainian forces, as well as providing them with planning and intelligence support, has been intentionally done outside of NATO auspices. There are various reasons for this. First is the desire to plausibly argue that NATO itself is not at war with Russia as a means of avoiding an escalatory dynamic. Second is the need to focus North Atlantic Council decisions on “defending every inch of NATO territory,” where there has been ample consensus related to defense planning, force posture, and readiness to buttress the Alliance’s eastern flank. Third, and most importantly, is the fact that arming and training the Ukrainian military by consensus was never a realistic option. 

The Ukrainian Conflict: fundamentals, conflict dynamics and commercial  considerations

As we have seen in successive debates about sending weapons to Ukraine, different tolerances for risk among allies make finding consensus on these matters challenging, at least on the timelines needed for battlefield success. As the recent deliberations about the provision of Leopard tanks revealed, it’s hard enough to sort through these differences among a handful of allies. Finding consensus on contentious issues among thirty allies is not feasible—especially where some of them have no skin in the game or where spoilers like Hungary or Turkey could slow down decisions to gain leverage on other issues, in ways that would weaken Ukraine on the battlefield. This is the reality of a democratic organization with thirty members. 

NATO nations, then, have worked bilaterally with Kyiv, and in coalitions of the willing like the Ukraine Defense Contract Group, to arm and train the Ukrainian military in ways that have avoided a requirement for consensus. Make no mistake, however: Even if the NATO flag is not flying over these efforts, NATO’s fingerprints are all over them. The ability to procure, train on, deploy, coordinate, and use weapons of all makes and models on a massive scale to successful effect in emergency circumstances is only possible because of the know-how and habits of cooperation NATO allies and partners have built over many decades of working together.  

As we look to the Alliance’s future, the blueprint from its support for Ukraine is an attractive one. NATO’s ability to work effectively on three levels—strategically as a political actor, operationally in reinforcing its own territory, and tactically in arming Ukrainian forces—is showcasing the type of adaptability and creativity that will again be necessary when the next crisis comes. And that NATO can do NATO things altogether outside of NATO constraints is a next-level trick that will be handy too.  

Christopher Skaluba is the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative and former principal director for European and NATO policy at the US Department of Defense. 

NATO has found its footing in its year of living dangerously  

The year of war has made many people more aware that we live in a fragmented and dangerous world but also has crystalized what must be done to defend freedom and ensure the prosperity of our democracies. 

As Russia’s brutal war rages on, the Ukrainian people heroically persevere in protecting their land—and our democracies—from vile barbarism. The world, united in condemnation in the early days of the aggression, stands fragmented on action. While 141 out of 193 countries denounced the invasion at the March 2, 2022, United Nations General Assembly vote, just a few weeks later on April 7, only ninety-three voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. Others hide their tacit support for imperialism under a veil of “neutrality.” Only 36 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that condemned and imposed sanctions on Russia. 

Even within the values-aligned Western democracies, political leaders must work extra hard to keep up the decisive popular support for Ukraine’s fight. Hobbled by local-level electoral infighting, a global energy crisis, and inflation-driven economic uncertainty, democratic leaders often tread a thin line when they try to push back on the populists and naysayers. As a result, the provision of vital weapons to Ukraine is still slowed down by made-up political excuses and industry’s incapacity

But the dangerous year has also shifted the collective perception of reality. Both NATO and the European Union (EU), quintessential Western institutions, have been strengthened and made relevant by the war. For a bloc often accused of inaction, it’s been a year of unprecedented activity: multibillion-euro financial aid packages, nine rounds of sanctions, and a membership path for Ukraine to join the EU. NATO’s purpose has been reasserted, and the allies have massively augmented deterrence and defense of the eastern perimeter, while accession of Sweden and Finland appears imminent. Further talk of raising the bar on defense spending beyond the elusive 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) target is gathering speed. 

The war is also causing a reckoning in Asia, where a saber-rattling China is closely watching the West’s response in Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s recent visit to South Korea and Japan is symbolic but not accidental. Wealthy and technologically advanced democracies of the East are naturally aligned to NATO’s mission to defend freedom and preserve peace. Tokyo’s plans to double defense spending by 2027 are both an inspiration to the allies and a call to collaborate.   

There is no substitute for a Ukrainian victory, which requires an urgent all-hands-on-deck approach among NATO allies and partners to supply what is needed now. Political will coupled with bold industrial policy are crucial ingredients required to capitalize on the opportunity to ensure the free world remains free, a fundamental element for future prosperity. 

Giedrimas Jeglinskas is a nonresident senior fellow at the Transatlantic Security Initiative and former assistant secretary general for executive management at NATO. 

NATO needs to bolster its resilience. Ukraine is a useful model.  

Even before the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, NATO had been paying warranted attention to enhancing its resilience—the ability to absorb shocks and still keep fighting. However, with the start of the war, the conversation about resilience has been supercharged and brought back squarely to the realm of the concrete. In a Euro-Atlantic area that is no longer at peace, and where security is contested by state-based adversaries, the need to maintain, harness, and modernize allied resilience is not a theoretical exercise anymore. As the resistance of Ukrainian society against the invaders has shown, resilience can be the difference between fighting on and defeat, between reinforcement and retreat, between quite literally “keeping the lights on” or giving in to authoritarian darkness. NATO is now fully aware of the criticality of resilience to fulfilling its core tasks, as well as the dangers that are inherent when the Alliance’s interconnected, interdependent societies are exploited by autocratic challengers. The challenge, now, lies in implementation. 

The new Strategic Concept elevated the topic and provided NATO with a mandate to “pursue a more robust, integrated and coherent approach to building national and Alliance-wide resilience against military and non-military threats,” and identify and mitigate strategic vulnerabilities and dependencies. This is a good start, but a difficult road lies ahead. Resilience is multi-sectoral, therefore complex; responsibilities are fragmented in the Euro-Atlantic area between national authorities, NATO, the EU, and the private sector; and ultimately, proving a counterfactual (that an incident did not or would not happen because of a certain effort) is an almost impossible task. While the new collective resilience plans and objectives are a welcome step forward, delivering tangible results will be essential. 

What should we watch for? In the next months, in the run-up to the NATO Vilnius Summit and beyond, I expect a few discussions to gain particular importance: strategic vulnerabilities in supply chains and critical infrastructure; energy security, and especially reliable energy continuity for an enhanced allied forward presence; limiting the coercive and malign influence activities of state-based challengers, especially China; military mobility; and in the case of civil preparedness, understanding the private sector’s role and mapping dependencies on civil systems and technologies. It will also be crucial for NATO to get better at communicating how it fills existing gaps and does so in a unitary manner across the Alliance.  

Anca Agachi is the associate director and resident fellow at the Transatlantic Security Initiative. 

The Alliance is neither obsolete nor brain-dead. Here are four agenda items to tackle now. 

Today NATO is vital and coherent as it defends democracy in Europe. During this past year, under the able leadership of Stoltenberg, NATO nations were able to provide Ukraine with the weapons needed for defense, albeit on a “just in time” basis. In phase one, NATO nations provided Kyiv with man-portable relatively short-range anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons plus an array of older Soviet equipment, all of which could be quickly used by Ukrainian forces. This helped reverse Russia’s initial assault. In phase two, NATO nations transferred artillery and longer-range air defense systems to blunt Russia’s attacks in the east and reduce the damage of Russian strikes against Ukrainian cities. This too was relatively successful. 

The third phase was politically more complicated because it involved more offensive weapons such as tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, assistance designed primarily to give Ukraine the chance to retake lost territory. It took time, but NATO nations ultimately made the right decisions. Tanks are on their way. 

Now attention has turned to what might be called phase four, the provision of longer-range guided missiles (known as ATACMs) and advanced fighter aircraft needed to strike behind Russian lines in Ukraine but also capable of attacking targets in Russia itself. The Alliance is now balancing Ukraine’s requests for these phase four weapons against the risk of escalation. 

Where does this leave NATO? What needs to be done next? There are four priority items on the Alliance’s agenda. 

  1. NATO must maintain its unity with regard to the war in Ukraine. Kyiv needs the opportunity to claim as large a victory as is possible, and that means providing more arms more quickly. Complete victory for Ukraine will not be easy militarily, as Russia has had time to prepare substantial defensive positions. Nor will it be easy politically because as Crimea becomes vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattack, Russia is likely to increase its threats to escalate.  
  1. NATO must accelerate its current efforts to enhance deterrence along its front lines with Russia. Defense spending is nearing the “2 percent of GDP” goal across the Alliance, and that goal may be increased at the next summit. Eight NATO battle groups have been forward-deployed, a minimum requirement that needs to be further augmented with additional rotation forces. The NATO readiness and mobility initiatives need to be fully implemented as does the new three-tier NATO Force Model. NATO’s nuclear deterrent also needs further strengthening. Since Russia has demonstrated military weakness in Ukraine, NATO must avoid the temptation to rein in these efforts—because Russia under Putin will surely reconstitute its military forces as quickly as it can. Europe must do the same. 
  1. Europe needs to take on greater strategic responsibility. This is no longer the old burden-sharing argument where the purpose of a greater European military contribution to the Alliance is to satisfy Washington. The purpose now is to ensure that Europe will be properly defended should the United States become involved in an Asian war.  
  1. NATO needs to help the United States manage Chinese assertiveness around the globe. NATO need not be a global cop, but it does have global responsibilities. The Alliance’s new guiding principles, as laid out in the 2022 Strategic Concept, make a clear case for NATO’s responsibilities in dealing with China. Now the Alliance needs to implement its own China policy. 

Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and former senior director for defense policy and arms control on the US National Security Council staff. 

Eastern Europe unloads Soviet weapons—and the Soviet mindset  

As Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure and population continue and intensify, NATO members’ resolve to provide more and better instruments to Ukraine deepens—from sleeping bags, helmets, and night vision equipment; to anti-tank and air-defense missiles; to heavy artillery and main battle tanks. Outdated Cold War-era Western weapon systems, designed to defeat the Soviet military machine, have finally found a new purpose in the defense of Ukraine. NATO’s defense doctrine, which favors intelligence, coordination, precision, and interoperability over brute force and numbers, has proven superior on the battlefield.    

Yet this is not enough. As tons of Western equipment and wartime stocks head to Ukraine in the midst of the largest European mobilization since World War II, who would have thought that obsolete Soviet equipment, weapons, and ammunition would ever increase in market value? And yet that is what has happened. Former Warsaw Pact countries—most of which suffered under the Kremlin’s chokehold—and now NATO members have risen to meet Ukraine’s need for these munitions and mobilized in an overwhelming show of solidarity to their besieged neighbor and partner. The defense of Ukraine has triggered the final push for these countries to rid themselves of their remaining Soviet legacy systems, and with them whatever underlying mindset endured. 

The incoming accession of Sweden and Finland will trigger the largest expansion in the Alliance’s military capability since 1999. However, as Putin and other autocrats continue to threaten free democracies, not just in Europe but around the world, NATO’s resolve and capability will continue to expand and strengthen. Extra-European regional partnerships—and maybe even new members—are likely to emerge on the horizon.      

IñigoGuevara is a nonresident senior fellow with the Transatlantic Security Initiative.

NATO should learn from Ukraine and contest Russia’s belligerence in the Black Sea and beyond

The world is witnessing an expanding pattern of aggression and belligerence from Moscow unparalleled in our lifetimes. NATO’s support for Ukraine is absolutely critical, and it should be increased to include longer-range missiles, combat tactical aircraft, combat helicopters, armored vehicles, and a steady resupply of artillery and munitions. However, the broader issue facing NATO is defining the optimal security posture Europe will need in future decades. This posture should support a Europe that is, in the words of the late US President George H.W. Bush, “whole and free,” not one constantly imperiled by threats from Putin’s Russia.       

Over the past fifteen years, Russia has engaged in kinetic warfare three times against NATO Partnership for Peace countries: In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia; in 2014 Russia invaded the Donbas and annexed Crimea; and in 2022 it launched its current full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia also provided military support to the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian civil war, enabling Moscow to grow its military footprint in the region through long-term naval and air base leasing agreements with Damascus at facilities adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea, or as the Romans called it, Mare Nostrum: our sea. Russia has now threatened Moldova—also a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace—by conducting missile strikes against Ukraine that both the Moldovan and Romanian Ministers of Defense report have crossed Moldovan airspace.  

The entire Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean region has the potential to become a zone for further conflict. This dynamic is occurring against the backdrop of Russia’s regional military modernization, including its development of improved anti-access/area denial, maritime, and tactical air capabilities. 

To effectively deal with the challenge, NATO must revamp its defense spending goals. The 2014 “2/20” construct—under which members committed to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense and 20 percent of their annual defense expenditures on new equipment—must be replaced with one advocating real growth in defense spending. NATO should then promote national efforts to rebuild member stockpiles that have dwindled from supplying Ukraine with wartime munitions. Maritime security must become a higher priority for the Black Sea region, with an emphasis on cyber security, intelligence sharing, and resilience. NATO should work with Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania to develop a strategy increasing member maritime presence and provide for the construction of more naval vessels that comply with the Montreux Convention, which regulates the kind of ships that can pass through the Turkish straits connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Top priority should be given to the development of a small NATO surface combatant stationed in these countries, along with the requisite basing and industrial infrastructure to support it.  

Putin must not sense weakness in this region or be tempted to test NATO with further unprovoked aggression. A determined NATO offset strategy is the best way to deny him that objective. 

Wayne Schroeder is a nonresident senior fellow with the Transatlantic Security Initiative. 

Overdue troop increases on NATO’s eastern flank need infrastructure and ammo to bear fruit

Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine underscored the importance of reinforcing NATO’s force posture in Eastern Europe, a region subjected to Russia’s belligerence long before the war in Ukraine. In mid-2022, the number of troops under NATO command across the eastern flank reached 40,000; for comparison, in 2021, the number was 4,650. As a direct response to Russia’s invasion, the Alliance strengthened existing battle groups in the Baltic states and Poland, and set up new battle groups in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, bringing the total to eight and doubling the number of troops previously deployed.

To better understand these developments, the Atlantic Council’s Forward Forces Tracker follows posture adjustments and new deployments from NATO allies and partners. At the NATO Summit in Madrid last summer, allies agreed on a new force model that would put over 300,000 troops at high readiness levels, up from 40,000. Furthermore, Germany pledged to add troops in Lithuania, to increase the size of the existing battle group from battalion to brigade level, and the United Kingdom pledged to have a battalion on standby ready to deploy on short notice to Estonia, where the United Kingdom plans to create a division headquarters. Moreover, the United States announced that it would set up a permanent base in Poland, the first US base on NATO’s eastern flank.  

All these plans certainly seem promising, but will require several steps in the medium term to become reality: 

  • Put more pressure on host nations to increase infrastructure spending. To ensure that the increased numbers of troops can be at high readiness in case of an attack from Russia or any other malign actor, the Alliance needs host nations to invest adequately in infrastructure to support rapid troop movements. 
  • Increase defense production at home. Many allies are now starting to worry about their dwindling stockpiles. The Alliance needs to ask its member states to increase defense spending to prompt production of more ammunition in each member’s factories.   

Russia has deployed advanced weapon systems, undertaken military exercises, and conducted cyberwarfare and information operations on NATO’s eastern flank over the last decade. The war in Ukraine highlighted the urgency and importance of bolstering NATO’s posture there.  

Alvina Ahmed is a program assistant at the Transatlantic Security Initiative. 

Prepare to face a Russia more reliant on unconventional warfare

As part of its illegal war, Russia has not only sought to exhaust and overwhelm Ukraine militarily, but to weaken Ukrainian morale. As the world has witnessed over the last year, Russia complemented its conventional warfare with hybrid tactics—including the deliberate sabotage of energy supplies, perpetual information influence activities, cyber and economic warfare, and other methods—to destabilize and render Ukraine vulnerable, with great consequences for Europe.  

As our colleagues at the Digital Forensic Research Lab noted this week in their reports on Russian information operations before and after the invasion, Russia has manipulated the information space to fan the flames in support of its war, posing a great challenge to transatlantic security. Russia falsely accused Ukraine of building chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons as an excuse to justify the invasion. One disinformation narrative pushed by Russia is that the United States transferred plutonium to Ukraine to build a dirty bomb. Other false claims include that Ukraine was “preparing a chemical disaster in Donbas” and was using ultrasonic weapons in the war. Russia’s state-sponsored media amplified these claims to build support for Russia and shift the blame to Ukraine. Russia’s strategies intentionally seek to convince NATO allies and partners to back down from their support with the ultimate goal of breaking NATO’s solidarity and effectiveness in its support for Ukraine. 

Thanks to the incredible resilience and capability of Ukraine, Russia has not been successful in the information war. But Russia’s hybrid war spills over into other European nations, such as Moldova, where the Kremlin hopes to destabilize the pro-democratic and pro-EU government. It is critical for NATO allies and partners to recommit to their support for Ukraine and other targeted nations, as Russia will certainly continue to develop its hybrid warfare capabilities. In December, the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative hosted a scenario-building exercise that examined potential futures for Russian development and use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. The exercise’s results suggest that Russia may continue to develop unconventional weapons to bolster regime stability and its weakening economic power, as a component of Moscow’s ongoing campaign to counter NATO’s conventional military superiority. We can expect the same to be true for Russia’s reliance on information warfare as well.  

NATO must continue to invest in counter-hybrid responses. To do this, NATO should further prioritize joint intelligence capabilities, strengthen coordination among partners such as the EU and others, and reinforce counter-hybrid support teams. Greater collaboration of national resilience strategies will help promote greater cooperation in developing approaches that challenge Russian information and influence operations. The 2022 Strategic Concept provides the foundation for NATO to build a comprehensive strategy of countermeasures, along with associated strategies for implementation. These actions will position NATO not only to fully support Ukraine amid the war, but to better counter adversaries in future periods of conflict and crisis. 

Ryan Arick is an assistant director at the Transatlantic Security Initiative. 

Source: Atlantic Council