The outgoing head of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said Russia’s aggression against Ukraine had turned this week’s gathering of transatlantic leaders in Wales into “one of the most important summits in the history of our alliance.”
More than five months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and with Russian forces now being accused by the West of overtly supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is going back to its roots.
NATO was founded in 1949, not long after the end of World War II, with the aim of bolstering collective defence on both sides of the Atlantic. It then found its raison d’etre as a counter-balance to the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact.
This week’s summit in Newport was originally meant to discuss NATO’s role after the end of its combat operations in Afghanistan.
“But then [Russian President Vladimir] Putin invaded Crimea. It was a truly defining moment in NATO’s history. And it changed everything,” a senior NATO official said on the eve of the meeting at a golf resort in Newport.
While in Wales, NATO’s 28 leaders and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko discussed a series of measures designed to “enhance our partnership” and “step up cooperation between NATO and Ukraine,” Rasmussen said.
These included the provision of funds, logistics and military know-how to Kiev.
Russia’s stance has also prompted NATO to create a rapid reaction force that can, in the words of the NATO secretary general, “travel light but strike hard.”
The force – consisting of between 3,000 and 5,000 troops – would be deployable in less than a week, wherever NATO members felt threatened.
The so-called “spearhead” would be deployed in Poland, the Baltics, or in any other member country that may fall victim of Russian aggression.
“It is essentially a smaller version of what they had done during the Cold War,” says Ian Keddie, an analyst at IHS Jane’s, a British publishing company specializing in defence issues.
NATO is also assisting in joint military exercises in the region.
One such operation, codenamed Steadfast Javelin II, was taking place this week in Poland, the Baltics and Germany.
Not everyone is keen to draw parallels between today’s situation and the Berlin Wall era, however.
Klaus Naumann, the former chairman of the NATO Military Committee, agrees that with the rapid reaction force, NATO is “in a way returning to the principle of deterrence.”
But “I would avoid adding [the words] ‘Cold War’ – that is exactly what must be avoided, that we fall back into the confrontation of the Cold War,” the retired general said on Thursday on German radio.
Given that “nobody at NATO has any doubt about Putin’s agenda: restoring greater Russia or even beyond,” the main discussion in Wales would revolve around “figuring out what kind of relationship we can have with Russia,” another senior NATO official says.
Such a relationship is regulated by the 1997 Founding Act, which in effect ended the Cold War and heralded a new era of cooperation between Russia and the West.
The Founding Act eventually led to the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), a forum for regular consultations between NATO and Russia. The NRC was suspended after the Crimean annexation, and attention has now turned to the Founding Act itself.
NATO, however, is divided into two camps on this issue: The hawks, composed of those allies who feel most threatened by Putin’s promise to defend Russian speakers wherever they are – notably Poland and the Baltics; and the doves, headed by European countries with close commercial ties to Russia, like Germany, Italy and France.
As far as the North Americans are concerned, US President Barack Obama has sided with the doves, while Canada’s Stephen Harper is seen as being closer to the hawks.
Given such divisions, it is no surprise that Rasmussen was forced to walk a tightrope in Wales.
“It is clear to everybody that Russia has violated the fundamental principles of the NATO-Russia Founding Act,” he said.
“Nevertheless, we are strong supporters of a rules-based security architecture in Europe … and we have decided that while we have suspended all practical cooperation with Russia, we will keep this political channel open.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for his part, has noted that while the NATO-Russia Founding Act cannot be changed without Russia’s permission, a party is always free to withdraw from the treaty.
Some would argue that he was merely stating the obvious. Others may interpret the comment as a thinly-veiled threat.
Europe may not be slipping back into the Cold War, but NATO officials are certain: relations with Russia are not going to improve any time soon.