PARIS Aug 14 More than two decades after the
collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to the Cold War,
Ukraine's crisis is driving the U.S.-led defence alliance back
to its original purpose: To protect its members against a
perceived Russian threat.
President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea and support
for Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine has raised
dramatically a sense of vulnerability among NATO's new eastern
members from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
It has also highlighted unresolved questions about security
in countries such as Georgia and Moldova as well as Ukraine in
the post-Soviet space sandwiched between NATO and Russia.
When NATO's 28 leaders hold a summit in Wales on Sept. 4-5,
military plans to reassure former Soviet bloc states Poland,
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will top the agenda. The future of
NATO's frozen relations with Russia will also loom large.
That will eclipse the impending end of the alliance's
longest, least popular and least successful overseas mission in
Afghanistan - a high-casualty stalemate against Taliban fighters
who still threaten Kabul.
"Six months into the Russia-Ukraine crisis we must agree on
long-term measures to strengthen our ability to respond quickly
to any threat, to reassure those allies who fear for their own
country's security and to deter any Russian aggression," British
Prime Minister David Cameron, the summit host, said in a letter
of invitation to fellow leaders.
NATO has made clear it will not use force to support
Ukraine, which is not an alliance member. At the same time it
has warned Russia, which has mobilised 20,000 troops just across
the border, against military intervention in eastern Ukraine
under the guise of a humanitarian or peacekeeping operation.
"We are not considering military operations," NATO chief
Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Reuters in an interview this week.
"If the Russians were to intervene further in Ukraine, I
have no doubt that the international community would respond
determinedly, notably through broader, deeper, tougher economic
sanctions that would isolate Russia further," he said.
Whether to permanently station NATO forces east of the Cold
War era east-west border, or just to store weapons there,
modernise air bases and increase joint exercises and air
patrols, will be one of the main topics at the summit.
Cameron called for a new schedule of exercises, building new
military infrastructure, pre-positioning equipment and supplies,
and enhancing the NATO Response Force of up to 25,000 troops.
However, the easterners want "boots on the ground" with
forward-based troops and a NATO headquarters on their soil to
deter any Russian attempt to destabilise their region.
An opinion poll found nearly three-quarters of Germans
oppose permanent NATO bases in eastern members.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told Reuters
NATO member states were close to reaching consensus over steps
to beef up the alliance's military presence in eastern Europe.
"We've welcomed the proposals by the military authorities of
the alliance who have formulated what they think a reasonable
reassurance package is," he said in an interview.
A senior NATO official said the likely compromise would be
called a "persistent presence".
A designated command structure will be established to defend
the eastern allies, upgrading an existing joint
German-Polish-Danish headquarters in Szcezcin, Poland, with
frequent visits and exercises but no permanently deployed allied
"Everything we've seen so far says NATO is not going to war
over Ukraine," said Stephen Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to
Kiev now at the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington.
"The real focus is on looking at the European NATO allies
and reassuring them."
The return of territorial defence as a priority upends two
decades of evolving NATO doctrine.
"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the prevailing
message at NATO was 'out of area or out of business'," said a
senior NATO official, citing a landmark 1993 RAND Corporation
analysis of the alliance's future.
"Either we responded to new security challenges beyond our
borders - in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, on terrorism and in
cybersecurity - or the alliance would become irrelevant."
U.S. officials came to regard NATO mostly as a toolbox for
building coalitions of the willing for expeditionary warfare or
"Now to some extent it's 'back to basics'. There's a renewed
emphasis on Article V," the official said, referring to the
mutual defence commitment enshrined in the founding 1949 North
However, unlike during the Cold War, there is no sense that
Russia is the sole security threat.
Putin's assertion of a right to defend Russian speakers
beyond his borders alarmed NATO allies, especially Baltic states
with sizeable Russian minorities, but it falls short of the
global ideological confrontation with communism.
Moscow and the West have continued to cooperate on issues
such as curbing Iran's nuclear programme and disarming Syria of
chemical weapons despite the conflict in Ukraine.
Mediterranean NATO allies, who see the main threats to their
security in instability in Africa and the Middle East, are eager
to maintain a dialogue with Russia and avoid any return to a
purely Cold War posture.
So the alliance needs to be able to handle both crisis
management missions and territorial defence.
That is a tall order given the sharp shrinkage of defence
spending in most NATO countries, which took a peace dividend
after the Soviet Union collapsed and have cut military outlays
further since financial crisis struck in 2008.
Most European allies spend far less than the NATO objective
of 2 percent of economic output. Only Poland is significantly
raising its defence budget.
Latvia and Lithuania, among those pleading loudest for a
NATO presence, spend respectively just 0.9 and 0.8 percent of
their GDP on defence although they have pledged to meet the
alliance's spending target by 2020.
Washington wants a firm commitment from allies to increase
military outlays but expectations are low.
One divisive issue NATO leaders are likely to avoid in Wales
is any further enlargement of the alliance.
Some analysts blame an ambiguous compromise in 2008, when
NATO agreed that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become
members but did not put them on a path to membership, for
triggering a war that year between Georgia and Russia.
Putin has made clear NATO enlargement up to Russia's borders
is a red line for Moscow. He justified the annexation of Crimea
partly by saying NATO warships might otherwise have taken over
the Russian Black Sea fleet base in Sevastopol.
A senior U.S. official involved in summit preparations
acknowledged: "There is not unanimity within the alliance about
Washington and its allies will reaffirm that NATO's door
remains open but avoid any move that might be deemed provocative
by Russia, he said, adding: "This is not an enlargement summit."
That means the countries between NATO and Russia are likely
to remain an unstable buffer zone for years to come.
No one knows whether the Russian leader will escalate the
conflict before the NATO summit or calm things down to avoid a
"The harder things are on the ground, the more aggressive
the mood music at the summit will be," said Janine Davidson, a
former U.S. Defence Department official and now a senior fellow
at the Council on Foreign Relations.
(Additional reporting by Peter Apps and Matt Spetalnick in
Washington, Adrian Croft in Brussels, Marcin Goettig and
Christian Lowe in Warsaw. Editing by Mike Peacock.)