Jun 27, 2022 - World

Russia threat rekindles NATO's sense of purpose

NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg during a visit to Estonia in March. Photo: Raigo Pajula/AFP via Getty

NATO will undertake "the biggest overhaul of collective defense and deterrence since the Cold War" at this week's key summit in Madrid, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday.

Driving the news: Stoltenberg announced that NATO will increase the number of high-readiness forces to "well over 300,000” from around 40,000, and it will step up its presence on its eastern flank with Russia.

NATO members are also finalizing their first “strategic concept” since 2010.

  • The last strategy document came during the Obama administration’s “reset” with Moscow and called for “a true strategic partnership" with Moscow.
  • At that time, the threat picture was very different. There weren’t yet NATO troops based in eastern European members like the Baltic states, the Economist notes. Now the focus is on sufficiently increasing NATO's presence there to deter any Russian aggression.
  • “The relationship has fundamentally changed, and the strategic concept that will be adopted in Madrid reflects that,” says Ivo Daalder, who was Obama’s ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013. “This is the core business again of NATO. It’s defending NATO territory against a real, imminent threat from Russia.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put two core questions for the future of the alliance on hold, at least partially: How big a role should the U.S. play in defending Europe vs. European countries themselves, and how big a role should NATO play in responding to a rising China?

  • Both questions will feature in this week’s discussions, but less prominently than they might have if Vladimir Putin's invasion hadn’t underscored the relevance of an alliance French President Emmanuel Macron said just three years ago was approaching “brain death."
  • Existing NATO members are increasing their defense spending, albeit unevenly, while Finland and Sweden are now attempting to come inside the “Article 5” mutual defense umbrella.

China will appear in the strategic concept for the first time, Daalder says, but he's only expecting one paragraph on China and says the “overwhelming focus” will be on Russian aggression.

  • It's not yet clear what that paragraph will say, as there's an internal debate over how to refer to China (France and Germany reportedly want softer language).
  • Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea will also attend the summit as a signal of the alliance's cooperation with Pacific partners. The leaders of Japan and South Korea are expected to hold a trilateral meeting with President Biden.

Perhaps the biggest question hanging over the summit is whether the U.S. and its allies will be able to convince Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to lift a roadblock on Finnish and Swedish membership, which requires unanimity.

  • Erdoğan claims the Nordic NATO aspirants harbor Kurdish separatists, and he may well seek to leverage the standoff to extract concessions from NATO countries and rally his base at home.
  • He also wants a meeting with Biden, Daalder says: “I'm confident that if it takes a bilateral with Biden to get Erdogan to shift course on Finland and Sweden, we’ll see that [in Madrid].”
  • “I think it is crucially important for the alliance that there is an agreement in Madrid to invite Finland and Sweden to join.”

What to watch: Top of the agenda in Madrid will of course be Ukraine, and in particular how to help Kyiv transition from Soviet-era to NATO-caliber weaponry.

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