The NATO Summit’s Most Important Outcome (Maybe)

More than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is finding new relevance in a changing geopolitical landscape.

The decision last week to bolster NATO’s joint military capabilities, through the establishment of a new Rapid Reaction Force, is meant to demonstrate the West’s willingness to stand up to Russian interference in Ukraine. Building on previous efforts to enhance NATO’s military credibility – which is only as good as its true deterrent potential –  it puts into sharp focus the increased threat to the east of the Europe’s borders.

In June,  Roland Paris,  Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa, wrote in the Globe & Mail that “NATO must adopt a firm stance towards Russia by demonstrating its commitment to defend all its members.” The creation of this new force is meant to accomplish exactly this goal. The new Rapid Reaction Force will reinforce the existing Response Force, created in the mid-2000s. The Response Force, so far, has intervened in only a handful of crises, and currently does not have the rapid reaction “spearhead” which the new Rapid Reaction Force is supposed to create. Early details suggest that the new force, meant to be a nimble, rapidly deployable force of approximately 4,000 troops, with initial British leadership. This new force should reach operational capability by the end of the year, and is meant to send a clear message about NATO members’ resolve to confront the threats on their doorstep.

The new force represents a new attempt to fulfill the responsibilities and mandate of Article 5 of the 1949 Washington Treaty, which states that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”,  and that such an attack would trigger a collective response. Russia’s actions in the last few months in Ukraine – the annexation of Crimea, and the active presence of Russian military in the eastern part of the country, in support of separatist rebels – have seriously undermined peace and stability in the region. Ukraine, as a non-NATO member, has not been able to avail itself of Article 5, and NATO’s response has been ambiguous at best. In a speech, NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen rehashed NATO’s core doctrine,  “Should you even think of attacking one ally, you will be facing the whole alliance.” What this means for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, though, is unclear.

The high-level NATO meeting – one of the most significant NATO gatherings of recent years – and the creation of the new Rapid Reaction Force, are meant to be a strong signal to Putin. In addition to the new, rapidly deployable force, the NATO partners also agreed to a number of measures to boost the organization’s ability to project stability, including investing in improving intelligence and asymmetric warfare capability. Nevertheless, in spite of this strong, rhetorical commitment, the concern remains that these measures fail to offer an immediate solution against Russian interference in Ukraine. Those who would like to see “lethal force” provided by NATO allies to Ukraine to defend itself against Russia – which would be a major turning point in the conflict – are disappointed.

The failure to respond forcefully and meaningfully to Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea and military incursion in the eastern part of the country has weakened the West’s ability to provide credible military deterrence. The creation of the new Rapid Reaction Force and the development of new tools and strategies for NATO to address “ambiguous”, or asymmetric warfare, are important steps. However, they fail to address the immediate question of how Russia can be prevented from further interfering in Ukrainian affairs.

The challenge of using NATO as a meaningful deterrent against Russia highlights how effective state cooperation – even when interests are aligned – can be incredibly difficult in a world where international law – which is supposed to bind and constrain state actions –  is all too often ignored by belligerent actors.