by Stephen Bryen*
NATO is on its last legs. It has been on life support for years, but it could survive because, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it could carry on unopposed. Taking advantage of the situation NATO did three things: (1) it expanded its membership to pick up many of the newly independent Eastern European states who wanted Alliance protection; (2) it got rid of much of its land-based armaments, especially mechanized equipment including tanks and armored personnel carriers, and it reduced overall troop strength considerably; (3) it engaged itself in non-core military-political activities (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) which were none of its business. Furthermore, NATO (led mainly by the United States) precipitated a crisis in the Ukraine by trying to line up Ukraine’s membership in the EU and in NATO. The results of this reckless policy are there for all to see.
NATO was created originally to do three (or more) things: (1) to prevent any Soviet attack on Western Europe; (2) to slow down and stop the expansion of Communist activity in countries such as Turkey, Greece, Italy and France; (3) to reintegrate (West) Germany in a security alliance to challenge Soviet control over East Germany (German Democratic Republic).
Bringing West Germany into NATO and militarizing the country was not always accepted among those who fought the Nazis.** To a degree it forced the Russians into a box, and gave them even more excuses to oppose any deal on reuniting Germany. Indeed, even in the early 1950s if not earlier, the Soviets (read Russians) had tabled the idea of an integrated Germany that they proposed should be disarmed. This was firmly opposed by the Eisenhower administration and became a non-starter. After an uprising in East Germany, that would be echoed down the years by another in Hungary and still another in Czechoslovakia, and growing dissension in Poland, the Soviets militarized East Germany, drew a hard line between the two states, and built a wall between them.
There things stood until the Soviet Union disintegrated. Its collapse was caused by four reasons: the losing war in Afghanistan which was causing tens of thousands of casualties; the terribly weak Russian domestic economy which was unable to deliver improvements to the way of life under Communism; serious corruption inside the Nomenklatura which fed a major leadership crisis; the failure of Soviet arms to function effectively. The technology failure can best be seen by Stinger missiles decimating the Soviet Air Force in Afghanistan, and the earlier triumph of Israeli jets, primarily American, against front line Soviet-supplied fighters and air defenses in 1982 over the Bekaa valley. With its military discredited and its leaders unable to set things onto any course that could find popular support, the regime surrendered after not much of an insurgency led by Boris Yeltsin.
NATO is not an automatic alliance. It is a collective security agreement that requires the approval of all members to respond to any attack on a NATO member.
There is a remarkable document (in multiple volumes) which are the diaries of Ivan Maisky. Maisky was Soviet Ambassador to London from 1932 until 1943 until he ran afoul of Stalin and Molotov. In the diary, brilliantly edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky, one can read how, before the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, that the Russians kept pushing London and Paris to stand by their commitments to Czechoslovakia and urged the British and French to stand up to Hitler. When this didn’t happen, the Russians quickly cut a cynical deal with Hitler to carve up Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland and Romania. It would not be until Hitler turned the tables on the Russians and launched its invasion of Soviet territory in June, 1941 that the allies realized that Russian resistance to Hitler was essential or Hitler would have a free hand in the West.
The Maisky diary is terribly relevant to today because, like the NATO of today, England and France had treaty commitments to come to the defense of Czechoslovakia and Poland. As it turned out, they sold out the Czechs to get “peace in our time” and ended up declaring war when Germany invaded Poland. What would NATO do if Russia used some sort of salami tactic against Poland or Lithuania, for example? The chances are very strong, given the overall spineless leadership in Europe today, that Europe would not support an alliance move for military engagement. Instead it would push for something far short of that, just as has happened in Ukraine which, of course, is not a NATO member.
What happened in Ukraine also happened in Georgia. Whatever the actual cause or causes for Russia’s incursion on Georgian territory, NATO did nothing. In fact, it blamed the Georgians for the mess and washed its hands.
The truth is anytime NATO faces any confrontation that could lead to fighting against Russia, NATO is not interested at all, no matter what noises are coming from the United States. In this sense we can speak to the neutralization of Europe since the end of the Cold War, if not well before.
Today it is even worse. The current pool of European leaders are all weak and confused, unable even to deal with a security crisis caused by run-amok refugees who are destroying their liberal illusions. The case of Chancellor Angela Merkel is illustrative. Her bet on the refugees has destroyed her political credibility. The only reason her government so far survives is there is not a strong opposition candidate that can carry Germany beyond Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union. But a few more upheavals and it won’t matter and Merkel will be gone. She is the last strong voice for European Unity and NATO on the continent. Her loss will be an end to a history that has lasted since West Germany was created.
Some think, correctly it would appear, that NATO is only an American prop in a game that is largely between two superpowers, although since the end of the Cold War it is hard to think of Russia as any longer a superpower. Years ago, in a visit to France while he was still President and General Secretary of the Communist Party, Gorbachev told the French Prime Minister Francois Mitterand in 1987 that Russia was a banana Republic with nuclear weapons.
After the collapse of Soviet power in 1991 and the loss of many of its territories, Russian power significantly contracted not only in terms of political leadership but also in military terms. For more than a decade no new weapons were provided to Russia’s military; the size of the military was reduced; and Russia’s defenses started rusting away. No where was this better epitomized than Russian nuclear submarines in the port of Vladivostok and in the Kola Peninsula. There dozens of nuclear submarines presented a major hazard and even the United States volunteered to help the Russians clean up the mess.
Today President Putin is trying to rejuvenate Russia’s military forces. There are new air, land and naval weapons being introduced. But Russia is still a very long way from reaching a level that approximates its former strength or that could be enough to sustain a cross-border military operation in Europe for very long. Adding to the Russian conundrum is a lack of money to finance any military expansion or modernization. That is why Russia is buying so few new airplanes –the number is in the handfuls***, while the United States is planning to build more than two thousand F-35 stealth jets.
No one should minimize that Russia can cause a lot of trouble on its flanks. But that it could do more than that is very doubtful, and Putin probably knows better than most that any such gamble could turn out very badly for him and Russia.
Meanwhile, with a neutralizing Europe the United States has to be very careful not to push too hard. There are too many well meaning “experts” running around in the United States trying to gin up trouble with Russia. That could lead to a challenge that cannot be answered because Europe won’t support the United States or, even worse, refuse to take action and weaken American power fatally abroad.
Consequently, even in the best case NATO is on its last legs. Smart leaders will have to think up some form of new security system to replace it.
*Stephen Bryen is a former senior official in the US Defense Department and the author of a number of books including his latest, Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers (Transaction Press, 2015)
**Nearing the end of the Roosevelt administration, Henry Morgenthau, then US Trasury Secretary, proposed a plan not too different from Stalin’s.
***The Russians have so far bought 48 Su-35 jets, its most advanced operational fighter.