NATO Reform amidst Ukraine Crisis

China International Studies, May/June, 2015. | 作者: Xing Hua | 时间: 2015-07-17 | 责编: 王嘉珮
Adjust font size: + -



Xing Hua[1]



When the NATO Summit in London was held at the beginning of July 1990, NATO saw the tendency that the Cold War was going to an end and began to prepare for strategic transformation. In November 1991, NATO issued the first New Strategic Concept, published Rome Declaration on Peace and Cooperation, and embarked on its reform process. The guideline of NATO’s reform is not to give up its commitment to collective defense but to compromise with its former adversaries aiming to achieve a peaceful transition to a new European order and lay the foundation for continual development. In the meantime, NATO sets new tasks for itself such as crisis management and cooperative security, and it takes on new abilities, finds new partners, and transforms from a military and political bloc to a political and military bloc. Although more than 20 years passed after the Cold War, the Ukraine crisis reignites the conflicts and rancor between Russia and the United States as well as other European countries. This crisis has also given a severe shock to the European security situation and made NATO’s idea and actions deviate from its original reform route.



Reinforcement of NATO’s Military Identity and Related Functions



After the Ukraine crisis broke out, shouldering the responsibility of the Atlantic military alliance, NATO is put at the forefront of the confrontation with Russia. Its identity and functions as a military bloc which faded after the Cold War are reinforced.



Reaffirmation of collective defense as its priority

In the reform after the Cold War, the collective defense function of NATO faded. The Ukraine crisis put Russia and the United States as well as Western European countries in direct confrontation. NATO judges that the crisis in Ukraine is a “game-changer” for the organization,[2] and it must reaffirm collective defense as its priority to protect the security of its member states and enhance the military ability of the Atlantic alliance. Before the NATO Summit in Wales in September 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron published a joint op-ed in the London-based Times newspaper, saying, “We will ensure our persistent military presence in Eastern Europe, making it clear to Russia that we will always uphold our Article 5 commitments to collective self-defense.”



Identifying Russia as the major threat to its security

Although NATO doesn’t regard Russia as an adversary like the Soviet Union in the Cold War era, it has largely revised the original definition of its relations with Russia, which defined Russia as a partner rather than an adversary. The Wales Summit Declaration pointed out that current Euro-Atlantic security was facing transnational and multi-dimensional threats, among which “Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine” were the most prominent; they have “fundamentally challenged our vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace”.  NATO announced that it stopped pragmatic cooperation with Russia in all military and civilian fields. It also published an article in July 2014, which reviewed the disputes between the two sides in the post-Cold War era and criticized Russia for always playing a role in undermining their bilateral relations. Besides, leaders of NATO, the United States, and the UK take a hard line against Russia. They denounced Russia politically on different occasions. At the UN General Assembly, Obama put Russia’s “aggressive” behavior, ISIS extremism, and Ebola together as three major global threats and made Russia the public enemy of the world.



Making collective defense a military guideline

When the Ukraine crisis first broke out, NATO and Russia showed muscle to each other and increased military presence and activities for the sake of deterrence. Their military confrontation escalated. The NATO Wales Summit agreed on a Readiness Action Plan, which was called “the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War” , showing that the military confrontation between NATO and Russia has already escalated systematically and holistically. According to what has been revealed, the centerpiece of this plan is the creation of a new “spearhead force” (Very High Readiness Joint Task Force) of several thousand ground troops supported by air, naval, and special forces, able to deploy within a few days. The task of this vanguard is in principle to protect NATO member states, but it is a priority to set up multinational command and control in member states neighboring Russia.


On February 5, 2015, a meeting of NATO defense ministers directed further work on the implementation of the NATO Readiness Action Plan and decided to establish the first six multinational command and control units – the NATO Force Integration Units – on the territories of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania initially. Romania would make available a new deployable Multinational Divisional Headquarters as Multinational Division Southeast. Denmark, Germany, and Poland would develop the Headquarters Multinational Corps Northeast, and Georgia would set up a training center. Progress also has been made to move their military presence forward.



Advancing military and political cooperation with the Ukrainian authorities

The Ukrainian authorities expedite Westernization in their confront-ation with Russia. Ukraine is determined to join NATO, abandoned its non-aligned status, and has made a path to join NATO. Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Ukraine has the right and freedom to join NATO despite Russia’s opposition, encouraging Ukraine’s decision.


On December 2, 2014, the NATO-Ukraine Committee issued a communiqué, expressing its firm support for the Ukrainian authorities’ crackdown on “separatists” and on Russia’s “invasion” and its encouragement for Ukraine to “take deep root in European democracy”. Also, it made several measures for military and security cooperation. Currently, military cooperation between Ukraine and NATO covers command, supervision, communication, logistics, standardization, intelligence, conversion of defense-related technologies for civilian use, and medicine. It also involves “promoting the development of greater interoperability between Ukrainian and NATO forces”,[3] enhancing advisory presence in Ukraine and providing expertise as Ukraine completes its “comprehensive defense and security sector review”.[4] NATO also set up a special fund to aid Ukraine and held joint military drills in western Ukraine. Although NATO didn’t provide Ukraine deadly weapons in its name, it intervened less in bilateral military cooperation between its member states and Ukraine. U.S. troops entered Ukrainian territory in the name of training Ukrainian troops. It can be inferred that Ukraine, which has yet to be accepted by NATO as its member state, keeps a close relationship with NATO as a “special partner”. NATO intervenes much in Ukrainian military and political affairs and this intervention will increase further.



Interactions and Clashes between Russia and NATO



The outbreak of the Ukraine crisis ignited East-West confrontation, and this is a corollary of the geopolitical contention between NATO and Russia in the post-Cold War era.



Improvements in NATO-Russia relations after the Cold War

After the Cold War, one starting point for NATO to launch the reform is that it thought the possibility of large-scale war with Russia decreased sharply, and there was need to explore other areas except military so that Russia’s development would stay in the framework to its expectation. NATO took its relationship with Russia seriously and made related efforts. On May 27, 1997, heads of NATO’s member states and then NATO Secretary General Javier Solana signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Paris. They set up diplomatic and military organizations mutually to enhance consultations. NATO promised to negotiate security issues relating to Europe with Russia on an equal basis. Russia also joined the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council led by NATO. NATO and its leading member, the United States, had some cooperation with Russia on nuclear disarmament, European conventional disarmament, and regional issues. In the wake of  9/11, Russia provided substantial assistance to the United States and the EU in countering terrorism. European public opinion once called on changing their negative impression of Russia. In May 2002, NATO and Russia held a summit in Rome and NATO changed its negotiation mechanism with Russia from “19+1” to “20”, recognizing Russia as “one of their own”.



Incompatibility of post-Cold War strategic conceptions

NATO-Russia relations went not as well as expected. The development was limited and they often collided with each other. The essential reason is that their strategic interests and considerations in Europe after the Cold War differ a lot.


On November 19, 1990, countries of NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization, along with neutral European countries, signed the Charter of Paris for a New Europe and two other documents at a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. These declared that Europe had entered a new era, which was to be one of peace. But the United States and West Europe’s conceptions on the meaning of the end of the Cold War and the post-war structure differed from that of Russia. There was no “vanquished country” in the international legal sense after the end of the Cold War, but the United States and Western European countries took Russia, the successor of the Soviet Union, as the loser. Russia’s domestic and foreign policies differed a lot from those of the Soviet Union; NATO, however, didn’t accept Russia as its close partner and took it as a transformable country at most, because NATO took “common values” as its foundation and a criterion to decide its relations with other countries. Solana spoke of “helping Russia to find a suitable position in the new European framework” when he talked about the principle of dealing with Russia after the Cold War. This seems to show kindness to Russia, but it is obvious that NATO thought Russia should be subordinate to NATO.


 Furthermore, in the face of largely diminished territories and strength, Russia’s intrinsic will to develop independently is growing rather than decreasing after the Cold War. It never gives up its pursuit for big power status. After the Commonwealth of the Independent States was set up, Russia devoted itself to developing a Eurasian cooperation mechanism in order to maintain its traditional influence, have a special say in international issues like Middle East affairs, and compete with the United States in increasing the nuclear deterrent. It refuses to take orders from the West on its political stance. This goes against Western countries’ perception of Russia’s status in the post-Cold War era. In their relations, the possibility for competition is greater than that of cooperation. There is hardly any real and continual mutual trust and respect between Russia and NATO; divergences are at great risk of becoming disputes and conflicts.


After Vladimir Putin became Russian president, he revitalized Russia’s national power and demanded justice from the West. Obviously, Russia expects to reverse its disadvantageous status. Western countries are more convinced that no matter how to deal with their relations with Russia, a “united, free, and peaceful Europe” can hardly accommodate Russia. Since then, it has become an important consideration for the West to prevent Russia’s influence from expanding, strengthening intervention in Russian domestic affairs, and deterring its tendency to “revive the Soviet Empire”.



Wrestling between eastward expansion and anti-eastward expansion

After the Cold War came to an end, many Central and Eastern European countries wanted to “return to Europe” and demanded joining NATO and the EU, aiming to explore a development path different from that experienced during Cold War. Accordingly, NATO announced that its “eastward expansion is to respond to the requests of those applying countries”, but deterring Russia’s strategic influence remains one of the expansion’s fundamental goals.


In fact, NATO is clear about the influence imposed on Russia by its eastward expansion and Russia’s opposition. Thus, each step of eastward expansion almost ended up with the following trilogy: Russia opposed it, NATO and the United States granting Russia some conciliatory returns, and finally Russia reluctantly accepting it. NATO moved forward step by step. Russia calculated carefully but was forced back. After three rounds of expansion, NATO has already approached the Russian border, but it has not provided what it promised before. NATO promised to negotiate European security issues with Russia on an equal basis, but later on it explained it as “negotiating issues relating to common interests with Russia, while keeping its right to act independently”, which turned its promise invalid. In its announcement explaining its relations with Russia in the post-Cold War era, NATO denied its promise not to expand to Central and Eastern Europe after Germany reunited and said this promise was not an official written resolution.


In the meantime, NATO’s claim that its expansion aims only to meet applying countries’ demand is full of loopholes. Recently, the United States and NATO took tough countermeasures on Russia for the Ukraine crisis. But some new members in NATO did not fully agree to their actions. They were willing to join NATO, but would not follow NATO to deter Russia. After the Cold War, the first three countries joining NATO were seen as models to transfer from the Eastern camp to the Western camp. Now the Czech Republic and Hungary keep NATO at arm’s length on being tough with Russia. Czech President Milos Zeman insisted on participating in activities to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the World War II victory in Russia. This broke Western countries’ intention to isolate Russia together. The U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic criticized this unreasonably and rudely. U.S.-Czech relations worsened for a time. It showed that NATO doesn’t give new member states full respect unless they agree on confronting Russia together with other countries. President Zeman later gave a speech, saying that he didn’t believe Russia would send troops to NATO allies around the Baltic Sea or that Russia would annex eastern Ukraine. He strongly opposed the assertion that Russia “invaded” Ukraine as NATO said. At the same time, the Czech Republic and Hungary had reservations about economic sanctions against Russia taken by the United States and the EU. During that period, Hungary and Russia agreed on some projects such as energy cooperation. They refused to follow measures taken by the United States and the EU.



Contention for Ukraine aggravates NATO-Russia confrontation

In the eyes of Russia, Ukraine and Georgia are the last line of defense against NATO, so Russia tries its best to protect this buffer. But NATO is determined to break through. Therefore, the two sides are always in conflict. NATO regards Ukraine and Georgia as its key targets and tries hard to draw them over to its side. Take its relations with Ukraine for example. As early as July 1997, when NATO first expanded member states after the Cold War, Ukraine was its target. When NATO and Ukraine first established diplomatic relations, the two sides signed the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership. In April 1999, NATO and Ukraine held the first summit and published a joint statement, declaring that the two sides would cooperate in all respects and that Ukraine was determined to join the “Euro-Atlantic structure”. They also established permanent cooperative mechanisms like the NATO-Ukraine Committee. NATO has made great efforts to draw Ukraine to its side in the name of helping Ukraine’s reform.


NATO, the United States, and the EU cooperated to support the Westernization of Ukraine and Georgia and initiated color revolutions in these two countries. They toppled pro-Russian governments and put down anti-Westernization forces. That caused the two countries’ instability. Russia responded with tough measures. In the fall of 2008, Russia had a war with Georgia’s pro-Western government to support the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With the help of eastern pro-Moscow forces, it promoted Ukraine’s joining the Eurasian cooperative mechanism led by Russia and hampered its Westernization process.


On November 2, 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to put off signing the Association Agreement with the EU. Although this measure took Russia’s demands into consideration, it was still part of the policy to strike a balance between getting close to the EU and maintaining its cooperation with Russia. Foreign forces permeating Ukraine manipulated pro-Western forces to protest fiercely. The Yanukovych government was soon toppled by violence. American officials intervened directly with the establishment of the new Ukrainian government, and prompted Ukraine’s politics to become hostile towards Russia and close to the West. Russia would not let Ukraine be taken by the West so easily, so it supported eastern Ukraine’s resistance against the new authorities and took Crimea back. This was the first all-round confrontation between the two sides after the Cold War ended.



NATO’s missile defense system deepens its conflicts with Russia

NATO built a European missile defense system near the territory of Russia in the name of preventing threats from other regions. Russia expressed grave concern over the deployment, which it believed could weaken its strategic power. In order to solve their disputes over this issue, NATO, the United States, and Russia held several rounds of negotiation, but these talks didn’t achieve any solutions. Putin once said that NATO’s European missile defense system was the biggest threat for Russia. This dispute spurred Russia to invest more to improve its ability to counteract the missile defense system. This missile defense system ignited an arms race between the East and West.


In brief, the increasingly fierce geopolitical rivalry for Europe between the East and the West after the Cold War provided the fuse for the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.



Uncertainty of NATO’s Future Development



NATO will continue to highlight its function as a military bloc, but that does not mean turning back to what it was during the Cold War. Its future development tendency is uncertain.



Military confrontation function continues

The possibility to solve the Ukraine crisis through compromise is slim. A four-party summit including Russia, the Ukrainian authorities, Germany, and France achieved the Minsk Ceasefire Agreement, but that is hard to apply. The two sides in the Ukrainian civil war swore not to coexist with each other. Russia’s standing is totally different from that of the Ukrainian authorities, and Russia’s opinion also diverges from that of Germany and France. The ceasefire can’t last. The status of the eastern area is difficult to be decided. The EU, the United States, and Russia all showed willingness to solve the crisis in a political way, but they nevertheless competed fiercely militarily.


First, both NATO and Russia dispatched more troops to land and maritime border areas, almost forming a “toe to toe” situation. Warplanes faced off at shorter ranges than usual. Second, the United States said it was going to provide deadly weapons to Ukrainian government troops. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “We must consider arming Ukraine.” If the United States follows through, Russia will surely react. Third, the Ukrainian authorities insist on their Westernization policy and prepare to join NATO. Currently, Russia stops Ukraine’s further move by threatening to cut off Moscow’s relations with NATO. If NATO accepts Ukraine as its member state, Russia surely will do more as a response.


In the long run, the escalating political conflict may spur an arms race between the East and the West. The two sides desire more so to prevent the other from gaining military advantage. So the disarmament agreements achieved before are now shaken. The Russian defense minister announced that Russia would complete its military modernization plan before 2020 regardless of financial difficulty. In response, NATO will also strengthen its collective defense ability and probably further enhance its identity as a military bloc.



Possibility to return to the Cold War is slim

Despite the fact that NATO and Russia continue to confront each other militarily and politically, the potential to return to the Cold War is slim.


First, international society is experiencing unprecedented complex and profound changes. The situation in Europe shows some Cold War features, but it’s still essentially different from the Cold War. One important symbol of the Cold War was the formation of a bipolar system. Currently, the world is increasingly changing towards a multi-polar and multilateral system. Russia and the United States hardly can dominate global affairs. Non-traditional security threats and traditional ones interweave. It is less and less possible for the West or the East to solve these security issues alone. Global affairs are not dominated by confrontation between them.


Second, NATO has a clear understanding of the outside world and knows that Russia is not the only threat it faces. After the Cold War, NATO defines its function as collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. Currently, even with collective defense as its priority, NATO can’t put all its energy and resources into this regardless of other aspects. In fact, crisis management and cooperative security are still of great realistic significance: After NATO finished its peacekeeping task in Afghanistan, it still needs to do a lot to uphold the country’s security. NATO has participated in international anti-terrorist cooperation in the Middle East and training Iraqi troops is one of its tasks; to tackle ISIS, although NATO didn’t turn out en masse, it took part in international meetings held in the United States.


At last, in the 1990s, with the Cold War just ended, NATO launched the Kosovo War to compete for dominance in the Balkans. At that time, NATO was powerful, while Russia was relatively weak. But things have changed. Considering Russia’s power and ambition, NATO has realized that it would cost a lot to fight with Russia, so NATO needs to carefully handle the intensity of the confrontation and avoid starting a war. On the issue of Ukrainian troops, NATO didn’t make a collective promise; as for implementing the plan of setting up a permanent force in those countries neighboring Russia, NATO still leaves some leeway and uses words such as “in turn”, “flexible”, “large or small”; in the NATO-Ukraine Communiqué, NATO didn’t support Ukraine’s membership in NATO directly.



Policy divergences among member states remain

Tensions between the East and the West play a dual role in the relations between members of NATO. Under urgent situations, the United States and the EU need to unite against a common enemy, but when confrontation is more risky and costly, it’s inevitable that the two have different considerations and policies. In the Ukraine crisis, this rule again proved true.


The United States and the EU roughly agree on moving Western forces eastward and suppressing Russia. For European countries in NATO, Russia destroys the order in Europe they uphold through annexing Crimea and supporting anti-government forces in eastern Ukraine. They cannot tolerate this. NATO confronts Russia militarily and the EU imposes economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia, moves that have opened Russia to public criticism. This is different from the situation in 2003. At that time, Germany and France led opposition to the United States launching the Iraq War. This caused a split in NATO. Through this comparison, we can see that the strategic relationship between the United States and its European allies has changed a lot.


However, European countries and the United States have different security surroundings. The EU has different considerations from the United States on security interests and policies’ long-term influence on Europe. The two sides’ divergences appear more frequently and this shows Europe’s will and ability to disagree with the United States, and that Europe exerts a bigger influence on NATO’s decision making.


Inside NATO, the divergence between the United States and its European allies mainly appears in the policy towards Russia. No matter how great their confrontation with Russia, European member states carefully prevent war and ensure peace in Europe. In April 2008, initiated by Germany and France, the NATO Summit in Bucharest decided to stop Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO accession procedures to avoid tension with Russia. Although the EU enhances its connections with Ukraine and promotes its Westernization, big countries like Germany and France have not taken a clear-cut stand on whether they support Ukraine joining NATO because they don’t want to inflict serious military confrontation with Russia and further threaten Europe’s security. The United States said it would plan to provide Ukraine deadly weapons and participate in the war directly.


Most European countries in NATO expressed their opposition. German Chancellor Angela Merkel not only made public her opposition at the Munich Security Conference in February 2015, she also went to the United States to try to persuade Washington to stop its actions. Germany and France keep contact with Russia on the Ukraine crisis and try to find ways to achieve compromise. In February 2015, leaders of these two countries went to Minsk and mediated between the Ukrainian authorities and Russia, and finally the Minsk Ceasefire Agreement was achieved. They tried their best to prevent the crisis from escalating into war.


The United States’ European allies hampered its actions, but the United States also responded. U.S. politicians criticized European allies for opposing arming Ukraine, saying they did not cooperate. In history, European countries and the United States disagreed on policies towards Russia more than once. In the fall of 2008, Russia and Georgia had military conflict. The United States took a hard line and was very dissatisfied with France for promoting a ceasefire and the EU for restarting negotiation on a new partnership treaty with Russia. The meeting of EU foreign ministers sent a letter to Obama, suggesting increasing contact with rising Russia, which is recovering in economy and active in diplomacy, to avoid risks of conflict. They also demanded the United States not intervene in European countries’ contact with Russia and let them play a bigger role.


Another point of contention between the United States and its European allies is the former’s financial and personnel support to NATO. The United States complains that European countries are not willing to invest money or make efforts for NATO. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed Washington’s dissatisfaction at different forums in the United States and Europe. He criticized European allies for enjoying security guarantees provided by the United States but lacking the political will and ability to share NATO’s burdens. NATO was established to protect Western Europe during the Cold War, when the United States invested heavily in it. “But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75 percent,” Gates asserted. He also emphasized that fewer than a third of NATO member states participated in air strikes against Libya. Certain troop-contributing nations pulled out their forces “on their own timeline in a way that undermines the mission and increases risks to other allies”.


Also, some placed their troops outside areas of Afghanistan where the fighting was fiercest. Gates warned that, in the long-term, NATO would become a “two-tiered alliance”, in which the United States and a few European countries like the UK shoulder arduous tasks while other countries benefit from NATO’s protection without sharing costs and risks. Under such conditions, the United States would finally decide not to make contributions and take risks on its own for NATO. In May 2014, then U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered a speech at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., pointing out that the United States’ GDP was less than the total amount of that of the other member states in NATO, but its military spending was three times as big as that of the latter.


NATO worries a lot about the dispute between the United States and Europe on burden sharing. NATO leaders constantly call on member states to work together and invest “time, energy, and resources”[5] to keep the alliance going while demanding European member states raise their military spending to 2 percent of their GDP. They also praise those countries which have met this standard or promised to do so, and impose pressure on those which have not met the standard.


Another angle to review the internal relations of NATO is European members’ different reactions in the face of crises. The U.S. invasion of Iraq used to divide European countries into two sides, anti-war and pro-war camps; however, facing the Ukraine crisis, European member states in NATO almost all take the same side. As the struggle between NATO and Russia makes Europe the main battlefield, all European NATO members felt the threats to their security. Nuances in policy considerations between them deserve attention.


A few European members, including some candidate countries negotiating to join NATO, still keep the West’s hard line at arm’s length for their traditional connection with Russia or for their estrangement from mainstream EU politics. They are not willing to take part in actions to exclude and isolate Russia, but continue their contacts, communication and cooperation with it. To some extent, this makes it more difficult to achieve a coordinated policy towards Russia among EU members. Those EU members bordering Russia are firmly against Russia. They demand NATO intensify military deterrence against Russia and ensure their security. But they also have concerns about NATO’s deployment of massive standing forces in their territories, and they are worried that this may have unfavorable implications for them.






The sudden worsening of the European security situation disturbs the reform process of NATO. Geopolitical conflicts between the East and the West are severe. The direction of NATO’s future development is at a crossroads: No one knows whether NATO will stick to its initial reform direction after the Cold War that will transform NATO from a military and political bloc into a political and military bloc. In the meantime, NATO is a multinational group; when the situation is experiencing severe changes, the role of NATO’s member states in its decision-making process is complex and multidimensional. The development prospect of NATO is of great uncertainty. Its direction has a profound significance on stability and peace in Europe, so it is worth sustained attention from the international community.




Source: China International Studies, May/June 2015, pp.83-99.


1  2  >