Is NATO Still Relevant?

Russian occupied Abkhazia.

Russian occupied Abkhazia.

TBILISI, Georgia–In recent weeks, the conflict in Ukraine has entered a new stage. Western fears of greater escalation led to increased efforts to find a negotiated solution. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President flew to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin but were unable to negotiate a resolution.

During these same days, the fear of a Russian invasion of one of the Baltic countries, a concern that has been on the minds of the people of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia as well as NATO leadership, reached new heights. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who served as NATO Secretary General from 2009-2014 stated last week,“There is a high probability that [Mr. Putin] will intervene in the Baltics to test NATO’s Article 5.” This was the first time since the conflict began that such a high-ranking NATO official expressed this worry about Russia actions towards NATO member states. While talk of a new Cold War has been widespread in recent months, Mr. Rasmussen has now told us that  a hot war, of potentially enormous proportions, is likely to happen.

Mr. Rasmussen’s words notwithstanding, Russia would be taking a huge risk by initiating conflict with a NATO country, even a small one. This is not lost on Mr. Putin. From the early days of the Ukraine conflict, NATO has made efforts to send a message to Russia that Article 5, the mutual defense clause, will be honored with respect to all NATO members. In April of 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry made the US position on this issue clear “And most important, together we have to make it absolutely clear to the Kremlin that NATO territory is inviolable. We will defend every single piece of it…Article V of the NATO treaty must mean something, and our allies on the frontline need and deserve no less.”

NATO has backed up Kerry’s words with actions. Since spring, the US and other NATO allies have increased the troop presence and the number of military exercises on NATO’s eastern front. Additionally NATO has expanded its air and sea defense in the Baltics. The Baltic States remain deeply concerned about a possible Russian strike, but NATO has done more than just talk in the Baltics; and so far that has helped keep Russia out.

Things are a bit different in Georgia, where I have spent most of the last week. For Tbilisi, Russian military aggression is not a fear, but a reality. Approximately 20 percent of the country’s territory, the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s and declared their independence following the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, today claim independence but are really annexed by Russia.

The fact that Russia has invaded two non-NATO states but not smaller weaker NATO members that are also former Soviet states is evidence that NATO still matters. Therefore, events in Ukraine have not shown NATO to be irrelevant, but have demonstrated its enduring power.

Georgia badly wants to join NATO, and sees it as the only way to guarantee their security. Moscow has made it clear that it does not want its southern neighbor to be part of NATO and has indicated it will take steps to stop that. Georgians fear that given the West’s inability to stop Russia in either 2008 or over the last year in Ukraine, anything short of NATO membership will leave them vulnerable. NATO, however, has been very reluctant to move forward with bringing Georgia in and did not offer the country a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at last year’s summit in Wales, not least because they are concerned about Russia’s reaction.

Georgia represents a significant challenge for NATO, despite the consensus of opinion among elites and ordinary citizens here. NATO is very hesitant to take on a new member that is so vulnerable to Russian attack. For NATO members the idea going to war to defend Estonia or Latvia can be difficult, but when applied the more distant Georgia that sentiment intensifies. After all, what U.S. Senator wants to be the first to tell a mother that her son died fighting in Abkhazia?

Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, many pundits have declared that NATO is in crisis or even bordering on irrelevance. The basic gist of this argument is that Russia, led by its authoritarian and anti-NATO President Vladimir Putin, has been able to invade a country that either borders or is politically close to NATO for the second time in a decade, and that in both cases NATO has not been able to stop Russia.That is an accurate description of events in Ukraine in 2014-2015 and Georgia in 2008. However, it is also the case that concerns about the weakness of NATO, from various quarters, have existed for at least a decade.

There is also a paradox to this argument. One of the fundamental raisons d’être for NATO is to provide security and protection for its members. The fact that Russia has invaded two non-NATO states but not smaller weaker NATO members that are also former Soviet states is evidence that NATO still matters. Therefore, events in Ukraine have not shown NATO to be irrelevant, but have demonstrated its enduring power. A Russian incursion into a large non-NATO country is a dangerous development for the region, evidence of Moscow’s goals in places like Georgia and Ukraine, causing many deaths and a great deal of suffering and is a terrible precedent, but not evidence of NATO weakness. While Russia does not want any further NATO expansion; and this conflict will likely preclude that for the near future, Russia has also, thus far, avoided direct conflict with a NATO country. At least for now, that NATO still functions, and NATO membership still means something.

Fireworks over Batumi, Georgia.

Despite the Fireworks, few in Georgia are celebrating. (Photo: Lincoln Mitchell for New York Observer).

A Russian invasion of any of the Baltic States, of the kind about which Mr. Rasmussen recently warned, would change that equation almost instantly. It would be an actual crisis for NATO rather than the more generalized worries about NATO’s role and future that have defined much of this century for the alliance. Faced with a Russian invasion of Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, NATO would have to either respond military thus leading to a major war, or refuse to stand by its newest members, rendering NATO genuinely irrelevant. Neither are good options. However, NATO membership for the Baltic States was in large part the way those countries sought to protect themselves from Russia, a fear that, given the history of the 20th century, is still strong in the region. Thus far it has worked; and despite Mr. Rasmussen’s warnings, it may continue to work.

From Tbilisi, NATO does not look irrelevant at all. Almost all of the people with whom I have discussed politics here in the last week including journalists, civil society activists, members of parliament and high ranking current and former government officials have expressed both their distress over events in Ukraine, and their hopes, in the face of increasingly long odds, that Georgia can get into NATO in the not too distant future. If NATO was truly irrelevant, and Russia was running roughshod over small and weak NATO countries, Georgia and other aspirant countries would not place such great hope in joining the alliance.

Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. He served as in informal advisor to the Georgian Dream in their winning election campaign in 2012.





Is NATO Still Relevant?