It’s been a busy summer in Europe’s capitals. As President Obama prepares to leave the U.S. to join them on Tuesday, the leaders of the member countries of NATO find themselves forced to confront a question that has plagued them since the fall of the Soviet Union: where exactly do the alliance’s priorities lie?
Since 1991 and the Soviet Union’s collapse, NATO has found itself struggling for meaning. No longer was it an alliance designed to prevent a communist takeover of Western Europe. Russia was being integrated into the structure of the system, as former Soviet countries lined up to join in now that the Warsaw Pact was defunct. In response to the naysayers who encouraged NATO to disband, the mission was supposed to stretch beyond the North Atlantic.
First in Kosovo, where NATO bombs helped halt the fighting between ethnic Albanians and the Serbian-dominated government of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, the Balkans fell fully under NATO’s purview. Then in Afghanistan, where the alliance found itself when the United States for the first time invoked Article V of the Atlantic Charter: the doomsday button that requires all NATO members to respond to an attack on one. And just three years ago, NATO found itself enforcing the U.N. Security Council’s resolution calling for a halt to then-dictator Moamar Qaddafi’s assault on the city of Benghazi and its civilians.
Now, that expansive vision for NATO’s role in the world is being called into question. The alliance’s initial purpose doesn’t seem quite as outdated as it once did.
Ukraine is clearly in focus for NATO’s members as its leadership converges in Wales for this year’s summit. “A great war has arrived at our doorstep – the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War Two,” Ukrainian defense minister Valeriy Heletey wrote on Facebook on Monday. “Unfortunately, the losses in such a war will be measured not in the hundreds but thousands and tens of thousands.”
That pronouncement would seem over-hyped if it weren’t for the fact that Russia has been the reason why separatists in Ukraine’s eastern region have shown a remarkable comeback over the past two weeks. Where once the government in Kyiv seemed poised to defeat the rebel movement after months of fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, now suddenly the separatists find themselves supported with heavy weaponry, tanks, and far more soldiers than it previously had — coincidentally right after a supposed humanitarian convoy entered from Russia without Kyiv’s permission. NATO last Thursday published satellite photos it says show a sizable incursion from Russia into NATO.
“Over the past two weeks we have noted a significant escalation in both the level and sophistication of Russia’s military interference in Ukraine,” said Brigadier General Tak. “The satellite images released today provide additional evidence that Russian combat soldiers, equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry, are operating inside Ukraine’s sovereign territory,” he said. All told, according to NATO, there are at least 1,000 Russian troops now operating in Ukraine. All of this is taking place as the number of those displaced thanks to the fighting has ballooned to 260,000, placing a possible refugee crisis on the European Union’s border.
Behind the flashing warning lights in Ukraine, the situation in Afghanistan is fading into the distance, even as the political struggles there threaten to subsume the progress made over the last decade. The election meant to find a successor to Afghan president Hamid Karzai has become mired in mudslinging and indignation from the two competitors left standing. The United States and United Nations are attempting to broker a deal between the candidates — Dr. Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist and Afghan finance minister, and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister — but several arrangements have already fallen through.
Both sides have also claimed fraud to the extent that millions of votes are now in question. Now Abdullah’s campaign is ready to give up on the process all together, leaving the validity of the vote uncertain. “We will give one day to the international community to review and assure that the vote auditing and the political negotiations are moving forward properly,” Abdullah spokesman Syed Fazel Sancharaki said on Monday afternoon. “If our demands are not met and the auditing not conducted legitimately and the political talks without honesty, then we will withdraw from both processes.”
Without a new president in place, the fate of NATO in Afghanistan after this year becomes clouded. Both of Karzai’s potential heirs to the presidency had pledged to sign onto the Bilateral Security Agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan, which would allow American troops to remain after combat troops leave the country at the end of this year. NATO was waiting for the U.S.’ BSA to be signed before determining just how the rest of the International Security Assistance Force would continue to operate.
But it’s unlikely that Afghanistan find itself discussed much at this year’s summit, according to Stephen Saideman, a professor at Carleton Univeristy in Canada and co-author of a book on NATO’s mission there. Afghanistan was a “long, bloody slog” and does not look great in retrospect, Saidman explained in an email to ThinkProgress, so members of NATO were already shifting attention back to Europe even before the current Ukraine crisis. The mission there was also more about supporting the United States, encouraging the U.S. to continue supporting NATO, he added, so any regrets over the shifted mandate “have to do with politics and not distraction from the main threat… which is back.”
That doesn’t mean that NATO necessarily regrets its shift in mission, Saideman said, but there are several frustrations. “If there are regrets, they are not about diversion of attention but about outcomes,” he wrote about the missions NATO undertook outside of Europe. “Libya is a mess, for instance. It is the case that these efforts did upset Russia, but Russia was behaving like this before Kosovo,” he said, listing crises in Moldova and Georgia that both both pre-date Kosovo. “Not all showed up in Libya and Libya was defined mostly as a European problem (immigrants). But Russia’s move this year definitely make containment the order of the day.”
As the members of NATO converge to converse, there are already signs of just what sort of response towards Russia can be expected. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced on Monday that there would a new rapid reaction force put into place in Eastern Europe to counter any possible aggression, with member states rotating personnel in and out of temporary bases. For his part, however, Russian president Vladimir Putin appears unimpressed. In an interview with an Italian newspaper, the Russian leader reportedly said that his country clearly wasn’t actually invading Ukraine, as he could “take Kiev in two weeks” if he really wanted.
With that level of belligerence next door, it’s easy to see why such a crisis would make NATO sit up and pay attention. But that doesn’t mean Afghanistan — or Libya for that matter, which is a state of free-fall — ceases to exist. In turning to face the old threat that’s new again, the alliance may be forgetting the pledges that its made in the time since Moscow was enemy number one.