In the midst of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, NATO turned 73. Strangely, this might be the alliance’s best year ever. Or at least it seems that way: There is an emerging consensus among policymakers and analysts that Russia’s attack on Ukraine has unified the alliance like never before. For example, Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer recently wrote: “The war in Ukraine put an end to the metaphysical questions that some people might have had about the relevance or interest of NATO today, by clearly demonstrating a common and imperial threat.”
It is true that allies have sent troops to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank and some allies have announced significant increases in defense spending, at least in the near term. Perceptions of Russia have changed in a number of European countries, especially given the alleged war crimes committed by Russian troops. Russia is seen as a greater threat today in Paris, Berlin, and Rome than it was just a few months ago. Germany’s purported “watershed moment” is, in particular, getting a great deal of attention.
There is evidence, however, that when the Russo-Ukrainian War recedes, it will leave the alliance with many of the same old challenges. The fundamental problem is that NATO’s 30 members face different threats that are often driven by geography and remain stable over time. America is increasingly preoccupied with China while European countries along the Mediterranean — as well as other European countries where extremists have sought to radicalize Muslim populations — face significant problems related to terrorism and instability in northern and western Africa as well as the Middle East. So, while Europe seems more united than ever before, the war in Ukraine will not change the fundamentals.
The Cacophony That Won’t Be Silenced
This “strategic cacophony” means NATO will remain divided even after peace returns to Ukraine. The eastern-flank allies will be rightly obsessed with Russian threat and push the alliance to focus solely on it. Polish leaders have blamed other NATO members for having been overly naïve about Russia and have demanded that the alliance focus on territorial defense, including large-scale permanent deployments in the territories of eastern members.
Other allies will continue to perceive terrorism or civil war in neighboring regions as the most important threats to their security and will push NATO to address it. The threat that terrorism poses to France, Germany, Italy, and other NATO members has not diminished with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. In fact, it is reasonable to continue to assume that it is far more likely for French citizens to die from a terrorist attack than a Russian missile. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that Russia’s 2022 attack on Ukraine means that all NATO members will now see it as an enduring threat. Sure, German chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered an impassioned speech to the Bundestag calling for a one-time €100 billion allocation for new defense spending, but it is unclear how far Germany is willing to go in terms of a real, rather than marketed, sea change. Other major European countries are being even more modest. Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi warned of a crisis of historic proportions but did not frame the scenario as one in which Russia was now a threat to Italy or Europe more broadly. Draghi subsequently proposed that Italy would raise its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP only to have a party in his governing coalition oppose the move.
America’s focus on China will persist and Washington will work to get the alliance to focus on China as well. While U.S. officials have begun to consider long-term increases in the U.S. presence on NATO’s eastern flank, there is little debate in Washington that China is a far greater threat to American interests than is Russia. China’s support for Russia since the war began has perhaps even consolidated American views of the threat China poses. The United States will most likely continue to reorient toward East Asia even if it is not able to extricate itself from Europe. We can also expect American policymakers to press their NATO allies to focus more on China, at a moment when European members are already divided over how much to focus on Russia.
Further, France has taken the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to push harder for strategic autonomy for the European Union, which might challenge NATO’s core purpose. Just a few weeks ago, President Emmanuel Macron said, “The United States and Russia structured the world during the Cold War. We are no longer in the Cold War.” It is Europeans, not Americans, who “live beside Russia,” and so “we need a defense policy, and we need to define a security architecture for ourselves and not delegate that task.” Some in Washington might find a division of labor arrangement with the European Union attractive: European nations could focus on their defense and the United States could focus on the threat from China. But this is more likely to produce deeper division in Europe as eastern member states continue to demand an American commitment to their defense as a way of hedging against the risks of a Franco-German-led European autonomy. Illustrating this, Laurynas Kasciunas, chairman of the National Security and Defense Committee in Lithuania, stated, “The German military is great; we’re so grateful to have them here. But we’d also like some American troops, please, combat-ready and ideally permanently.”
Contributing to Lower Perceptions of the Russian Threat
There are reasons to predict that Western perceptions of a threat from Russia will go back down once the war in Ukraine ends. These include domestic political factors. First, countries that are dependent on Russian oil and gas will have an incentive to downplay the Russian threat unless or until they are able to find viable and affordable alternatives for their energy needs. Second, European businesses that sell in Russia (Germany alone was responsible for €26.7 billion in exports to Russia in 2021) will pressure their governments to lower the temperature on geopolitical tensions to maximize their profits. Third, European populist parties with an affinity for Russia and Vladimir Putin — and in some cases a history of funding from Moscow — will work to soften public perceptions of Russia and scale back official threat assessments. Consider, for example, what French assessments of Russian threat would look like if Marine Le Pen wins the French presidential runoff. Finally, longstanding pacifist traditions in countries like Germany and Italy are likely to reassert themselves as Russian outrages and war crimes fade from the headlines. Governing coalitions in such countries will face pressure to downplay any assessment of threat that justifies meaningful and enduring increases in defense spending or emphases on military solutions to international problems.
Russia’s military setbacks in Ukraine are also likely to provide significant fodder for those seeking to downplay Russian threats in the future. Analysts such as Michael Kofman have criticized Russia’s poor planning and terrible military campaign in Ukraine. Russia’s military — despite the modernization effort it is undergone — has exposed itself as ill-suited for large-scale ground offensives. Russia spends over 10 times what Ukraine does on defense and yet it has struggled to prevail. It does seem a stretch to imagine that Putin would attack NATO after the losses Russia has incurred in Ukraine.
It is true that Western policymakers are now united in seeing Russia as a major threat. The previously outlined speeches and defense-spending pledges suggest real change as a result of Russia’s full-scale and brutal attack on Ukraine. Official defense and security documents — likely to emerge in the next year or two — will not be able to avoid or downplay mention of Russian threats as they did in the past. Still, it is not hard to imagine Western fears receding in the cold afterglow of Russian military incompetence and with domestic political factors reasserting themselves. Observers should therefore not be surprised if countries that did not see Russia as the dominant threat to their security before the war are unlikely to see it as the dominant threat to their security after the war.
After the War
This tragic war will eventually end — and when it does, NATO will be left with similar challenges to those it faced when the war began. Eastern NATO allies will continue to focus on territorial defense against Russia, although they will press even harder to get the entire alliance to focus there as well. Countries like France and Italy are likely to keep a more watchful eye on Russia, but they will continue to focus on terrorism, illegal migration, and civil war as their most salient challenges. China’s power and ambitions will continue to be the focus of American policymakers, who will push NATO to turn toward Asia. Finally, France will continue to push for European strategic autonomy, which will clash with demands from Warsaw, Vilnius, Tallinn, and Riga for an American presence to guarantee their security. Russia’s attack on Ukraine has not unified the alliance on one threat. Recognition that NATO’s 30 allies face diverse threats will be critical in getting the alliance to take meaningful steps to address the threats that Russia, terrorism, and China pose to its members. How will the alliance balance the calls for focus on territorial defense against Russia with the need to provide greater stability in the Mediterranean? When leaders from NATO countries convene in Madrid this summer to compose the alliance’s new strategic concept, they ought to avoid the urge to paper over differences for the sake of unity. Instead, they should welcome uncomfortable and candid conversations about how to solve the alliance’s very real and enduring internal tensions.
Jason W. Davidson is a professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington ([email protected]u) and author of America’s Entangling Alliances: 1778 to the Present.