How united is NATO really in countering Putin and in providing support to Ukraine? The Russian invasion reveals cracks within NATO that have been there since the Cold War, writes Roberta N. Haar.
At the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Atlantisch Perspectief asked me to take stock of U.S. foreign policy towards the conflict. After the midterm elections and half way through Joe Biden’s presidential term, is America still all-in as a supporter of Ukraine or has fatigue and the success of Trumpian isolationists tempered U.S. enthusiasm for acting as the arsenal of democracy?
Add to this uncertainty, equally important questions about Biden’s willingness to continue to lead and to unify NATO members against Putin. The recent debate on whether and when to supply tanks to a Ukrainian army that was obviously in need of more heavy military hardware and more ammunition, suggests that cracks were appearing in leadership, unity, and the ability to arm the defender.
NATO’s post-Cold War strategic problem
The level of anguish that the months long “tank debate” exhibited mirrored the equally agonizing deliberations about other weapon systems. However, the real problem with the piecemeal, incremental way of adding weapons indicates that NATO allies, the U.S. in particular, do not have a clear idea of the intended outcome of the war. The crux of these debates is about whether the members of NATO and their allies should give the Ukrainians the wherewithal to win the war, and along with this, what are their goals and what is the strategy linked to those goals.
Positively, each promise to give more and better fighting capabilities means that the outcome of these debates leans towards giving Ukraine real capacities. Equally positive, there appears to be a realization that a lack of strategy and piecemeal support is having a detrimental effect. A recent shift to training and equipping a battalion’s worth of armored units does more evidently support a strategy. It also sends a message to the invader that conquest will not be easy.
NATO’s post-Cold War leadership problem
Alongside NATO’s post-Cold War problems with defining a clear strategy, it periodically evidences leadership and solidarity problems. Putin’s observation of divisions between the allies led him to believe that the West would not respond to his invasion of Ukraine.
The Biden administration deserves credit for its distinct willingness to take the lead of a Western military operation and to build unity in an international coalition against Putin. The Europeans deserve credit for their willingness to join America in applying rather rigorous sanctions, which had significant impact on their economies.
However, the debates about tanks put unity back into question—nearly a year into the war, one could ask: is NATO as united as it was earlier? The fact that German chancellor Olaf Scholz resisted taking the lead in sending German-made tanks (and even denied other countries permission to send their Leopard 2s to Ukraine), despite a growing chorus that he should, indicated a divided leadership and a unity on the wane.
NATO’s post-Cold War commitment problem
A year ago, I wrote in Atlantic Perspective that Putin’s war of choice on Ukraine succeeded in resolving several problems that have stalked NATO since Obama’s presidency, including its execution problem. Scholz’s unprecedented pledge to invest €100bn for armed forces was a big step in rectifying the execution predicament for one of Europe’s largest countries.
However, Scholz’s vow petered out in months of disappointment, in gaffes and an incrementalistic mindset by German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, and in a general misunderstanding of the extent of the Bundeswehr’s problems. To be successful, Scholz’s Zeitenwende, his proclaimed turning point of German defense, must first slay a bloated, toxic bureaucracy and find innovative ways to inject money meaningfully. After thirty years of underfunding, the German military needs a Zeitenbomb to make a clean break with the past if it wants to complete its Zeitenwende.
US Army faces problems with the supply chain
In addition to these issues specific to Germany is the fact that other than the states closest to Russia—plus the United Kingdom—most countries in Europe are not stepping up in the military space. Adding to this willingness-deficit is a growing capabilities-deficit brought on by dwindling armories. Even the U.S. exhibited these execution issues. In fact, America sent so many weapons that U.S. military leaders are getting worried that the country does not have enough for its own troops.
Of course, weapons and training costs money, which in the wake of Biden’s colossal green energy spending legislation, Europeans may shift to their own massive green investments. Although Europeans were initially pleased that the U.S. passed major legislation to combat climate change, they quickly soured on it when they realized that the local-provisions element gives favorable treatment to Mexico and Canada but not the EU.
Trans-Atlantic unity called into question
Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia compounded feelings of unfairness when he suggested to Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel that spiking cost of energy could be offset by entering into long-term contracts with U.S.-based producers. For Europeans, such comments drive a dagger into concepts of unity and confirm suspicions that U.S business is trying to take advantage of the EU’s energy woes caused by the war in Ukraine. For their part, Americans feel that they have been warning Europeans for a long time that their fossil fuel dependencies on Russia were a bad idea.
The reality of the postwar frenemy-differing-economic-interests of transatlantic relations may not only undermine the Europeans’ capability to provide meaningful military aid to Ukraine, but it might also affect transatlantic unity. The Biden administration’s balancing of a number of centrifugal forces—of bringing multilateralism “back,” of “blunting” China’s rise, of reinvigorating American industrial power and of leading a NATO alliance to help Ukraine, has all the potential to backfire and misfire.
The Auguries of Leopards and M1s
A year into the war, as the signs of spring become evident in my garden with blooming snowdrops, I am reminded of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar in which a soothsayer tells the dictator “Beware the Ides of March,” a warning that he would suffer great misfortune and betrayal in the middle of March. A foreshadowing that concludes with Caesar’s assassination at the hands of his most trusted advisors. What would a fortuneteller say to the current dictator as he contemplates the misery and terror that he has afflicted on his own citizens and those in Ukraine? Is the ultimate outcome of the intense debates over the fall and winter about whether to give Ukraine the means to win the war, a spring prophesy to Beware the Auguries of Leopards and M1s?
This might be a fanciful turn of phrase that the poet and political scientist in me finds enticing. Nothing may happen to the dictator in March or in all of 2023. However, we do know that his military losses are great, that the U.S.’ role as a key driver of the West’s unified response continues to hold, that NATO countries are severing their attachment to Russian fossil fuels, that NATO allies continue to send ever more sophisticated military aid to Ukraine, and that the Ukrainians are not ready to give up the fight.