From 'brain death' to rebirth: How NATO transformed to combat Russia

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If you want to get a sense of just how significantly Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine has reinvigorated Europe’s attitudes towards security and defense, spend a few days at NATO headquarters in Brussels, as I recently did. The polished battleship gray building is a hive of activity and something truly incredible on which to reflect.  

The 31 countries of the alliance are working closely together with a renewed sense of purpose to ensure continental security and deter Russian aggression against Europe. Uniforms of every camouflage variety accompany a symphony of languages all working towards a common end. 

The most successful alliance in human history, it struggled to find its purpose in the post-Cold War era, attempting to balance out-of-area operations with the needs of continental defense at a time when the threat — Russia — appeared to be on the wane. Prior to Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine, France’s president, Emanuel Macron went so far as to suggest that the alliance was suffering from “brain death,” lacking a definite purpose. One visit to the headquarters puts that notion to bed, arguably indefinitely.  

The alliance is now moving with a clear focus.  

Thus far, NATO purposefully has stayed on the sidelines of the war in Ukraine with the alliance providing only non-lethal aid to Kyiv. Despite President Vladimir Putin’s suggestions to the contrary, the conflict in Ukraine is not a fight between NATO and Russia. Individual member states are providing considerable aid to support Ukraine’s defense and counteroffensive, but the alliance’s mission of defense and deterrence remains unchanged and is certainly reinvigorated.  

It was striking to meet and speak with NATO staff and to hear their sense of purpose and focus, often in contrast with the staider pre-war days. To be sure, they were certainly busy before February 2022, as they would remark, but the demands of Ukraine and the acknowledgment that Russia was a clear and present threat was a far stronger point against which to orient.   

From the creation and approval of new regional defense plans to the active integration of Finland — and, hopefully, the accession of Sweden in the near future — the alliance is updating that defense and deterrence model for the reality of the return of conflict to the continent and the demands of high-intensity warfare. This is a complex and dynamic process. NATO is attempting to integrate near real-time lessons from the battlefields of Ukraine while modernizing its operational defense plans and designing capabilities for the future.  

NATO and its member countries have to relearn the challenges of sustaining the demands of high-intensity warfare and the complexities of mass mobilization and logistics, such as rapidly moving units across Europe. The end of the Cold War and the hopes that the alliance could better cooperate with Russia, and the post 9/11 era, saw much of the experience and focus on high-intensity warfare ebb in favor of low-intensity out-of-area operations in Southwest Asia. Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine brought home the reality that the continent was not immune to inter-state war.  

The challenges of high-intensity war require a renewed focus on planning elements that were commonplace in the Cold War. NATO’s Defense Production Action Plan, for example, is a clear recognition that more is needed — more artillery shells, munitions and equipment—and an attempt to jump-start the process in a smart, sensible way. 

Regional defense plans will see the alliance better prepared for, and aligned against, the geographic range of threats that Russia will present over the future. The scalable NATO battle groups will deliver greater flexibility to respond to Russian movements and see the alliance more mobile and agile.   

Obstacles still remain. While countries have adjusted their national defense spending closer to the 2 percent of GDP target, that is merely adapting to the previous level of expectations. Closing the gap between planned and forces available to Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the highly-regarded supreme allied commander in Europe, requires another step up in spending — something that is by no means guaranteed across the member states, especially at a time of economic pressure.  

Maintaining political unity to accompany the clear military focus is also necessary. Any alliance will have fractious members and disputes of varying intensities — look at the tensions over Sweden’s accession. It is incumbent on the political leaders to work through these and maintain a common purpose and focus, especially when threat perceptions are not universal. It is generally agreed that Russia will reconstitute its forces, the question is how quickly and how extensively. This delta in perspectives could undermine the long-term sense of urgency amongst the alliance.   

It is also important to continue the focus on the diversity of challenges that Russia presents beyond conventional ground forces. Moscow retains its strategic arsenal, much of its air force and naval capabilities outside of the Black Sea. It continues to have cyber capabilities and other means of escalation through non-conventional means such as mis- and disinformation, destabilization activities, its engagement with North Korea and Iran and activities across Africa.

The 2024 presidential election does, however, loom in the background of much of NATO’s near-term planning. While everyone was far too polite and professional to comment on America’s politics, it was an acknowledged fact that President Donald Trump has expressed doubts about the alliance and questioned America’s commitment to its Article 5 obligations. His election could well result in a marked shift in Washington’s support for Ukraine and suggest near-term changes in America’s relationship with the alliance. It would certainly raise questions and concerns about American reliability both in Brussels and the capitals of its member countries.  

The changes underway within NATO would continue, nonetheless. While the outcome of the war in Ukraine is unclear — though NATO member countries’ commitment to Kyiv’s ultimate victory is unquestioned — Moscow certainly appears to have suffered a strategic defeat with NATO’s expansion and renewed sense of purpose. 

We are only beginning to see the long-term implications of the reinvigoration of NATO, but it is clear that the benefits for European defense and security are undeniable.  

Joshua C. Huminski is director of the national security space program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and a George Mason University National Security Institute senior fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski. 

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