NATO has proved its worth in dealing with Russia

This war between Russia and Ukraine shows why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is the most successful of the international bodies created in the wake of the second world war. As Russian forces built up along Ukraine’s borders in the final months of 2021, the NATO alliance was watchful and active, continuing its exercises and policing the sea and airspace near Russia and Belarus. This was despite the insurrectionist riot at the US Capitol in January, the shambolic withdrawal of alliance forces from Afghanistan in August, and the ravages of the Delta and Omicron variants across Europe and North America. Somehow, NATO kept going quietly about its business.

It has had to go about things unassumingly, because its certain demise has been regularly announced. In recent years, President Emmanuel Macron of France called NATO “braindead” for failing to see the new threats coming at it. President Donald Trump slammed the allies as freeloaders and called into question America’s commitment to defend them. The alliance was in the grip of mortal crisis.

This, though, was nothing new. In the 1960s, France’s withdrawal from the military command structure and the banishment of NATO’s headquarters to Brussels rang an early (if premature) death knell. In the 1960s and into the 1970s, the crisis sprang from military coups in member states such as Greece, Turkey and Portugal. In the 1980s Europeans were on the street in their hundreds of thousands in protest at NATO Euromissile deployments. But by the 1990s, with the Berlin Wall gone and the Soviet Union with it, NATO began to wander in the wilderness, looking for a purpose.

The alliance found one in the fight against terrorism after 9/11, but it also began looking for ways not only to bring in new members from the former Warsaw Pact, but to create a partnership with Russia too. Vladimir Putin does not remember now, but he signed the Rome Declaration in 2002 to develop a pragmatic NATO-Russia relationship that ended up doing a great deal of good not only in Europe, but farther afield too.

The sensible projects that the Russian military undertook with NATO ranged from combating heroin trafficking out of Afghanistan, to developing safer airspace in Europe, to responding together to accidents involving weapons of mass destruction. The Russians even hosted the allies in 2004 in an exercise that practised responding to terrorist attacks on nuclear truck and rail convoys.

With Mr Putin rattling his nuclear sabre during the present crisis, such pragmatic co-operation is long ago and far away. The experience of NATO-Russia co-operation shows, nevertheless, that the alliance was trying to adapt to Russia as a partner, trying to figure out a way to avoid ending up where we are today. For a number of reasons that we are still sorting through, the Russian president decided that cooperation with NATO was not in Russia’s interest—or at least, not in his interest.

NATO’s adaptability is the key to its success as an institution. No matter what crises are confronting it, the alliance is looking for a way to resolve them and to ensure that they do not happen again. As Russian misbehaviour has been growing in recent years, NATO has been exercising its responses methodically.

Air policing, for example, has been in place in the Baltics since the Russians seized Crimea in 2014. Fighter jets from a number of NATO countries have cycled through the Baltic states and (more recently) Romania and Bulgaria, regularly scrambling to escort Russian military aircraft as they approach too close to NATO borders. The wealth of training that air policing has given pilots from across the alliance will now serve NATO well, should it need to deal with air incursions in the midst of this crisis. No one wants to see spillover from the fighting in Ukraine escalating to a general European war.

The success of NATO efforts to adapt to Russian hybrid methods is also much in evidence. NATO countries in recent years have faced daily cyber-attacks, a misinformation onslaught and at least one attempt at a false flag operation. As Montenegro was approaching its final entry into NATO in June 2017, Russia launched a coup attempt that was unsuccessful thanks to immediate action by Montenegro’s leaders, but also thanks to an information campaign launched by NATO to push back against false narratives from Moscow.

Now, Russia is losing the information war thanks in part to NATO’s savvy and experience. Of course, the governments of Britain and America are leading the way by releasing intelligence, but NATO itself is making sure that its soldiers in the field do not fall prey to Russian propaganda tactics, and is keeping NATO publics informed of the real situation on the ground in Ukraine and along alliance borders.

In brief, the allies have adapted to hybrid attacks in recent years. They understand what the perpetrators are up to and have done a lot to build up resilience and hone response tactics. The hybrid methods are fluid and ever-changing so the allies cannot sit still—but they understand that. This ability to evolve is NATO’s survival method and gainsays the attacks of its loudest critics.

The alliance knows it must adapt yet more to survive, whether it is facing an external bully or internal critics, each threatening its future. That is why it is today the most successful of international security organisations. Long may it be so.

Rose Gottemoeller is the former deputy secretary-general of NATO.

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