WASHINGTON, March 19 -- The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was on the road to irrelevance. The most successful military alliance in history has lacked a real enemy since the Soviet Union disintegrated a quarter of a century ago. After a dozen years of war in Afghanistan, NATO’s role is coming to an ignominious end.
Meanwhile, NATO’s newer members in the Baltic and Central and Southern Europe have been increasingly uncomfortable with their neighbor to the East. Moscow’s use of energy and military maneuvers to intimidate and threaten has not gone down well. The situation in Ukraine has only heightened these sensitivities.
The heart of the Washington Treaty of 1949 that created NATO is Article V: “An attack against one is an attack against all.” Unless the situation in Ukraine cools down quickly, the September summit will be granted new life. And new life should focus around reaffirming Article V.
That Putin has promised to spend billions of additional rubles to rebuild Russian defenses will be further ammunition to making the Article V case. But it is imperative that NATO gets this right. To do that, planning and thinking must start now.
First, the summit cannot be seen as provoking a mini or second cold war. Second, NATO has about 3.3 million people in uniform and spends just under a trillion dollars on defense each year -- formidable numbers that need to be highlighted. Third, as outgoing NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has called for “smart defense,” in this case, response to Putin must be very smart indeed.
Beyond discussion of Afghanistan that is high on the agenda, this must be the summit that reaffirms and reassures allies on Article V. The best and least costly way of demonstrating this reaffirmation is through contingency planning and tabletop and command post exercises aimed at reinforcing the easternmost countries in time of crisis. This does not require tens of thousands of soldiers. But, for example, exercises that show how the U.S. and other NATO states might be able to redeploy forces inside NATO will be a powerful signal to Moscow.
NATO would become a more visible insurance policy but with low premiums. Reassurance is the coin of the realm. At the same time, far more aggressive arms control and confidence building measures with Moscow must be pursued.
If we are smart, a big if, Vlad Putin can help save the alliance. But we must help him.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, Senior Advisor at Washington D.C.’s Atlantic Council. His latest book, due out this Fall, is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of an Archduke a Century Ago Still Menaces Peace Today.