The bell – or rather the bell toll – of Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine has saved NATO. The Atlantic Alliance was going through the most delicate moment in its history after suffering a humiliating withdrawal in Afghanistan, enduring four years of rudeness from Donald Trump and coming to be considered “brain dead” by the French president, Emmanuel Macron. But the aggressiveness of the Russian president against a neighboring country has returned NATO to its original reason for being, which was to protect the Old Continent from Moscow’s possible desire for expansion. The rebirth of NATO comes just as the European Union began to move towards its strategic autonomy.
“This crisis has revitalized the role of NATO because it has seen its old enemy come back to life,” acknowledges Josep Borrell, high representative for EU Foreign Policy, during a conversation with EL PAÍS. And the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, took it for granted in this newspaper that “NATO has been, is and will continue to be the cornerstone of transatlantic security.”
Borrell also insists over and over again that “NATO remains the heart of Europe’s territorial defense and nobody questions it, but that cannot prevent Europeans from developing their own capabilities.” But the truth is that for many observers there are communicating vessels between the strengthening of European defense and the weakening of the Alliance. And the transfer seemed to be detrimental to the transatlantic alliance until the threat of Russian aggression against Ukraine turned the party in favor of NATO.
Significantly, the Alliance acronym emerged prominently last Tuesday when attendees at an EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) event were asked what was the first word that came to mind. mind when thinking about the defense of the European Union. NATO was the most mentioned term.
The MEP Nathalie Loiseau, who chairs the Defense subcommittee of the European Parliament, present at the EUISS event, believes that despite everything, Europe must continue to advance in its strategic autonomy. “It is more than evident that we have to act. If not now when? We are surrounded by threats in our neighborhood, but also in our own territory,” says Loiseau, a member of Macron’s liberal party.
“We have had three American presidents in a row [Obama, Trump y Biden] who have told us, with very different styles, that they expect more from Europe”, recalls Loiseau. The MEP points out that the US cannot be “everywhere”. “It has to serve its own vital interests and we must do the same,” he adds.
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Luis Simón, director of the Elcano Royal Institute delegation in Brussels, agrees that “although the strategic attention of the US is now focused on Ukraine, the tendency in Washington is to prioritize Asia and deterrence with China.” The analyst of thinktank he believes that this American evolution “will encourage Europeans to dedicate a greater effort in defense, especially when it comes to guaranteeing the security of Europe and its neighbourhood”.
At the same time, adds Simón, “the crisis in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of NATO and the US for Europe, reminding us that the European geopolitical and security architecture ultimately rests on deterrence.” And even if there is a reinforcement of the Europeans “the most normal thing is that it is channeled through NATO itself, which has a military command and control structure and a highly developed culture of deterrence. This is one of the limits of the EU’s defense policy”.
Putin has thus managed to shore up the future of NATO. And that historically neutral countries like Finland or Sweden now remember their right to join the Atlantic Alliance. “If Finland joins NATO, the Ukrainian move could go very badly for Putin,” allied sources point out.
In addition to defense against Russia, Stoltenberg believes that the Alliance is the appropriate framework to deal with “cyber and terrorist attacks also from the south, or the security consequences of the rise of China.” And the Secretary General of NATO stresses that his organization is the forum where European allies “sit every day, coordinating and also consulting with the US regarding its bilateral relations with Russia.” Stoltenberg gives a very tangible example: “The other day, at the NATO council meeting with Russia, we were 30 allies and 28 were Europeans, representing 600 million Europeans.”
In recent years – thanks or because of Trump – the EU had managed to overcome the resistance of the most Atlanticist allies, who feared that European defense would undermine the Alliance. And Europe’s impotence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US forces had convinced supporters of European sovereignty, such as France, of the need to continue to rely on the NATO umbrella for the most dangerous scenarios.
The coexistence of the EU with NATO seems, therefore, inevitable and long-term. Loiseau accepts that “strategic autonomy is not to turn your back on NATO. Strategic autonomy means acting with our allies whenever possible, and when not possible, having the ability to act on our own. NATO is not going to go to the Sahel and if we do not do more, we will have serious problems”.
The Ukrainian crisis strengthens this framework of understanding, but with NATO as the EU’s “older sister” in defense matters. Both organizations negotiate an agreement that will try to set the rules of coexistence this year. But it seems clear that the hot new peace has given ammunition to the Atlantic Alliance to survive many more years.
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