As Russia’s war drags on, a once-united NATO faces internal turmoil

Posted on : 2024-04-14 10:31 KST Modified on : 2024-04-14 10:31 KST
Unable to prevent a war in Europe and reliant on US leadership, the Atlantic alliance rang in its 75th anniversary amid uncertainty about its future
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels on April 4, 2024. (AP/Yonhap)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels on April 4, 2024. (AP/Yonhap)

NATO, the biggest military alliance in the West, turned 75 last week.
As the largest pillar of the world’s international military order, it is led by the US, Germany, the UK, France and other Western industrialized nations. Recently, traditionally neutral countries such as Sweden and Finland have also joined, increasing the number of members to 32. In the Indo-Pacific region, South Korea, Japan and Australia are deemed partners of the multilateral pact. But while being at the height of its power, the Atlantic alliance is more dysfunctional than ever.
The war in Ukraine, which after erupting on Feb. 24, 2022, has continued now for over two years, has created fissures within NATO. The alliance, whose purpose was to defend Europe in the first place, has been powerless in the face of the war in Ukraine, the largest war fought in Europe since the multilateral security pact’s inception.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the build-up to NATO’s disbandment
On April 3, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pushed for long-term aid to Ukraine by putting forward a proposal to establish a military support fund of 100 billion euros, for the next five years. As a proposal from the European countries of NATO, it shows that continental allies would like to shift the leadership over military aid to Ukraine from the US to Europe.
Stoltenberg also stated that the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which is an alliance of 50-some-odd countries that are assisting Ukraine, should be led by NATO.
This is because a US$60 billion aid package for Ukraine proposed by the US has been stalled in Congress since November 2023 due to Republican opposition. Furthermore, the alliance’s aid to Ukraine could be disrupted if the notoriously anti-NATO Donald Trump wins the presidency in November.
However, John Kirby, the White House National Security Council spokesperson, stated in a briefing on the same day, that the Ukraine Defense Contact Group is “bigger than NATO.” 

“It’s bigger than the alliance. As I said, 50-some-odd countries around the world. And what brought them together was American leadership,” Kirby said. Such comments show that he is against Europe taking the lead in aiding Ukraine.

This shows the stark reality that NATO faces. While it is unable to effectively address the war in Ukraine, which is threatening NATO’s raison d’etre of keeping Europe safe, rifts between the US and Europe are growing by the day. The alliance is in a dilemma as it struggles to find its footing in the international order after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was its primary enemy.
Hastings Ismay, the first secretary general of NATO is credited with saying that the purpose of NATO was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” during the Cold War. This sentence most accurately describes the reason behind NATO’s establishment and the role it has adopted ever since.

NATO successfully thwarted the threat of the Soviet Union, Germany — the aggressor in two world wars — was now a leading member of Western Europe, and the US was clearly tied to Europe. As long as the US and Europe had mutual security ties, US hegemony was assured. 

Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the status of NATO fell into jeopardy. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, a precursor to the Soviet collapse, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to support a unified Germany under the condition that NATO did not expand its borders further eastward. There was no written or binding contract, so it was essentially a gentleman’s agreement between the US, the Soviet Union and West Germany. 

Many socialist states in Eastern Europe defected from their status as Soviet satellite states. The Warsaw Pact, a collective defense treaty between the Soviet Union and seven of its satellite states, was dissolved in July 1991. Gorbachev proposed the dissolution of NATO or the Soviet Union’s membership in NATO. Expert opinions in the West supported the proposal of either dissolving or radically revising NATO. Czech President Václav Havel, who was a pro-independence dissident during the Soviet era, suggested the dissolution of NATO and the formation of a pan-European alliance that included the Soviet Union. 

Boris Yeltsin’s warning in 1999

The US, however, opted to expand NATO eastward. In the end, this became the cause of the current war in Ukraine.

 When Russia vehemently opposed NATO expansion, the Bill Clinton administration looked to Norway, a NATO member that shared a border with the Soviet Union. Norway forbade any foreign troops or nuclear weapons within its borders. Clinton proposed applying the “Scandinavian model” in Eastern Europe. The Clinton administration created the Partnership for Peace program in 1994, and encouraged Eastern European countries to join. 

In November of that year, the Republican Party secured a victory under campaign promises of expanding NATO. Politically cornered, Clinton agreed to expand NATO in December. Secretary of Defense William Perry, who had opposed the expansion, resigned. 

In March 1999, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland joined NATO, beginning the organization’s eastward expansion in earnest. At the US-Russia summit in Istanbul in November of that year, Russian President Boris Yeltsin protested NATO’s expansion and pleaded for Clinton to allow Europeans to settle their own affairs. As he was leaving the summit venue, he indicated that Vladimir Putin was going to become Russia’s next president. The series of events set the stage for Putin, a man who was not afraid to go to war over NATO’s expansion, to take power. 

He did just that in 2008, when he invaded Georgia, and in 2014 when he forcibly annexed Crimea, and declared the current war in Ukraine. The war was put on pause during the 

NATO’s expansion, nominally to enhance Europe’s security, became the background for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the biggest security crisis postwar Europe has faced. In an expanded NATO, there are conflicts between Western and Eastern European nations, as well as cracks between new and old NATO members. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has opposed the West’s support of Ukraine, exhibiting a pro-Russian inclination. Eastern European countries are demanding representation in the appointment of the new NATO secretary general, yet it’s unlikely that the US and Western Europe will give up the seat so easily. Western Europe is looking to place Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the seat. 

If NATO members cannot reach a consensus in May at the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Prague, the alliance’s divisions will deepen. 

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

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