Spotting the Fault Lines in NATO’s United Front

BRUSSELS — After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some asked whether NATO had any real reason to exist. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave new urgency to NATO as a defensive alliance aimed at deterring Moscow.

Now, at its annual summit meeting this week in Madrid, leaders of the 30 members of NATO are set to agree on the most significant overhaul of the alliance’s defenses since the Cold War.

There will be a large increase in the number of troops assigned to defend NATO’s eastern flank, closest to Russia and Belarus, with a major commitment to position heavy military equipment there, like tanks and artillery, that would bolster an allied response to any Russian threat or aggression.

There will also be statements of unity on Ukraine, despite internal debates within the alliance on how long the war will take, how it will end and its mounting costs to NATO and European allies.

“The summit will show western solidarity as we go into a period of high gas prices and food scarcity, with Russia willing now to use both as weapons of war,” said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “So we know that and can still hang together.”

Spanish police prepared for the NATO summit in Madrid. Leaders of the alliance’s 30 members are set to agree on the most significant overhaul of its defenses since the Cold War.Credit…Juan Medina/Reuters

At the same time, she said, debates about the future are rumbling among member countries. “The lesson the U.S. is tempted to take away from Ukraine is the incapacity of the Russian military, suggesting that Europe should be able to handle the burden of European security,” Ms. Schake said. “But the European lesson is that unless the U.S. is at the center of the Western response, there will be no Western response, so they’re trying to lock in American involvement.”

In Madrid, the alliance will also approve its first updated mission statement in 12 years, portraying a world of new perils, with threats not just from Russia but also China, an American priority, and from new forms of warfare ranging from cyber and artificial intelligence to disinformation and restrictions on energy, food and rare minerals.

The mission statement, known as the strategic concept, frames defense planning, spending and resource allocation throughout the alliance. It sounds arcane but has been hotly debated, with France and Germany insisting on describing a rising China as a “challenge” to the trans-Atlantic security order, not as a “threat,” as Russia has clearly become.

There will also be discussion on how to convince Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, to remove his effective veto over the applications of Sweden and Finland to join NATO, a matter that inevitably will have to involve President Biden.

The secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, second from right, said recently that the alliance could agree to add more troops in the east.Credit…Omar Havana/Getty Images

One of the other key debates during the summit, which runs from Tuesday evening through Thursday, will be the issue of new NATO troops along the eastern flank — how many, how they are deployed, and how permanent they will be.

As the war in Ukraine has proceeded, NATO has established four more multinational battalion-sized groups in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia, to add to the ones already established in 2017 — following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 — in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War

  • History and Background: Here’s what to know about Russia and Ukraine’s relationship and the causes of the conflict.
  • How the Battle Is Unfolding: Russian and Ukrainian forces are using a bevy of weapons as a deadly war of attrition grinds on in eastern Ukraine.
  • Russia’s Brutal Strategy: An analysis of more than 1,000 photos found that Russia has used hundreds of weapons in Ukraine that are widely banned by international treaties.
  • Outside Pressures: Governments, sports organizations and businesses are taking steps to punish Russia. Here are some of the sanctions adopted so far and a list of companies that have pulled out of the country.
  • Stay Updated: To receive the latest updates on the war in your inbox, sign up here. The Times has also launched a Telegram channel to make its journalism more accessible around the world.

The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are pressing for larger permanent deployments, to move from the current “tripwire” defense — the roughly 1,500 rotating NATO troops in each country — to “deterrence by denial,” which would involve more permanent deployments of up to a division of American troops, as Estonia has been demanding.

They want the larger deployments to better defend all NATO territory from any conflict at its very start, fearing that they would be quickly overrun by Russian forces otherwise.

The secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, said recently that allies could agree “to strengthen battle groups in the east up to brigade level,” which would bring them to between 3,000 and 5,000 troops.

Swedish military exercises earlier this year. The country applied for NATO membership in response to the invasion of Ukraine.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

A permanent American division is not in the cards. Mr. Biden is expected to announce new deployments of another one or two brigade combat teams to bring the assigned level of American troops in Europe to about 100,000, up from some 70,000 before the Russian invasion, NATO officials said.

But they are likely to be kept in Germany and Poland, ready to move in times of threat or conflict to pre-assigned countries where they will also train with pre-positioned equipment.

Other NATO allies are increasing their deployments, too, with Germany announcing the addition of 500 troops to its forces in the multinational battlegroup it leads in Lithuania, plus the pre-assignment of some 3,000 more troops in case of trouble.

There has been criticism from the Baltic nations that those troops will be stationed in Germany. But the German government and other allies argue that it is too expensive to build permanent barracks and schools to house troops and their families in other countries when they can arrive quickly to the battlefield from established bases in places like Germany.

“They argue that you need large forces in the country like a Maginot line to prevent them from being overrun early in a conflict,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and head of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, referring to the Baltic countries. “But that’s not the best way to defend them, because these countries are too small for real, regular training, which you can do in Poland or Germany. Better to have them there and constantly train them and rotate them regularly.”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, the president of Turkey, with President Biden at a NATO summit last year. In Madrid, the two may discuss efforts by Sweden and Finland to join the alliance.Credit…Olivier Matthys/Agence France-Presse, via Pool/Afp Via Getty Images

The issue is now more sensitive, with Moscow accusing Lithuania of blocking its rail shipments to its heavily armed enclave of Kaliningrad in line with E.U. sanctions against Russia, and threatening reprisals. Lithuanian and European officials say there is no blockade against the enclave, which is on the Baltic Sea, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. But the narrow strip of some 60 miles between Belarus and Kaliningrad, known as the Suwalki Gap, is considered vulnerable.

The anxiety among the Baltic countries is justified, said Ms. Schake. “I would want more NATO deployments too if I were them, because they live exposed,” she said. “For smaller countries, proximity to a Russia that would negate Ukraine is scary.”

Since the start of the war, NATO has activated its “response force,” now 40,000 troops, under NATO command. Mr. Stoltenberg said on Monday that the force would be expanded to 300,000. It is expected to be rebranded as the Allied Response Force, and will include more troops based in their home countries but pre-assigned to the eastern flank if needed.

Mr. Daalder sees another fault line in the different perceptions of the Russian threat among NATO members. Some, especially in former Soviet-bloc nations, believe that “Russia has fundamentally changed everything and we’re back to a Cold War alliance, and we have to hold the line from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea,” he said, referring to NATO’s northern and southern reaches.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, in March. NATO’s updated mission statement will portray a world of new perils, including threats from China.Credit…Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

And there are other members of the alliance, including the United States, Italy and Spain, which say there are other important threats too — from terrorism, climate change and mass migration. And then there is China’s inexorable rise as a technically advanced rival seeking global influence.

There is also the question of how big NATO should be — not just in light of the potential addition of Finland and Sweden, but also its 2008 promise that Ukraine and Georgia would one day be full members, Mr. Daalder said. Both the European Union and NATO have now promised Ukraine paths to membership, but have been vague about that commitment. “I don’t think NATO can just walk away from it in Madrid, as some would like,” he said.

And as ever, there will be debates about increases in military spending, about NATO’s own budget and about burden-sharing, not only between the United States and its allies but between the European Union and NATO.

Christopher Skaluba, a security expert at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security of the Atlantic Council, said that “following the money at NATO is always a smart idea.” NATO allies make commitments, “but they’re easier to say than do, and inflation makes everything more expensive,” he said.

“The cost of failing to deter Russia from going into Ukraine is very high, and we’re all paying the price for it, the Ukrainians most of all,” Mr. Skaluba said. The pressure to walk back from the alliance’s commitments, he said, “will be real, too.”

A delivery of equipment and defensive munitions from the United States to Ukraine. The NATO summit will feature statements of unity on Ukraine but also discussions of the war’s cost.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
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