In the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17 and the subsequent intensifying insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, the world leaders and policy professionals have begun to re-assesses the state of burgeoning conflict between the globe’s preeminent powers: the United States/European community and Russia. Policymakers, politicians and leaders in international organizations have begun the process of interpreting recent events and analyzing how the consequences for actions such as the disaster in Donetsk impact policy, alliances, and international agreements between states.

As the West strives to present a united front in confronting the increasingly antagonistic posture of the Russian government, competitive geopolitical positioning between the two sides is fast approaching a zenith where adjustments in the approach of how each side confronts the other will be made. These strategies will have long-lasting diplomatic and geopolitical consequences for both sides.

As the European Union continues to threaten the tightening of sanctions, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has once again emerged as the only international organization capable of even somewhat enforcing international norms governing the behavior of states in the international system.

As the international system is essentially anarchical (without a set of legitimate laws that are reinforced by a power higher than the state), states naturally coalesce into alliances based on common interest in maintaining a semblance of stability in the system and thus keeping a tenuous balance of power and peace. NATO plays an important role in this regard, holding within its unofficial purview the task of both threatening and carrying out the use of force against states that act outside of the boundaries of accepted international norms and behaviors.

In short, NATO is the action arm that keeps specific belligerents from upsetting the entire applecart. Therefore, the largesse of the burden for acting to ensure the reinforcement of international norms lies heavily upon the Atlantic Alliance. In seeking to confront threats such as Russian support for insurgent elements in Eastern Ukraine, the international community often defers to NATO (even if reluctantly and with great protest by majorities of the public in some countries) in committing military mechanisms to operations in which the mission is to drive back destabilizing forces.

This brings us to the issue of how NATO best positions itself to combat the threats of the 21st century.

Since NATO forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the alliance has been in a state of war, battling insurgencies in an asymmetric environment. This is a massive change from NATO’s previous mission, which was to ensure the collective defense of member-states in the alliance against attacks waged by external states.

In the short life of NATO, the organization has shifted from its original mission of collective defense against the Warsaw Pact in the Cold War to a collective security mission in places such as the former Yugoslavia, and back again to a collective defense mission in battling the insurgencies of Afghanistan. Today, the alliance again confronts the threat of external countries upon both its member-states and their neighbors. In this, we find a hybrid of NATO’s previous two overarching missions of collective defense and collective security.

On July 23, I published an article at Foreign Intrigue which examined the evolving crisis in Eastern Ukraine, outlining some possible ways in which the international system would likely respond to the conflict and how American foreign policy would be affected in the period lying ahead. In Ukraine, Russia, and The West: Ahead and Beyond, I examined several different ways in which politicians and policymakers could respond to and seek to leverage the rapidly evolving threats in Eastern Ukraine.

I noted that, among the potential consequences for the intensifying crisis in Ukraine in the weeks and months ahead, are vigorously renewed calls by a specific ideological set of politicians and policy professionals in the United States and Europe for the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). I wrote:

Talk of enlarging NATO to absorb countries such as Georgia will be revived with renewed vigor as U.S. Policymakers assess a weakened Russian role in the international system. Recent efforts by Georgia to achieve member-state status in The Atlantic Alliance were scuttled by geopolitical posturing and the risk averse nature of many members of NATO. However, calls for the integration of the strategically valuable Caucasus state have been renewed as NATO seeks to strengthen its geostrategic advantages over Russian influence in its near abroad in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Flight 17. A rational expectation in the weeks and months ahead will be to observe the intensifying of the public effort to influence the member-states of NATO to move to admit Georgia as a member of the Alliance. Georgia remains strategically valuable terrain along essential transportation routes for natural resources extracted from deposits in Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan. Additionally, Tbilisi has remained a steadfast opponent of Russian imperialistic assertiveness, having fought a war against Russia for control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the summer of 2008. (Foreign Intrigue, Ukraine, Russia, and the West: Ahead and Beyond, July 23)

The Atlantic Alliance was created in 1949 as a collective defense organization. Its mission was to combat the encroachment of Soviet influence upon Western Europe by presenting a united front of militaries that would act jointly in response to any attack against a member of the alliance. As the years of the Cold War passed and the alliance itself proved its worth as a deterrent to Soviet aggression and military opportunism in Western Europe, NATO emerged as an essential component of both diplomatic and military cohesiveness for the western world.

However, with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact that confronted it, NATO struggled to sustain relevancy in the post-Cold War world. Analysts and observers openly opined that the alliance had served its purpose but was no longer a relevant military organization in the unipolar moment of the post-Soviet world. This began to change with the evolution of the alliance from a collective defense mission to one of collective security.

Among the missions NATO undertook in the immediate post-Soviet world were a series of operations in the Balkans. Operation Deny Flight (the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1993-1995), Operation Deliberate Force (the strategic bombing of Serbian fire positions in support of safeguarding Bosnian civilians in Sarajevo in August-September 1995), Operation Joint Endeavor (Implementation Force {IFOR} for enforcement of The Dayton Accords, December 1995-December 1996), and Operation Allied Force (also known as Operation Noble Anvil; the bombing campaign over the former Yugoslavia that forced the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo in 1999) effectively changed the very purpose for NATO’s existence. These events altered the purpose for NATO’s existence from a collective defense organization (charged with protecting member-states from attacks by countries outside of the alliance) to a collective security organization (ensuring the security of member-states rather than solely defending them against attack).

The enlargement of NATO has been a controversial topic in American and European policy circles since the first iteration of new states were admitted over a decade ago. In 1999, the former Warsaw Pact nations of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary were granted membership in the Atlantic Alliance, effectively operationalizing the policy of integrating former Soviet client states in Eastern and Central Europe. Since its creation in 1949 (prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991), NATO’s stated mission was the collective defense of its member states in Western Europe to an invasion by the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in December of 1991, NATO’s leaders struggled with the relevancy of the alliance as the 20th century came to a close.

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As European political upheaval resulted in the wake of the the Warsaw Pact’s cessation in 1991, NATO member states began assessing how the alliance could remain relevant in a post-Soviet world. NATO’s mission of collective defense would evolve into a mission to conduct operations in support of a collective security mission. Instead of remaining in a strictly reactive posture to threats set upon member-states by countries outside of the alliance, NATO would begin conducting operations in support of the collective security of its member-states. This evolution began with a response to the turmoil wracking the quickly dissolving former Yugoslavia in 1993.

By enlarging NATO, many civilian and military leaders in the United States hope to further policy goals, such as the resuscitation of the missile defense program. By expanding NATO into Central and Southeastern Europe and admitting the Czech Republic (1999) and Romania (2004), U.S. policymakers and military strategists hoped to secure essential terrain for the emplacement of missile defense sites.

In admitting these member-states and establishing missile defense sites, strategists theorized an opportunity to effectively mitigate Russian capacity to wage intercontinental warfare and ensure a long-term tactical and strategic military advantage over Russia. There are many flaws in the plan to establish a missile defense system, to include technological failures and a lack of strategic foresight. However, missile defense remained a main component of U.S. strategic planning for future defense and warfare operations.

On Monday, the United States government accused the Russian military of conducting a launch of a land-based medium-range ballistic missile. The test would ostensibly be in violation of a 1987 treaty between the two countries, signed by both U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev:

It is the most serious allegation of an arms control treaty violation that the Obama administration has leveled against Russia and adds another dispute to a relationship already burdened by tensions over the Kremlin’s support for separatists in Ukraine and its decision to grant asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.

At the heart of the issue is the 1987 treaty that bans medium-range missiles, which are defined as ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles capable of flying 300 to 3,400 miles. That accord, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, helped seal the end of the Cold War and has been regarded as a cornerstone of American-Russian arms control efforts. (The New York Times, Michael R. Gordon, July 28, 2014)

While this is not the first incident involving what amounts to a violation of the test ban treaty (Russia has recorded tests going back several years), this is the latest in a series of escalating and aggressive moves by the Russian government and military designed to demonstrate increased capacity for offensive weaponry as well as to elicit a response from the U.S. government.

For more on the intensifying efforts of the Russian military to modernize and improve its capability, please see Part One of my Resurgent Russia series at Foreign Intrigue, published last December. You can find that article here. I noted the increasing offensive focus of the Russian military in the article:

On Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the Russian military will have increased its professional soldier ranks to 500,000 within the next decade, making official a policy of “professionalizing” its military and reducing the conscription characterization of the largesse of the ranks. The 500,000 marker would effectively make half of the Russian military “professional.” 

Other recent news on Russian defense moves include the development of a new lightweight fighter jet, the announcement that a base for the light-class modification Angara 1.2PP carrier rocket in northern Russia will be completed ahead of schedule and, most provocatively, a pronounced and marked change in defense strategy. (Resurgent Russia, Foreign Intrigue, December 12, 2013)

NATO, in particular, plays a key role in offsetting the influence of an increasingly more imperialist Russian foreign policy with regard to its near abroad. NATO policymakers are well aware of the threat that an assertive and resurgent Russian foreign policy poses to the nascent democracies of Eastern Europe. In effect, NATO is seen by many as the bulwark of defense against the re-Sovietization of the region.

Russian influence over the governments of its near abroad remains strong and is a pillar of its national security policy. The clandestine and cultural influence of the Kremlin upon the Russian near abroad was acknowledged at the outset of the independence of the former Soviet States in the early years following the breakup of the Soviet Union. In December 2013, I warned of aggressive Russian action in Ukraine and referenced the war in Georgia as prologue. In Part Two of my Resurgent Russia series, I wrote:

In the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008, the Russian military invaded Georgia. Ostensibly supporting the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, this war is among the more notable and obvious efforts of the Kremlin to assert its power over former Soviet territory. However, it is hardly the only international event that provides support to Aron’s assessment that a pillar of Russian foreign policy per The Putin Doctrine is influence over its former near-abroad.

Most recently, the events in Ukraine brought this third component into stark relief. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has been pressured by Moscow as the Ukrainian government sought to strengthen ties with the European Union. In what many Ukrainians view as interference by the Kremlin in Ukrainian affairs, Moscow has pressured Yanukovych to avoid entering into agreementswith the EU. In recent years, Russia has used energy exports to Europe as a diplomatic weapon, even going so far as to cut-off gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006. Accusations of Russian involvement of the poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 were widespread. Foreign Intrigue examined the latest Ukrainian crisis this past week in our article “Blue, Yellow, and Orange”. Put succinctly, Russia has repeatedly sought to use diplomatic coercion and military force in an effort to re-establish its dominance over the former Soviet near-abroad. (Resurgent Russia Part Two, Foreign Intrigue, December 13, 2013)

However, in this regard, NATO leaders and policymakers were well aware of the impact that enlarging NATO would have upon Russian foreign policy. In 2006, I was a research assistant to Dr. Christopher Jones and his chapter titled ‘NATO’s Transformation’ in Old Europe, New Security: Evolution for a Complex World. Dr. Jones wrote, in hindsight quite obviously with prescience, of the ramifications for enlarging NATO to the borders of the former Soviet Union and the impact the alliance’s expansion could have upon Russian policy nearly a decade ago. He wrote:

“Despite its current weaknesses, it is conceivable that in the future, a resurgent Russia could back away from its deepening relationship with NATO and and act aggressively towards its neighbors in the Near Abroad. Russia’s transition to a fully developed democracy and market economy is far from certain, especially if President Vladamir Putin’s recent infringements on political freedoms are any indication.”(Dr. Christopher Jones, “NATO’s Transformation”, Old Europe, New Security: Evolution for a Complex World, Chapter 6)

While NATO has officially maintained a policy of enlargement throughout the last decade, it has also sustained a defacto disinclination towards admitting countries with recent or ongoing military conflicts since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. While many nations have sought the umbrella of protection that accompanies membership in NATO, the unstable nature of their border disputes, their insufficient military spending, and the lack of economic resources with which to ensure they act as contributing members of the alliance makes them unlikely candidates. Other issues, to include uneven sharing of burdens (cost, military personnel) and the problem of free riding by members with less capable militaries contributed to a growing aversion to admitting new countries, specifically those in southeastern Europe, contribute to NATO’s disinclination.

With the breakup of the former Yugoslavia throughout the decade of the 1990s (marked by inter-ethnic violence, destabilizing wars of attrition, and political instability), the issue of NATO’s changing mission was underlined by the political turmoil that threatened the integration of several states seeking membership in The Atlantic Alliance. This had a dramatic effect upon future iterations of enlargement and admitting of new nations to the alliance. In my next piece, I will examine the case for enlargement and note the specific case of Georgia in an analysis of why admitting new member-states can both serve to burgeon the capacity of the alliance to meet threats and simultaneously (and not necessarily inadvertently) catalyze a response from geopolitical competitors and enemies.

The vacillating nature of NATO’s mission throughout the last two decades has substantiated assessments that the alliance remains a dynamic organization, well-positioned to withstand the inevitable change in the energetic and the changing character of the power structure that comprises the international system.

NATO’s ability to meet the asymmetrical threats and the changing nature of warfare in a number of environments around the globe makes for a positive assessment of the future of the alliance’s joint military capabilities.  This is especially true for the Special Operations elements of the alliance in whose capable hands will be entrusted the missions that counter the insurgencies, government-supported terrorism, and threats of non-state actors upon the alliance’s member-states. This joint SOF community will be increasingly tasked with carrying out these essential missions as the tactics of groups, governments, and militaries metastasize on battlefields around the globe.

The rise of threats from international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the state-supported insurgencies (such as the Taliban and their associates) in Afghanistan demanded a malleable approach to both tactical planning and strategic policy-making. NATO adjusted well to this threat, specifically in facilitating an intensely capable joint SOF capability among its member-state militaries with valuable experience throughout the past 13 years of war in the Afghan theater. In this regard, NATO has proven its significant staying power as a relevant conventional and special operations military force on the battlefields of the 21st century.

In Part Two, I will address recent state conflicts and how border disputes, issues of sovereignty, and domestic political dynamics in prospective NATO member-states have impeded efforts by those seeking to enlarge the Atlantic Alliance further with states from other regions. I will also place the current crisis into the context of NATO enlargement and explain why enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance matters to the future stability and geopolitical dynamic of Eastern Europe and beyond.

(Featured image courtesy of DrRandomFactor and Wikimedia Commons)