The story so far: Leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a 30-country regional security coalition that emerged from the crucible of Cold War rivalry, met on June 29-30 in Madrid, Spain, even as Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on, with knock-on effects across the world in terms of supply chain disruptions, commodity price surges and broader inflationary pressures mounting fast. More than four months into the invasion of Ukrainian territory, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has called a “special military operation,” at least two nations in the region, Sweden and Finland, are seeking rapid integration into NATO.
How strong was NATO before the war?
NATO appeared to be weakened during the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who frequently threatened to exclude from the U.S.’s protective umbrella any member states that did not pay enough for that privilege. A further blow, and brickbats for botched management, came when U.S. President Joe Biden pulled his country’s troops out of Afghanistan, a NATO military mission, more or less unilaterally. Meanwhile, Russia had steadily been upping the ante against NATO publicly, since the late 2000s, railing against NATO expansion, and since its annexation of Crimea in 2014, threatening further territorial expansion into Ukrainian territory.
What are the recent developments that have strengthened NATO?
Firstly, NATO allies other than the U.S. remained firmly committed to financing the organisation’s military needs. Their combined defence investments have jumped by $130 billion from 2014-19, in part driven by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Now, given the prolonged conflict in Ukraine, NATO has announced that it will increase its forces at “high readiness” from 40,000 to over 3,00,000 troops by mid-2023, a step that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described as “the biggest overhaul of our collective defence and deterrence since the Cold War.”
Second, after decades of maintaining a position of neutrality, Finland and Sweden are set to join NATO possibly within a year, in a large part driven by the strategic insecurity they face as neighbours of Russia, and the precedent that Mr. Putin has set with his invasion of and alleged human rights violations and war crimes in Ukraine. While most NATO members are keen for Finland and Sweden to join the organisation, Turkey was the final holdout citing concerns over the two countries allegedly providing safe haven to a group that Istanbul considers a terrorist organisation. Nevertheless, after joint security negotiations in recent days, Turkey has also lent its support to Finland and Sweden joining NATO. The main point of such an expansion would be to tap into the military support that the two countries would provide to the alliance, the fact that Finland has a 1,340 km border with Russia and that both countries will, as required by NATO, spend 2% of their GDP on defence.
How might NATO members view a prolonged conflict in Ukraine?
Meeting with NATO leaders this past week, Mr. Biden said Americans ought to be ready to pay higher fuel prices for “as long as it takes, so Russia cannot in fact defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine.” Notwithstanding this apparent firmness of resolve to stay the course, NATO member states are presently hobbled by rising inflation, and high energy and food prices. Leaving aside the destabilising economic ripple effects of the war in Ukraine, leaders of the bloc, as well as international multilateral aid agencies, are waking up to the reality of having to meet the scorching demand for financing weaponry and critical supplies to Kyiv — Ukraine’s government is spending a staggering $5-6 billion per month. It is now clear that they will have to work hard to sell their involvement in this conflict to their respective citizenries.
What happens next?
While NATO appears fortified and ready to face the strategic gauntlet thrown down by Russia, there is a real risk that the people of its member-nations are getting increasingly frustrated. There’s unending economic pain and the leaders have pledged to meet the burgeoning demand for weapons and other military support required by Ukraine to hold on to its territories in the east.