NATO’s future lies in Ukraine’s defeat of Russia

April 7, 2024

This past week, Ian Brzezinski, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy and member of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network, published an excellent piece in the New Atlanticist regarding NATO’s 75th anniversary and its upcoming summit this summer in Washington.

At last year’s NATO summit in Vilnius, the United States stood against the overwhelming majority of its fellow NATO members by refusing to issue Ukraine an invitation to join the Alliance or even to provide Ukraine with a roadmap to NATO membership short of a full invitation.

While Ian calls for the Washington summit to grant Ukraine a clear path to NATO membership, he makes the critical point that NATO’s future lies in seeing that Ukraine defeats Russia in Putin’s unprovoked war against that country and the West.

New Atlanticist:  3 April 2024

NATO at 75: The Alliance’s future lies in Ukraine’s victory against Russia

By Ian Brzezinski

Read the original article
Image credit: Pat Bagley | Copyright 2014 Cagle CartoonsThe New Atlanticist had a photo here, but I inserted a cartoon I hope will soon be made out of date.

NATO will mark its seventy-fifth anniversary on April 4 as history’s most successful military alliance. However, its future as a credible deterrent to aggression now lies in the success or failure of Russia’s unjust and brutal invasion of Ukraine.

NATO’s past successes are unquestioned and impressive. It was NATO that enabled the transatlantic community to defeat the Soviet Union without firing a shot. NATO operations brought peace and stability to the Balkans following the flareup of violence and aggression there in the 1990s. Allied forces leveraged their interoperability fostered by NATO to fight courageously and effectively in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the world.

NATO’s success is rooted not only in its development and deployment of highly capable integrated military forces, but also in the Alliance’s unquestioned political will and readiness to exercise those forces in combat. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than during the Alliance’s defense of West Berlin, its Cold War enclave in East Germany. The Alliance’s robust force posture and unquestioned resoluteness is what kept West Berlin from being overtaken by Warsaw Pact forces during the most tense and volatile periods of that era.

Looking forward, can this NATO anniversary—which will also be marked by a summit hosted by US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC, in July—be one that inspires confidence about NATO’s future credibility? In particular, can it do so when Ukraine is at a stalemate or losing territory to Russia?

Ukraine’s loss of momentum in its defense against Russia’s full-scale invasion is deeply rooted in Moscow’s ability to deter the Alliance from providing more robust assistance to Ukraine. A key element of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy has been the exercise of nuclear coercion to deter the West from intervening directly in the defense of Ukraine. The strategy has so far worked out better than he must have hoped. Putin’s threats of nuclear war caused the Alliance to pledge “no boots on the ground” and have intimidated allies into restricting their flow of military equipment to Ukraine.

Underscoring the effectiveness with which Russia has exercised nuclear coercion is the sheer imbalance of power between NATO and Russia. The combined gross domestic product (GDP) of NATO member states is some fifty-one trillion dollars, more than twenty times Russia’s GDP. NATO members spent $1.3 trillion on defense in 2023, around ten times that spent by Russia, and Russian military equipment and personnel are no match for the technology and professionalism deployed by the Alliance’s forces.

This imbalance begs the question: How is it that the Alliance is unable or unwilling to decisively defeat Russia’s invasion? That question will be unavoidable at the July summit. Allied leaders have unambiguously bound NATO’s security to this war. NATO summits have repeatedly condemned the invasion and demanded that Russia “completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its forces and equipment from the territory of Ukraine.”

And the rhetoric has escalated. French President Emmanuel Macron recently described the war as “existential” for Europe. “If Russia wins this war, Europe’s credibility would be reduced to zero,” Macron said, adding that war would then come to NATO’s eastern frontier. Biden, in his latest State of the Union address, said: “If anybody in this room thinks Putin will stop at Ukraine, I assure you, he will not.” Numerous allied leaders have said the same, if not in as urgent of terms.

NATO has a long and important agenda at its upcoming Washington summit: Alliance leaders will highlight NATO’s rejuvenated unity. They will deliver its updated concept for defense and deterrence. And they will roll out its refined war plans that are already being backed by increased defense spending and more intensive and larger-scale exercises. All true . . . but will the summit confirm that NATO can still draw upon the political will—the political grit—necessary to defeat its adversaries?

If the upcoming Washington summit is to inspire continued confidence in NATO’s credibility, and thus its future, then the Alliance must take action to place Ukraine onto a clear path to victory. That will require a strategy featuring five essential elements:

  • Allied leaders must unambiguously endorse Ukraine’s war objectives—that is, total territorial reconstitution back to the nation’s 1991 borders. Anything short of that is a disillusioning signal to Ukraine and encouragement to Putin to sustain his invasion.
  • NATO can no longer hesitate in providing Ukraine the weapons it so urgently needs—at the rate it needs, and without any restrictions on their use against legitimate military targets in Russia. That list includes fighter aircraft, long-range fires, mine-clearing equipment, additional tanks, and air and missile defense systems.
  • Truly comprehensive and effective sanctions must be imposed on Russia. Russia’s GDP grew by more than 3 percent last year, despite Western sanctions intended to impede Moscow’s war effort. That fact underscores the inadequacy of the West’s sanctions regime. Severe sanctions alone may not stop Putin’s invasion, but their imposition—and their enforcement—will weaken Russia’s war machine, undermine political stability in the country, and serve as a positive reflection of the Alliance’s resolve.
  • NATO allies must energetically engage the Russian people about the brutal realities of this war. The transatlantic community just doesn’t have an intensive information campaign in this regard for fear of creating the impression that the West is intent on regime change in Russia. In the meantime, Russia and its allies have steadily intensified their information campaigns against the West.
  • The Washington summit must grant Ukraine a clear path to NATO membership. NATO membership in Ukraine is not only necessary to secure a postwar peace. It is essential to an effective win strategy that enables Ukraine to achieve its war objectives quickly and decisively. Ukraine’s membership in NATO and the security guarantee that comes with it is the only way to convince Putin that Ukraine is irreversibly locked into the transatlantic community and no longer vulnerable to his subordination.

How NATO contributes to Ukraine’s defense will significantly determine the outcome of Russia’s invasion. It will also speak volumes about the strength of the Alliance’s political will and resoluteness. That resoluteness is the underpinning of NATO’s ability to deter aggression over the next seventy-five years as successfully as it has over the past seventy-five years.

Ian Brzezinski is a resident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy.

Co-Founder, U.S.-Ukraine Foundation
Director of External Affairs, Friends of Ukraine Network
The introduction is Mr. McConnell’s and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation or the FOUN