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NATO Unimpressive?

Despite recent cuts, NATO is still a formidable military force, especially when compared to Russia, says Steve Saideman.

By: /
27 March, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Despite a recent article declaring otherwise, the cuts to NATO’s are less of a crisis than they might immediately appear. To suggest otherwise is more rhetoric, more panic, and less insight.  Yes, the cuts are problematic as they are uncoordinated and very much un-Smart Defense. But some perspective is badly needed.

Yes, there is less American military hardware in Europe now.  But Russia is also still further away from the places that the United States and NATO guarantee collective security via Article V of the NATO treaty than during the Cold War.  And Russia’s contemporary military is not on a par with the former USSR’s.

Most importantly, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom still have nuclear weapons, which are and always have been the key to deterrence mechanism in Europe.  Indeed, for most of the Cold War, nuclear missiles offset Soviet supremacy in conventional weapons and troop numbers.  These days, is Russia militarily supreme in Europe?  I am not so sure.  The Russian military has been far from impressive since the 1970s while the United States has demonstrated superior skill on a conventional battlefield – particularly in Iraq.  So, unless Russia tries to launch an insurgency, I think we are okay.

The reality is this is not about hardware, but about interests:

“The American people are not going to war with Russia over Ukraine, full stop,” a senior administration official said, echoing public comments by Mr. Obama.

It really is that simple.  The asymmetry of interests in Ukraine makes it abundantly clear that we cannot deter Russia now.  It is not about what we have but what we are willing to use.  This asymmetry attenuates the further one moves from East to West.  Following two world wars and the Cold War, Poland is now guaranteed its security by NATO members.  The Baltic States are a smidge harder to assure, but NATO has repeatedly acted to protect the reputation of the alliance.  That really is what motivated the operation in Bosnia in 1995, kept NATO together despite differences between its members during the Kosovo campaign, and kept everyone in Afghanistan far longer than one could otherwise reasonably expect.

The pattern is consistent – when NATO as an institution is under threat, the members do what they have to.  A threat to the Baltic States or to Poland would raise questions about the viability of NATO itself – and that serves as the tripwire for its intervention. 

So, before we worry that the United States and its allies are only spending two or three or six times as much as Russia, we need to look at the alliances, the commitments, and who is in and out.  By the way, whose power is added to Russia’s as it contemplates any potential aggression?  Oh, none.  That’s right – Russia has only weak supporters and no allies.

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