NATO Has Turned Into a Dangerous Paper Tiger

The weak attack first!

Originally appeared at . Translated by Julia Rakhmetova

The author is a professor at the Moscow Higher School of Economics.


Military tension in Europe has been increasing over the last few weeks with exaggerated rhetoric and  large-scale exercises on Russia’s borders. Besides the need to prove that the alliance is more powerful than Russia, we saw it trying to demonstrate its "front-line capabilities".

The results of this military demonstration – we can no longer call it "exercises" what was going on at the Russian border – were disputable. Of course NATO managed to "train" about 35,000 armed men, which is not so little in today’s world.  

But overall, the demonstration of trans-Atlantic solidarity and the readiness of Oklahomans and Kansans to die "for your and our freedom" turned out to be modest. Especially after one of three (three!) strategic B-52 bombers, intended to demonstrate American support, had to return to its base due to malfunctions.

The main thing is that the exercises, which had been prepared with great diligence for several weeks, raised a legitimate question: Will NATO really fight this way? Or is the exercise only part of a "cover operation", the real event being a disarming strike by strategic forces? Because anyone who thinks that "the potential enemy" would allow NATO forces to deploy at this rate, with such complexity and fanfare, would have to believe that the enemy is an imbecile.

That’s why no one was surprised that almost immediately after the exercises, high-ranking NATO officials, Americans and supporters of "Old Europe" started saying that training was a good thing, but "the Baltic balcony" still remained defenseless. The derogatory statements by the German Minister of Foreign Affairs Steinmeier, who called NATO’s actions in Eastern Europe "saber rattling", made the failure of NATO propaganda even worse.

NATO gesticulating is a major contradiction in today’s world. The alliance is obviously the most powerful politico-military coalition in the world. This is beyond controversy, both from the qualitative and quantitative point of view, no matter what some patriotic Russians say. It would be extremely misguided to claim that NATO is a "paper tiger".

But on the other hand, NATO’s resources are no longer sufficient to support the political status to which the alliance made bold claim in the 1990’s, not to mention its ambitions in the noughts. It has to "cover" this growing "gap in force liquidity" in different ways, including propaganda, which has become the unfailing substitute of real possibilities and political wisdom.

But the problem is that now no one is afraid of the alliance by default.  While needing to prove it can "suppress the enemy", it is running short of resources and organizational capabilities.  

The process has been growing since the noughts, when NATO turned out to be incapable of performing a trivial coordinating mission in Afghanistan. Many noted a lack of political will, scarcity of effective power structures, and political squabbles hidden beneath "procedures" and PR, adjusted to perfection – the alliance’s communication policy at its best. But all this was going on far away in a country that was hardly a direct threat to the members of the alliance.

But now the "gap in force liquidity" is manifesting at Europe’s borders, as shown by the migration crises. The fact that Europe had to agree to pay "a Turkish debt" was due to military impotence.

The situation in NATO reflects the situation in Europe and the West in general. The image of the winners of the Cold War is still influential. The military infrastructure, formed in the seventies and eighties, is still striking in scale and redundancy. But there are neither people to man it, nor money to maintain its capability, nor force to make it move, nor political will to reform it.

NATO is reaching a decisive limit: it will have to either start fundamental reforms, with no guarantees of survival, or drastically increase the military burden for Europeans in the near future. Movement in the second area seems to have already started: the implementation of both universal military service in Lithuania, and plans to increase military spending, announced by Angela Merkel, on the realization that the US will no longer underwrite "Atlantic solidarity", either under "President Trump" or "President Clinton".

It’s naïve to think that NATO leaders don’t understand the situation. They even understand that filling the power vacuum with propaganda has its limits, as shown in recent exercises.

If they fail to change the tendency in the next year or two, the belief that there is no alternative to the alliance will begin to shrink, as did the conviction that Europe has no future without the European Union. And that will create opportunities for "alternative" opinions on the development of European security.

The problem is that the existing situation provokes a growth in "demand" for military and power "exotics" in NATO, not only in propaganda, but in operations. Many wars have begun because a weak state attacked first, hoping to gain an advantage, even temporarily, as was the case with Pearl Harbor.

The main stability threat in Europe is NATO’s weakness behind its "puffed cheeks".

That would be a good joke, if it was one. But we must not turn our backs to NATO, not even for a second.