Organisations like NATO never die, but reinvent themselves to keep growing.
Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, memorably described its mission as being ‘to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’. With the end of the Cold War, instead of disbanding, NATO became a military alliance in search of a new enemy and mission to justify its existence. With NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 – the Soviet Union defeated and extinguished and Russia emerging Phoenix-like from its smouldering ashes much diminished in size, economy, population and military might, and the US revelling in its unipolar moment – its mission seemed to have morphed into keeping Russia down, the Americans in and the United Nations out. Because at heart it is a military alliance, however, without new wars, it will wither and die on the olive vines of peace. Barack Obama had famously complained of Washington’s militarised playbook for responding to any foreign crisis.
The United States today, observed the late and brilliant Tony Judt, ‘is the only advanced democracy where public figures glorify and exalt the military’. Dan Simpson, retired US ambassador, drew a link between the prevalence of violence at home and the frequent resort to the use of force overseas: ‘we are a killer nation, at home and abroad’. A partial explanation for why the US believes in the efficacy of the use of force is that while other major twentieth century combatant-states suffered heavy military and civilian casualties, American military casualties were surprisingly light and civilian deaths still fewer. Britain, France, and Germany lost between one to two million soldiers each in the First World War, compared to fewer than 120,000 Americans. China, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union lost between two to eleven million soldiers in the Second World War, compared to around 420,000 US soldiers who died. The total US civilian deaths from the two world wars combined was under 2,000, compared to between two to sixteen million deaths in Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union and China.
For all his faults, and they were numerous and loud, Donald Trump was the first president in recent memory not to start a new war. Joe Biden finds himself badly underwater in public opinion polls just a year after being elected for not being Trump. His ill-executed debacle of a withdrawal from Afghanistan deepened the narrative of a chaotic and incompetent administration. Meanwhile Boris Johnson seems to lurch from one scandal and crisis to another,, staying afloat on sheer momentum and bravado. For both, a war in Europe with the old enemy Russia could prove an beneficial distraction from troubles on the home front. Not to mention it would revive NATO’s original mission. The key question thus becomes: is ex-KGB Vladimir Putin out to recreate the empire lost with the dissolution of the Soviet Union or is NATO a reinvigorated collective defence pact spoiling for war?
Of course, contemporary conflict is rather different from the trench warfare of a hundred years ago. The opening skirmishes have taken the form of: Will Putin attack or will the wily schemer secure his goals by outmanoeuvring the West? If an invasion does occur, Putin’s objective could be limited to securing the pro-Russian enclave in southeastern Ukraine, proclaiming independence for the Donbas region and establishing a land bridge from Russia to Crimea. But if he makes the mistake of going all the way to Kiev, he will likely confront a nightmarish insurgency that will destroy his presidency.
Back in 2014, with active US involvement, the Maidan coup ousted the elected but pro-Russian president. Thereafter Russia lost a vital buffer state against possible NATO aggressive designs on Russia proper. Western analysts may well scoff at such Russian paranoia, insisting that NATO is purely defensive. Yet Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the former UK ambassador to Moscow, wrote last year that ‘Russians believed they had been double-crossed. They were shocked by NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 – a foretaste, they feared, of what Russia itself might expect’. NATO troops now stand ‘within spitting distance of Russia’, he added in the Financial Times on 2 February this year.
In a long article last July, Putin wrote: ‘Step by step, Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia’. Hence Russia’s red line: no NATO membership for Ukraine, now or ever; and the related demand that NATO cut troop numbers in Eastern Europe. Both demands have been rejected out of hand by Western leaders, although French President Emmanuel Macron at least has acknowledged the need to create a new balance in Europe that would grant Russia its due respect.
When Russia intervened in the eastern part and took Crimea back in 2014, US intelligence officials blocked Obama from disclosing sensitive information. By contrast, this time officials have briefed The New York Times on how they are aggressively releasing Russian plans in real time, alleging a potential false flag atrocity to trigger an invasion, fingering 16 February as a likely date for the invasion, releasing satellite imagery of locations of military formations and the estimate of Russian military build-up to 130,000 soldiers as well as special operations forces. Commenting on pointed reminders of the fake allegations on Iraq’s WMD in 2003, officials counter that disinformation was used in 2003 to start a war, whereas this time real information is being publicised in the effort to avert a war.
Perhaps. For outsiders, the only certainty, amidst charges and counter-allegations of false flag operations and fake news, is that both sides are already engaged in a full-fledged information war. Russia’s foreign ministry has accused the US of a ‘coordinated information attack … aimed at undermining and discrediting Russia’s fair demands for security guarantees’ and ‘justifying Western geopolitical aspirations and military absorption of Ukraine’s territory’. Meanwhile Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has expressed uneasiness that the talk of imminent war has sown unnecessary fear among his people. In a live broadcast, he asked for evidence from the US ‘or anyone else’ that a Russian invasion is imminent this week.
According to the NY Times article: ‘The hope is that disclosing Putin’s plans will disrupt them, perhaps delaying an invasion and buying more time for diplomacy or even giving Putin a chance to reconsider the political, economic and human costs of an invasion’. This is brilliant diplomatic prepositioning, it must be said. If Russia does invade, US intelligence services can pat themselves on the back with ‘We told you so’. If Russia doesn’t invade, they can strut the world stage with the boast: ‘By disclosing Mr Putin’s plans, we have disrupted them and stopped the invasion at the advanced stage of planning’.