NATO allies’ divergent threat perceptions will soon become apparent again, and the longer the Ukraine war drags on, the less unified NATO will be on the subject.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has an identity crisis. The alliance can come together and act decisively when it needs to, but there are too many countries that have too many divergent interests to keep NATO from unifying for prolonged periods of time. The alliance lost its original purpose from the post-Cold War era, but the second Russian invasion of Ukraine (like the Balkans crises of the 1990s) stimulated NATO into a semi-unified response. However, NATO allies’ divergent threat perceptions will soon become apparentagain,and the longer the Ukraine war drags on, the less unified NATO will be on the subject.
Europe’s post-World War II geopolitical landscape spawned NATO out of necessity. The war devastated Western Europe. The Soviet Union cast a big shadow across a divided Germany, and the United States wanted to retain influence on the continent without directly challenging the USSR. To select Western European countries, Canada, and the United States, a collective security alliance to deter the Soviet Union would secure Western European liberty. Thus, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949. Since then, NATO has attempted to preserve the security of its members against any potential threat, whether state-sponsored aggression or terrorism, both inside and outside the European continent. However, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, NATO has not faced an existential crisis for almost 30 years—not until the recently renewed Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. At the same time, member states’ foreign policies have increasingly diverged from each other.
In the “unipolar moment,” when NATO’s major power, the United States, was considered the lone superpower after the Cold War, the alliance no longer faced a unifying threat on its eastern border. It looked elsewhere to justify its existence, intervening in Bosnia and Kosovo in 1992 and 1999, respectively, as NATO increasingly involved itself in out-of-area operations to ensure stability and well-being in Europe. NATO-led or -assisted operations and missions such as Resolute Support and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Iraqi Security Forces’ training, Libyan civilian protection, assisting the African Union in Sudan, Pakistan earthquake relief, Republic of Macedonia security intervention, counterterrorism, and counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa, among others, signaled NATO’s preoccupation with out-of-area operations in the post-Cold War era. It shifted attention away from NATO’s territorial threats to global stability and well-being. As a result, the European Council on Foreign Relations found in 2006 that in the 26 European member states, there were less than two million combined military personnel, yet only roughly 30% of them were deployable beyond national borders. The lack of an existential threat coupled with little incentive to generate deployment-ready troops had left Europe in a lax security situation leading into the 21st century.
Alongside NATO’s preoccupation with out-of-area operations was a diverging threat perception that member states faced in the post-Cold War era. With the existential threat that the Soviet Union posed on the European continent, it was useful enough for NATO member states to cooperate on security matters and to benefit from shared defense resources. However, once the Soviet Union dissolved, no overarching threat kept the Alliance together. While NATO did find some purpose in out-of-area operations, there is no unified threat perception among the allies. For example, the current foreign policy and security documents of eastern NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, who joined the alliance after the Cold War, identify Russia as a top security priority. Western European allies do not. Factors such as geographical proximity, shared history, relative size, and ease of troop movement between Russia and selected eastern NATO Allies’ states have rightly instilled in them a more intense wariness of Russia than is felt among Allies who lack such factors. In contrast, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, little more than half of the alliance members perceived Russia as a serious threat to their country and to Europe. When NATO agreed to rotate military personnel into the Baltic states and Poland in 2017, only 15 out of the then-28 member states contributed troops. Many Balkan and Central European allies abstained, likely out of interest in protecting their own states rather than sending troops abroad. As such, before Russia’s recent Ukraine invasion, a divergent threat perception among NATO states prevented a concentrated effort in Eastern Europe to dissuade Russia from any bolder action than it had already taken in 2008 in Georgia, and in 2014 in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
Yet, while NATO has seemingly unified in the face of the Russian invasion, comparisons of support to Ukraine imply that a diverging threat perception of Russia remains between NATO’s eastern and western members.
Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine was a watershed moment for NATO. The alliance had to decide whether to intervene on behalf of a non-member country against a militarily powerful, nuclear-capable adversary. The divergent threat perception prominent before Russia’s invasion lessened considerably—almost overnight. Within the member countries, there were unanimous cries for an immediate end to all hostilities. While not physically intervening in the war on Ukraine’s behalf thus far, NATO has delivered an estimated 150 billion euros worth of aid to Ukraine, as well as significant military equipment and training, since the war began. Additionally, 25 member states are now among the top 37 countries contributing to Ukraine’s survival. Yet, while NATO has seemingly unified in the face of the Russian invasion, comparisons of support to Ukraine imply that a diverging threat perception of Russia remains between NATO’s eastern and western members.
Though the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have relatively small economies, they are contributing 1.1% (€310 million), 1.24% (€390 million), and 0.93% (€490 million) of their GDPs, respectively, to support Ukraine. Poland follows them closely with 0.64% (€3.52 billion) of its GDP. By comparison, western NATO countries, such as the UK, Germany, and France, only contribute 0.38% (€9.82 billion), 0.21% (€7.37 billion), and 0.07% (€1.74 billion) of their respective GDPs. While the smaller economies of the eastern NATO members are contributing a significantly smaller euro amount, the fact that the percentage of their contributions relative to their GDPs is nearly three times that of western countries hints that a disproportionate threat perception still divides NATO.
As the threat perception begins to widen between eastern and western NATO members, it is pertinent to look at what might come next for the alliance should the war in Ukraine stagnate into a long-term conflict. Divergent threat perceptions of NATO’s main adversary on its eastern border will only be exacerbated as western NATO publics lose interest in the crisis, as has become evident in the United States with political leaders debating hotly about the subject. Subsequently, heads of state will view the war as less of a pressing foreign policy issue.
Despite pushback from a couple of member states, it is without a doubt that the military aid that NATO has sent Ukraine has made a difference in the war. While support for Ukraine is still going strong past the first anniversary of the invasion, it remains to be seen how long NATO countries can keep giving aid at the current rate without losing interest. NATO is not in jeopardy of dissolving anytime soon; Russia’s renewed aggression has seen to that. Neither will NATO contribute enough aid to strike a decisive blow to end the war in Ukraine. However, it is possible that, soon enough, divergent threat perceptions among NATO members will cause the alliance to lose its focus. Going once more from crisis to crisis, unable to unify itself against any single threat, will eventually jeopardize NATO’s existence.
Justin Luce is a Military Intelligence Captain in the U.S. Army. He is currently serving with the 101st Airborne Division.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: The very first NATO Summit, Paris, 16 December 1957
Photo Credit: U.S. Army NATO