Reconnaissance flights and more joint exercises in Central Europe serve to reassure NATO members in the region, but critics say the crisis in Ukraine shows the alliance's relations with Russia need a dramatic rethink.
At a recent meeting with Ukraine's prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the conflict "the gravest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War." Although not a member, Ukraine could rest assured of NATO's support, Rasmussen said.
"Ukraine will be a tug-of-war between Russia on the one hand and the West on the other hand. And sometimes it can get pretty ugly," Dmitri Trenin from the Carnegie Moscow Center told DW.
But so far, NATO has merely stepped up joint exercises with the Bulgarian and Romanian navy in the Black Sea, and sent extra combat fighters to NATO bases in Lithuania and Poland. AWAC reconnaissance aircraft are patrolling alliance airspace over Poland and Romania to reassure Eastern European members that NATO is behind them.
"NATO must make a show of strength to show its own members that it's still functioning," Wolfgang Zellner from the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg told DW. But he says, NATO really "can't do much on Ukraine, Russia or Crimea," as no one wants to risk going to war with Russia.
But Trenin says Ukraine is likely to be unstable for a while and that situation could trigger a Cold War "light," which, this time round, won't be characterized by "static military confrontation" or even an "ideological battle", but "more in the field of economics, human relations, information warfare."
And indeed, with regards to Ukraine, Zellner currently sees "almost no de-escalating factors" on either side. That includes the fact that OSCE military observers so far have not managed to get into Ukraine, he says, and that Russia has said it will confiscate Ukrainian ships in the ports of Crimea, if Crimea votes in favor of independence in Sunday's referendum. But, Zellner says, EU sanctions are also a factor of escalation.
'Ritual humiliation' of Russia
Although there won't be an iron curtain and the conflict won't be as central to global politics as the first Cold War, the relationship between NATO and Russia is likely to have an impact on other conflicts and should therefore be reconfigured. A tall order, and not one NATO has exactly been relishing or spending much time thinking about, Giles Merritt from Security & Defence Agenda (SDA), a Brussels think tank, told DW.
After the Cold War, "the West misguidedly wrote off the Russians, when there was a sense of 'we've won the Cold War,'" Merritt said..
"There was almost a ritual humiliation of the Russians," he told DW. "This triumphalism of the 1990s was very damaging and the Russians, as a people, have, I think, not forgiven the West for that humiliation."
Merritt even goes so far as to claim NATO has no "diplomatic tradition," that it has, since the mid-1990s, neither tried to involve the Russians, nor has it looked at what it's prepared to "put on the poker table…to make life uncomfortable for Moscow."
"We, the Europeans, and the Americans, have neglected to reflect on our political self," Merritt says, adding that this also applies to the EU and the US generally. He calls it a "lack of concertation" that means no one is really prepared to think of scenarios and "chess moves," neither for Ukraine nor for various other conflicts around the world, including the repercussions of NATO's mission in Afghanistan.
Reduced to 'junior partner'
Trenin says NATO did have a strategy of sorts, that Russia was not so much neglected, but simply seen as a "junior partner", who was expected to "adjust to the new reality and accept NATO's role." He says the US as the key driver of NATO policy was always on the Russian mind, but "there was too little Russia on American minds."
NATO called this approach "partnership and cooperation" but it has not lived up to its name. From the early 1990s, Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev all tried to get incorporated into the Western system, "but there were no takers on the Western side," Trenin says.
NATO needs a rethink
This nonchalant approach to Russia is now coming back to haunt the alliance. Some 40 percent of NATO members are from former Warsaw Pact countries, Jonathan Eyal from the UK's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) says, so if NATO doesn't address their security concerns, it will become irrelevant.
"The East Europeans were often told they shouldn't be so obsessed with looking at Russia as an enemy," Eyal told DW. Now, he says, their concerns are turning out to be justified and NATO will have to consider more bases in Eastern Europe.
"If we are to take the NATO commitment seriously, we will need to think about increasing defense expenditure…we will need to think about certain strategic moves that are likely to be interpreted as hostile in military terms in Moscow, like the positioning of bases in central Europe," Eyal says, adding that the NATO summit in Wales in September will have to focus on these issues.
Zellner agrees, emphasizing that NATO will have to focus on defense because, for countries like Poland or the Baltic states, - the commitment to defend members in the case of a conflict - is of the utmost importance.
"I think the ultimate loser from this invasion [in Ukraine - the ed.] will be Russia, because it will achieve what it desperately tried to avoid, which is that it will get NATO right at the border with Russia," Zellner said.
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