As NATO leaders gather in the Lithuanian capital this week, the mood will be upbeat. No longer is the alliance “brain-dead” (French President Emanuel Macron, 2019) or “obsolete” (President Donald Trump, 2016); nor are its military exercises “saber-rattling” (Germany’s then foreign minister, now president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2016). The Vilnius summit will agree on new defense plans. Military budgets are rising. In short: NATO is back in business. Waiter, another bottle of šampanas, please!
But amid the back-slapping, awkward truths remain. NATO may indeed be doing splendidly in its own terms, but not by the much harsher standards that actually matter: those of the outside world.
Over the past three decades, the big Western countries that run NATO systematically underestimated the threat from Russia. They failed to deter the Kremlin in Ukraine before the war started in 2014 or before the full-scale invasion in February 2022. Over the past 500 days, they have failed to supply weapons of the quantity and quality needed for Ukraine to win. The colossal human, financial and environmental cost of that is shameful.
True, Ukraine is not a member of the alliance. But whose fault is that? Botched diplomacy around the Bucharest summit in 2008, for which nobody has apologized publicly, consigned Ukraine and Georgia to the danger zone.
Not that accession would have necessarily made them safer. For its eastern members, the alliance is mostly still “NATO-lite,” constrained by old taboos, timidity, and divergent threat perceptions. The result is most visible in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which just happen to be the countries that most need defending. NATO’s “enhanced Forward Presence”—around 1,000 troops in each country—are only tripwire forces, there at best to help the local military slow down a Russian attack, not to defeat it. They lack the air and missile defenses they need and the supplies needed for real warfare.
True, the alliance is shifting from a “defense-in-depth” posture, in which territory lost to a Russian offensive is (supposedly) retaken, to one that will defend every inch of land from the first minute of the war. That will require much stronger forces in the Baltic states, with better infrastructure and bigger training grounds. All that and much more will be agreed upon at Vilnius. But none of it actually exists right now.
This failure of defense places a huge burden on deterrence. Russia must believe that any attack on even the most vulnerable NATO member would bring an overwhelming military response. For now, that works: the Baltic states are safer than they have ever been in their history. But this involves two big wagers. The first is that the Americans are able to use their overwhelming military might to defeat Russia. The other is that decision-makers in Washington, DC accept the risks of doing so.
For now, both look like good bets. The Biden administration identifies Russia as a serious threat. The US military presence in Europe is increasing. A bipartisan consensus in Congress pays for it.
But what happens if the US is distracted by a crisis in China, or if a future president decides that a confrontation with Russia, the world’s largest nuclear power, is too risky? Another awkward truth: the European members of NATO, though bigger and richer than their American protector, are not ready to shoulder that burden now. Nor—even on the most optimistic assumptions—will they be able to do so inside a decade. But intelligence estimates suggest that Russia will be able to rebuild its forces within three to seven years of the Ukraine war ending.
Forget that šampanas. Coffee, please — we have to work.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.