As Support for NATO Grows, Has Putin Miscalculated Over Ukraine?

Visiting NATO headquarters Thursday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that Europe is facing its biggest security crisis in decades and pledged more military deployments in eastern Europe, in response to Russia’s troop buildup on the border with Ukraine.

“The stakes are very high, and this is a very dangerous moment. And at stake are the rules that protect every nation, every nation big and small,” Johnson said after talks with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Britain is strengthening its deployments in Estonia and Poland and is considering further deployments in southeastern Europe in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Several NATO members have sent troop reinforcements to allies on NATO’s eastern flank. Many observers say Moscow’s actions have brought the alliance closer together.

Stoltenberg welcomed Britain’s commitment.

“The U.K. is playing a leading role, delivering both militarily and diplomatically,” he said. “Renewed Russian aggression will lead to more NATO presence, not less.”

US carrier strike group

Warships and fighter jets from 28 NATO members conducted exercises off the Italian coast earlier this month. It was the first time since the end of the Cold War that a U.S. Navy carrier strike group was placed under NATO command.

The United States has deployed an additional 3,000 troops to Poland and Romania.

“The focus of this particular mission … is to reinforce the NATO alliance, to build that trust and confidence, to reassure our allies and to strengthen the eastern flank of the NATO alliance,” Colonel Joe Ewers of the U.S. Army 2nd Cavalry Regiment said Wednesday.

France is preparing to send troops to Romania, while Germany — criticized in the past for failing to take a harder line on Russia — is boosting its troop deployment in Lithuania by 350 personnel, in addition to the 500 soldiers already there.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht called Germany’s participation an important signal for NATO allies.

“We can be relied on, and we are showing that with this strengthening of the battle group,” she told reporters on Monday.

NATO united

In 2017, then-U.S. President Donald Trump described NATO as “obsolete” because, he said, it “wasn’t taking care of terror.” In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron called the alliance “brain dead,” citing a perceived waning commitment by its main guarantor, the United States.

Now, Russia’s actions have served to unify NATO, according to analyst Jonathan Eyal, associate director at the Royal United Services Institute.

“The Russians were demanding not merely an acceptance of a division of Europe into new spheres of influence, but a rollback on all the security arrangements put in place on the continent since the early 1990s at the end of the Cold War. And that was simply so outrageous, so extreme in its scope that quite frankly, it left very little opportunity for countries to disagree that a rejection and a flat-out rejection of such demands was the only approach.”

Eyal added that the role of the United States has been crucial in recent months.

“It’s astounding the amount of meetings, the amount of visits, the amount of effort that the (U.S.) administration put into ensuring that the consensus was kept,” he said.

Public support

Opinion polls show an increase in public support for NATO both in existing member states and in non-NATO allies, including Sweden and Finland. While neither is expected to join the alliance any time soon, both countries have voiced alarm at the Russian troop buildup.

“Nobody wants this to escalate any further. We all want Russia to de-escalate the situation. We want to find peaceful ways out of the situation,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told reporters after meeting European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last week.

Putin’s miscalculation?

Russia’s amassing of more than 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border was a miscalculation, Eyal said.

“If Russia was thinking of dividing Europe, what they’ve done over the past few months achieved precisely the opposite,” he said.

But Russia believes it has achieved the objective of keeping Ukraine and Georgia out of the alliance, said Alex Titov, a Russia analyst at Queen’s University Belfast.

“Russia made it very clear, I think abundantly clear, that that is a really big (red) line. As Putin said several times, membership of NATO (for Ukraine and Georgia) would basically mean war with Russia for all NATO countries.”

Despite Moscow’s denials, many Western leaders still believe Russia is planning to invade Ukraine. Rather than highlighting NATO’s divisions, many observers say that threat has galvanized the alliance.

 

 

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