Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), found the expression to be so apt that he used it a couple of times. The current situation, he said in his first public appearance following Thursday’s Russian invasion of Ukraine, is the "new normal."
And that new normal looks like this: The United States is transferring combat helicopters, warplanes and paratroopers to the Baltic states, the British are sending an additional 900 troops to the region and the Germans are boosting their presence by 350 soldiers.
The North Atlantic Council has accepted a proposal by NATO’s top military commander, General Tod Wolters of the U.S., to activate the Graduated Response Plans. That step means that Wolters now has the 40,000-troop-strong NATO Response Force at his disposal, which can be deployed to the alliance’s eastern flank. In the future, the rapid response force is to be combat ready in seven days, much faster than has been the case until now.
Ukraine borders on several eastern NATO member states. If Russia takes over the country, which many at NATO headquarters in Brussels believe it will, it would mark the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War that Russian military units and NATO troops would be facing each other along an extended front.
Within just a few months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has thus achieved the precise opposite of that which he has always professed to be his aim. Putin wanted to force the West to establish a security buffer and to withdraw U.S. troops from NATO member states in Eastern Europe. Instead, NATO has now strengthened its presence on its eastern flank – not dramatically so, but still.
More than anything, though, the Russian president has given the alliance something it has been searching for over the last two decades: a reason to exist. Many Europeans are just now coming to the realization that the European way of life is not just protected by the EU, but that this lifestyle must also be defended militarily in the face of Putin’s brutal brand of power politics.
Plans for Reinforcement
Following the end of the East-West confrontation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the alliance plunged into an existential crisis. NATO became involved in missions that were controversial from an international law point of view but were nevertheless successful, such as the 1999 intervention in Kosovo, where a mass slaughter was prevented. The mission in Afghanistan, by contrast, ended with a disastrous withdrawal a few months ago, after a 20-year presence in the country.
Defending against an attack from Moscow, which was initially the alliance’s primary task, lost its significance – at least in the minds of Western European member states. That began changing only gradually with the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Just two-and-a-half years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron said the NATO alliance was "brain dead."
Putin, though, has ensured that the patient is once again fully conscious. NATO has regained an importance in the minds of political decision-makers that it last had during the Cold War.
In some regards, the alliance has even become more attractive. In Sweden and Finland, both firmly rooted in the West despite being militarily neutral, membership in NATO has once again become a focus of intense debate.
Still, the alliance now finds itself facing challenges for which it is not yet fully prepared. Poland and the Baltic countries need concrete commitments of additional troops and a strengthening of their air defense capabilities. The danger of an escalation – and perhaps even an attack by Putin on a NATO member state – is being taken seriously in Brussels. Plans already exist for additional reinforcements. Now, they must be implemented, including with the involvement of the German military, despite the fact that it has shrunk dramatically in recent years.
In the mid-term, the alliance must rethink its entire strategy. Just like during the Cold War, the alliance must be able to guarantee an effective deterrence in the face of Moscow’s aggression. "An attack on one will be regarded as an attack on all," Stoltenberg pledged on Thursday. That sounds determined, but is NATO really prepared for a return of the Cold War?
In Western Europe, the number of troops was drastically reduced following the end of the East-West faceoff. The insight that military strength can sometimes be necessary to guarantee peace largely disappeared from the political discourse. It seemed too unlikely that there could ever again be a war in the heart of Europe.
A New Deterrence Doctrine
At NATO headquarters, it is being said that the attack on Ukraine is a demonstration that Moscow no longer accepts any of the established rules for European security. "We must completely reorient ourselves," says one NATO military official. "Not just with conventional forces, but also with our doctrine of nuclear deterrence."
Whether NATO will be able to successfully pivot remains an open question. When Macron made his observation about the alliance being "brain dead," he was referring to the position held by then-U.S. President Donald Trump, who primarily saw alliance members as parasites living off American largesse. His successor Joe Biden has returned to treating them with the appropriate respect.
In two-and-a-half years, though, U.S. voters will once again go to the polls to elect a president. And it is not unlikely that Trump will run again. If he wins, it would be a victory for Vladimir Putin.