Before Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine last year, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was widely considered to be a relic of the past. It used to be in the news more for the problems of cohesion it was encountering ever since the end of the Cold War than for the forward-looking agenda of its members. In fact, American political scientist John Mearsheimer had questioned the logic of America’s continued presence in NATO after the demise of the Soviet Union and had predicted that slowly, but surely, NATO would move towards oblivion. If the threat against which the alliance was crafted, the logic went, no longer existed, what was the point of the alliance itself?
That sense of purpose that NATO had seemingly lost after 1990 is fast re-emerging as Russian aggression against Ukraine seems to have produced more unity than would have been anticipated just a year back. Russia has ostensibly moved against Ukraine to send out a message to NATO about its expansion to its backyard. But as this week’s NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania underscored, there is now a new momentum in the process of NATO expansion with Finland joining the alliance in April and Sweden all set to become the newest member after Turkey’s Erdogan dropped his opposition to its membership. Though many in Ukraine would have been disappointed, even Ukraine’s potential candidacy for NATO was accelerated with the alliance deciding to waive off the Membership Action Plan (MAP). Though NATO members did not specify a timeframe, they recognized the need to move faster on the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had criticized the “unprecedented and absurd” delay to accession, suggesting that there seemed to be “no readiness” to invite Ukraine to NATO. But by the time the summit concluded, there were strong signals from major powers that support for Ukraine remains steadfast within the alliance. The G-7 nations came out with a rather expansive framework that guarantees long-term support for Ukraine by ensuring “a sustainable force capable of defending Ukraine now and deterring Russian aggression in the future” even as it seeks to help Kyiv with “the good governance necessary to advance towards its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” This commitment is not only about ensuring that Ukraine’s immediate security needs are met but also about the long-term economic viability of the war-torn nation. With the declaration underlining “the need for the establishment of an international mechanism for reparation of damages, loss or injury caused by Russian aggression,” Moscow’s reaction was swift, calling the G-7 security guarantees “erroneous and dangerous.”
This package of guarantees and the creation of the NATO-Ukraine Council is intended as a signal to both Ukraine and Russia. To Ukraine, the message is clear that its long term security is now the responsibility of its allies and they are invested in it. Kyiv’s allies are willing to hand-hold Ukraine as it seeks a path to NATO membership. It won’t come soon but the commitment is clear. To Russia, the message is also equally categorical that Ukraine may not be a NATO member today but tomorrow is another day. And with Sweden and Finland as part of the alliance, the absurdity of Russia’s strategic objective of preventing NATO’s expansion has been exposed.
What should be worrying for Moscow is how readily Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to Sweden’s bid for NATO after initially raising several obstacles. After Erdogan’s change of heart, the Biden Administration moved quickly to suggest that the transfer of F-16 fighter jets is on its way, something that Turkey has been demanding for years. Last week Erdogan met Zelensky in Istanbul, where he came out in support of Ukrainian independence and it led to the return to Ukraine of five former military commanders who had fought in the battle over Mariupol. Turkey has been a major interlocutor for Russia so far but now, with Erdogan trying to mend fences with the West post his re-election for another five years, Moscow’s challenge on the global stage is only likely to increase. Not surprisingly, the initial reaction from Russia has been highly critical with some officials reportedly suggesting that Turkey is turning into an “unfriendly country.”
The NATO summit in Lithuania is a high point for Biden’s diplomatic footprint. He has managed to keep the alliance intact despite some differences over the issue of cluster munitions and the expansion of NATO is a reminder that American leadership remains a precondition for Western unity on global matters. But more than Russia, it is Beijing that should be concerned about the growing resoluteness in NATO vis-a-vis China with the latest communique underlining the challenge posed by China to the alliance’s interests, security and values with its “stated ambitions and coercive policies.” It was last year that NATO had released its Strategic Concept that for the first time talked of risks posed by Chinese ambitions with Asia-Pacific becoming important for the alliance in an interconnected world. With the presence of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol at this year’s NATO summit, it is clear that the focus of NATO is sharpening on the Indo-Pacific. Chinese concerns are evident in its reaction expressed in a warning that “any act that jeopardises China’s legitimate rights and interests will be met with a resolute response.”
As the world order undergoes a transformation, it is natural that alliances created for the 20th century will have to adapt to 21st-century realities. NATO has shown great agility since its existence and it is now entering the geopolitical space that India inhabits. For New Delhi, ignoring this reality can no longer be a serious policy option.
Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London. He is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is also Director (Honorary) of Delhi School of Transnational Affairs at Delhi University.