NATO has been pegged to a history of enhanced military presence in various regions around the world, with the propagated rhetoric of increasing the Soviet Union’s inability to conclusively commit to a direct conventional conflict against the West during the Cold War.

This article was submitted by Nicolas George Taylor, a recent graduate in International Relations & Politics from Oxford Brookes University.

However, since 1991, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union an argument has for years been formed suggesting that NATO has shifted to a political alliance, inept to consider the growing reality that Russian aggression is not only a possibility but, as the former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR) Sir Richard Shirreff has stressed, Russian aggression has, since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, been a disregarded reality leading to what Shirreff calls a ‘Cold War 2.0’, and not enough is being done to deter such aggression.

Firstly it must be mentioned that NATO, at the fall of the Soviet Union, had assumed a very different role and thus most definitely, in order to survive the turn of a new era, it assumed reform ‘that prepared it for the emerging European security landscape’.

Shirreff has voiced his concerns that NATO states had de-prioritised the use of the alliance as a military powerhouse and have instead promoted it as a ‘political tool’. NATO reform is therefore relative to the rise of a substantial international threat. This may indeed be down to the Russian consequences of the end of the Cold War, as administration of state owned assets in the newly formed Russian Federation was poorly distributed and added to the poor economic standing in the new Federation. To add to this, Russian defence spending deteriorated during the Yeltsin years from 4.9% in 1992 (from 15% in 1988) to 3.3% in 1999. Therefore, NATO states decreased military expenditure to accommodate itself to the decreased threat to peace.

The issue with NATO in the turn of the 21st century lies with the inability to acknowledge that since the rise of the Putin administration followed by his increased mandate in Russian politics from outstanding, yet controversial, presidential election results, Russian foreign policy can be seen to have formed a newly extended arm in international affairs, especially by militaristic means. Starting with the Georgian War in South Ossetia in 2008 to the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 under the universal appeal , as scholar  Roy Allison suggests, of protecting Russian citizens, leaves one to the idea that Russia is manipulating the narrative of protecting Russian citizens as a means of maintaining a military directive and to fundamentality change the defensive role of the use of military power as an ‘instrument of policy to enforce compliance with its neighbours’ which would reinforce political home power and reassert regional hegemony.

NATO is arguably over-complicated by the subordinate nature of the military structure to that of its political structure. Basing the alliance under a democratic type system, the North Atlantic Committee (NAC)  which is the political body of the alliance must produce a unanimous vote, essentially meaning that every member must agree that a NATO member has been attacked and that the triggering of Article 5 (NATOs invoking of Collective Defence) is the only rational course of action and is imperative to maintain the peace in the region. Unfortunately, as international relations scholar Kurt Volker suggests, under a realists perspective, NATO is bogged down by the idea that the lack of a common perceived threat is and has always been the chink in NATOs decision making armour.

Russia’s cross-border mandate has been based traditionally under the pretence that Russia is under threat of encirclement from NATO expansion, especially with the prospect of integrating Georgia and Ukraine ,which are Russian bordering states, into the alliance.

A document released by the Defence Intelligence Agency corroborates with the idea that with hindsight the expansionary presence of the alliance to the Baltic region and to Russian bordering states has added to the historic anxiety of Russian encirclement, a narrative that has been backed by British Ambassador Sir Robert Lynce who regretfully states ‘we created the anxieties’ Russia is feeling today. One can see this perceived threat in the current deployment of NATOs Enhanced Foreign Presence, in which NATO have taken advantage of the proximity to the Russian border. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have all been the bases for large multinational exercises one can only assume have been produced to specifically project power in the region. In total 4,762 troops have been deployed across this region as of November 2017.

The perceived threat Moscow have so deeply been encouraging to its population has arguably been merely state propaganda to lend blame for the current declining economic situation within the country, which in retrospect have been provoked by western sanctions and have seen the decline of the Russian Rubles value. For the reality is that NATOs formidability and defensive realist agenda produced during the Cold War has been atrophied by the decline in spending budgets within NATO states themselves.

The U.S, Greece, Poland, Estonia, and the U.K are all, according to NATO, meeting the required 2% of GDP minimum despite there being overwhelming argument for increased spending, while nations such as France, Germany, and Italy are all falling short despite being some of the largest economies on the continent.

NATO is ultimately under threat of being a physically formidable alliance, yet practically over-complicated and an incapable alliance due to the lack of commonality in the role of acknowledging a perceived threat. Fortunately, Russia under Putin have not yet physically attacked a NATO member and NATO deterrence is still in date, however with the increase in his popularity and the increased investment in its military, as most recently seen with Sarmat – dubbed ‘SATAN 2’ missiles, its modernisation of its armoured vehicles with the new T-14 Armata to name some examples.

Along with the  ongoing proxy conflict in eastern Ukraine with Russian backed separatists, followed by the annexation of Crimea, and more recently with current threats of conflict by Dmitry Medvedev to Georgia, who are in talks to join the alliance, one must consider whether NATO would ever press the article 5 button, or whether NATOs fall would be at the hands of indecision.

NATO have a combined defence expenditure of $946 billion, but this means nothing if a unanimous vote in the NAC cannot be achieved.


  1. The danger here is the ‘Calling Wolf’ once too often. Whatever dia warning is issued by NATO, I just sense a general cynism that has been so evident in recent years, especially under Trumps presidency. Remember the sniggers and whispers that accompanied his first visit to NATO HQ? Admittedly, things appeared to proceed with more success at the recent gathering, yet will all members actually spend more and make additional commitments? I just can’t get Germany’s dependency on Russian energy out of my head, and what that really means for the alliance?

    • Germany is a non-entity in military terms as far as NATO is concerned now. The front line has been pushed back to Eastern Europe, and the German armed forces are almost completely combat ineffective.

      If a conventional war did break out between NATO and Russia, Germany losing access to Russian energy would only really hurt Germany. Estonia and Latvia are the points of first contact, and what happens after that is more dependant on how long it takes the UK, France, and the US to mobilise.

      The big issue would be the economic damage the collapse of German industry would have on Europe as a whole. It could seriously undermine the ability of a lot of European nations abilities to sustain a war footing long term

    • German dependency on Russian gas as a part of Germany’s total energy requirements is a misconception. Russian gas may be a significant proportion of Germany’s total gas supply but natural gas is only a relatively small component within Germany’s total energy generation sources. See data in following links

  2. Agreed, this is rather heavy going. However, the message is still there, not only is most of NATO unwilling or unable to spend to the agreed level on defence, Germany is the most glaring laggard, but there also has to be unanimity before article 5 can be triggered. At the present time, if for instance one of the Baltic states found itself in a Ukraine situation, what chance of Turkey backing the consensus? Or the Germans for that matter.
    Gen. Shirreff wrote a rather good novel, published I think last year, called “ War with Russia”. It is not only a good read, it also illustrates how such a conflict could be started.

  3. It’s worth noting that given the size, economic weight, scientific lead and military prowess of NATO countries vs their potential rivals China and Russia it’s perhaps a good thing that the alliance is limited by its political structure. Russia would last days against a fully mobilised NATO in a conventional fight and China not much longer.

    If these countries felt more threatened by a reinvigorated NATO it would lead to a new nuclear arms race.

    In terms of spending their is no need for NATO to spend a trillion dollars a year.

  4. Russian would struggle logistically to invade one of the Batlic states. An armoured push into Western Europe? Really? And why would they do it anyway? I think they have enough room and resources.

    Russian action in their ‘near abroad’ is to be expected. It has only been a few decades since the break down of the Communist block, there were bound to be one or two issues to sort out.

    It is rather childish of our leaders to hold manoeuvres on their border and exercise rights of navigation and then throw a tantrum when the Russians do the same.

    You have to look at this problem in terms of the different layers in the security sphere. We, the UK, do need to consider Russia as a ‘threat’ when it comes to nuclear arms. But that is distinct and understandable. We need therefore assets like SSN’s, MPA, first rate ASW hulls, and other hardware so we know what is transiting our seas perhaps heading towards the CASD patrol area. (Even though CASD’s primary defence is stealth.) But by the same token we shouldn’t be too concerned that the Russians have built so many tanks or so many of this or so many of that land platform. The Russians ain’t coming……

    I appreciate that on a blog such as this where much of the discussion is centred on hardware it is nice to have a bogey man to play off against as justification for purchases of regiments of heavy, clanky-clanky kit. But real world security is a lot more nuanced than that and ultimately a bit boring.

  5. …and what if the U.S. were to leave NATO? After all, Trump has withdrawn the U.S., from NAFTA, from international climate accords and now he threatens to leave the WTO. He realizes the inequity of a NATO disproportionately propped up by the U.S. He campaigned on the basis of “putting America first”. His trade war with China is another example of his unusual habit (for a politician) of backing his words with actions. While I don’t like he man, personally, I can see that it is unwise to ignore him.

    In my opinion, there is a significant chance of Trump opening a discussion about U.S. membership of NATO. If the Europeans prove as intractable as they’ve been during Brexit negotiations, you may wake up to a sudden U.S. withdrawal. Remaining NATO countries have expanded commitments to the Baltic states and the Black Sea coast but they don’t have the means or the resolve to defend that territory without the U.S. In such circumstances, it’s hard to imagine Putin resisting the urge to take military action. NATO would crumble. Now is the time for all European NATO countries, including The U.K. to increase their financial commitment to the alliance.

  6. Decades of dismantling our military strength across NATO will come back to haunt us if Russia moved against us. We need the ability to rapidly deploy enough forces to any aggression to deter a coup de main. Unfortunately we’re pollitically & military feeble, our main strengths being in denying reality with nausiating routine spin. Nato could find itself commited beyond its current capacity very quickly, putting what few troops we have at dreadfully high risk, not to mention the freedom & liberty we enjoy. The only option would be for the USA to bail us out of the mess we’ve made or the early use of nukes, which any sane person should avoid as long as possible!
    Peace is not protected by becoming so weak & fragile that Nato in Europe could be virtually helpless to prevent another annexation & destroy our credibility. As far as I know there’s no contingency plans to rapidly recruit, train & equip new troops if ever needed. We’re not defenceless, but our “big stick” becomes less credible steadily as we neglect & cut back real capabilities.
    NATO has played to Putins strengths & narrative by expanding to his borders & becoming so weak that aggression seems possible.

  7. Frank. I agree, but the UK should avoid committing land forces to defence of Eastern Europe. Our military focus and contribution to NATOs defence should be naval power and a strong air force with niche capabilities in maritime recon’ heavy/strategic airlift, àir to air refuelling and air superiority fighters.
    Our navy needs to be geared up, manpower increased and upgunned for 2 carrier battle groups, an amphibious landing force including retained lpds, LPAs and ideally a replacement or 2 for Ocean.
    Defence expenditure has to go up to 3%.
    The Army only needs to be strong enough to defend the UK mainland and contribute small battlegroups towards NATO led missions. We should not feel we have to face down hundreds of thousands of Russian army personnel with armoured divisions. That should be Germany, Poland, Hungary, Rumania and France’s mission.we need to avoid playing into Putin’s hands, emphasising his only area of strength, land based armoured forces.

  8. Time to start taking these threats seriously!

    “This is a resurgence that has come very quickly.

    “It is an intensifying resurgence of capability and scale that we didn’t necessarily see coming maybe 10 years ago. We have had to respond to that – it is also very modern, it is very capable.

    “The signature of their vessels, their deploy-ability, their capability is very impressive. They’ve clearly been investing in the research and development to be able to do this.”


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