NATO Has a New Weak Link for Russia to Exploit

North Macedonia just became NATO’s newest and weakest member. That makes it a ripe target for interference.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks on during exercises of a NATO tank unit in Münster, Germany, on May 20, 2019.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks on during exercises of a NATO tank unit in Münster, Germany, on May 20, 2019. CHRISTOPHE GATEAU/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made it possible for Adolf Hitler to march into Czechoslovakia despite the overwhelming military superiority of Prague’s Western allies because Chamberlain had decided the issue was “a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.” Today, it is similarly difficult to believe that NATO would go to war over its far-flung commitments in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, on March 27, the Western alliance admitted North Macedonia as its newest—and weakest—member. In so doing, it has given Russian President Vladimir Putin a terrific opportunity to expand his influence, further erode NATO’s unity, and test the bloc’s commitment to defend a member of the alliance.

North Macedonia is the definition of a weak link and easy pickings for an adversary. A landlocked country of 2 million inhabitants, it has weak political institutions and only a short history of independence. As of 2018, it spent only 1 percent of its GDP on defense—short of the 2 percent NATO guideline—and had just 8,000 active-duty soldiers. There is simmering communal tension between a Slavic Orthodox majority and a sizable ethnic Albanian, mainly Muslim minority, making it vulnerable to interference. Within NATO, only neighboring Albania has a lower per capita GDP and a higher level of corruption. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index ranks North Macedonia as having Europe’s least developed political culture.Russia has held massive war games that were only thinly disguised simulations of attacks on NATO members such as Poland and the Baltic States.

Moscow has viewed NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe with suspicion since the 1990s. Yet it wasn’t until the 2000s, after Russia’s military and economy rebounded from the chaos of the post-Soviet era, that Putin declared NATO’s eastward expansion a “direct threat” and openly confronted the alliance. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008—not coincidentally, the year that NATO declared an interest in Georgia’s eventual accession to the alliance—stopped the bloc’s expansion into former Soviet-controlled areas in its tracks. Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea, while not a direct assault on a NATO member, further demonstrated Western impotence in the face of Russian aggression. Further north, Russia has held massive war games that military experts say were thinly disguised simulations of attacks on NATO members such as Poland and the Baltic States.

Now that North Macedonia has joined NATO, Putin appears to be relishing his first chance to prove that the alliance is little more than a paper tiger. In 2018, Russia’s ambassador to North Macedonia declared the country a “legitimate target” if tensions between NATO and Russia were to increase. But there was no “if” about it: Even before North Macedonia became a member, Russia had already been working assiduously to ratchet up tensions in the region. Moscow has shipped S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to neighboring Serbia for joint Russian-Serbian military drills, facilitated an attempted coup in Montenegro, and tried to destabilize Bosnia and Herzegovina by stoking sectarian tensions. And in North Macedonia itself, Russia has funded troll factories that, among other things, were used to target the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign with disinformation. Moscow also tried to influence North Macedonia’s September 2018 referendum on NATO membership, is using its embassy and consulates there as bases for intelligence-gathering operations, and has spread propaganda detailing alleged Western plots to break up the country.

That Russia would threaten NATO’s members in Eastern Europe is nothing new, of course. Russia has long attempted to undermine the Baltic countries—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—which joined NATO and the European Union after gaining their independence from the Soviet Union. But today, the Baltic States are well integrated into alliance structures and the European economy and are home to thousands of NATO troops. Whereas the Baltics have become part of NATO’s well-armored front, the Balkans are its soft underbelly. NATO’s posture in North Macedonia and its neighborhood is very limited. The Balkan countries are also poorer, more ethnically divided, and less economically integrated with Europe. Their potential instability and the much lower likelihood of a robust response by the West make North Macedonia and its neighbors ripe and easy targets for Russian meddling.

Taking a page from history’s playbook, Putin rightly assumes that most decision-makers in NATO capitals would consider North Macedonia a “faraway country” of “people of whom we know nothing.” U.S. President Donald Trump, whose relationship with Putin continues to attract attention, confirmed a similar suspicion with regard to neighboring Montenegro when he appeared to question NATO’s commitment to defend the Balkan nation during an interview aired on Fox News. And while some may have taken offense at Trump’s statement, the truth is he speaks for many.

According to a February poll by the Pew Research Center, less than half the populations of France, Spain, Turkey, and Greece hold a favorable view of NATO. Pandering to the alliance’s critics, French President Emmanuel Macron last year declared that NATO had “brain death.” The citizens of only three European countries—Britain, the Netherlands, and Lithuania—say their country should respond with military force if Russia were to attack a NATO member in Eastern Europe.

No surprise then that NATO’s posture toward its newest member remains unclear. Though NATO broadened the definition of its joint defense commitment—Article 5 of the alliance’s charter—to include cyberattacks in 2014, it has failed to clarify just what that means. When asked what level of cyberattack on one of its members would trigger a response, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said only, “We will see.” The 2018 Brussels Declaration reaffirmed NATO’s intent to defend member states from nonconventional attacks—but only meekly asserted that in “cases of hybrid warfare, the Council could decide to invoke Article 5.” These Western weasel words will have been duly noted in the Kremlin.

The type of meddling Russia has specialized in includes election interference, inflaming ethnic tensions, and provoking violent conflict. These three real possibilities could trigger a NATO response under Article 5. The most pressing issue is securing North Macedonia’s upcoming elections, now postponed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Polls last showed VMRO-DPMNE, a pro-Russian nationalist party, in a dead heat with the pro-Western Social Democrats. Russian interference in the election process or outcome not only threatens Macedonian sovereignty but, if successful, could result in a government that tilts North Macedonia toward Moscow.

Russia may also seek to pressure and destabilize North Macedonia in other ways, including through Moscow’s regional client, Serbia. Russian propaganda aimed at North Macedonia includes conspiracy theories about the country’s sizable Albanian minority supposedly colluding with NATO and Albania to fold North Macedonia into a “greater Albania” amid great bloodshed. As any student of Balkan history knows, such rhetoric has led to ethnic violence in the region before. Alternatively, Russia may stoke simmering conflicts in Serbia, whose unstable Presevo region directly borders North Macedonia, or the unresolved Kosovo dispute. Either conflict could easily spill into North Macedonia.

NATO’s next steps to secure its new member could include adapting the successful tactics used when Montenegro joined the alliance in 2017. A NATO-sponsored cyberteam provided the Montenegrin government with technical support to learn to identify and counter hybrid warfare. NATO raised awareness of the benefits of NATO membership by working with officials, civil society, local governments, and media organizations. It also worked to improve governance in Montenegro’s defense sector. Similarly, the European Union, which has just opened accession talks with North Macedonia, could move quickly to signal to the world that the Balkan nations are an integral part of Europe.

More broadly, however, NATO needs a mechanism to respond to Russian aggression in the event that the alliance’s members can’t unanimously agree to do so. Article 5 requires unanimity before invoking collective defense, but NATO’s members differ in their attitudes to Russia. One solution would be to form, as a backstop in case it is needed, a coalition of the willing comprising NATO members with credible defense capabilities that are willing to confront Russia and prepare a collective response to any attack.

Despite NATO’s overall military superiority, it has a weak hand in the Balkans, and Russia continues to outmaneuver it there. NATO must quickly signal that it remains steadfast and, having decided to admit it, that North Macedonia is an integral member of the alliance. If NATO fails in its support of new members like North Macedonia, the chances have just risen that it will be met with Russian aggression—hybrid or conventional—that may just mean the end of NATO as a credible alliance.

Update, April 24, 2020: This story was updated to clarify that the S-400 anti-aircraft missiles were sent to neighboring Serbia as part of joint Russian-Serbian military drills.

Ivana Stradner is a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Max Frost is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

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