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An expert's point of view on a current event.

Russia Is a Real Threat to NATO

Despite its failings, the Russian military is still a powerful force.

By , a senior fellow in the International Security Program and the director of the Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and , a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense and a nonresident senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Russian service members in Ukraine
Russian service members in Ukraine
Russian service members patrol the destroyed part of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works in Ukraine's port city of Mariupol on May 18. Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

Recent events in Ukraine have once again proved that reports of NATO’s death are an exaggeration. Many leaders across the alliance have been quick to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with aid to Kyiv, increases in their own country’s defense budgets, or both. But as the war grinds on and the geopolitical reality of an adversarial relationship with Russia sets in, NATO must once again take the longer view on what all this means for trans-Atlantic and global security.

Conveniently, in less than two months, NATO leaders will meet in Madrid to endorse the alliance’s new strategy. The key question, therefore, is whether member states will use the moment to reforge NATO’s raison d’être to meet current and future challenges—in particular, by naming Russia as a threat to the alliance itself. Given the implications of Ukraine for European and global order, the stakes could hardly be higher.

Some take the view that Madrid should mark a reprioritization of U.S. efforts away from Europe and back toward Asia. Their logic goes that not only is European defense spending increasing, but Russia has also demonstrated ineptitude in the prosecution of its war in Ukraine. That means the longer-term need for significant U.S. forces in Europe has also therefore declined. And, after all, China is the pacing threat for Department of Defense planning.

Recent events in Ukraine have once again proved that reports of NATO’s death are an exaggeration. Many leaders across the alliance have been quick to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with aid to Kyiv, increases in their own country’s defense budgets, or both. But as the war grinds on and the geopolitical reality of an adversarial relationship with Russia sets in, NATO must once again take the longer view on what all this means for trans-Atlantic and global security.

Conveniently, in less than two months, NATO leaders will meet in Madrid to endorse the alliance’s new strategy. The key question, therefore, is whether member states will use the moment to reforge NATO’s raison d’être to meet current and future challenges—in particular, by naming Russia as a threat to the alliance itself. Given the implications of Ukraine for European and global order, the stakes could hardly be higher.

Some take the view that Madrid should mark a reprioritization of U.S. efforts away from Europe and back toward Asia. Their logic goes that not only is European defense spending increasing, but Russia has also demonstrated ineptitude in the prosecution of its war in Ukraine. That means the longer-term need for significant U.S. forces in Europe has also therefore declined. And, after all, China is the pacing threat for Department of Defense planning.

In fact, the opposite is true. For starters, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it abundantly clear that he views NATO as a strategic threat. Recent events suggest we should take these statements at face value. In the runup to the current war, some analysts developed elaborate rationales for why the buildup of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border didn’t mean an invasion was coming, such as a strengthened negotiating position vis-à-vis Ukraine’s future political directions. Another Russian invasion of Ukraine was so obviously strategically counterproductive that there must have been another reason for the buildup. In the event, there wasn’t.

And while Russian military incompetence has been startling, planners shouldn’t leap to conclusions. Russian forces were not able to capture Kyiv, but they have been able to seize tens of thousands of square miles of territory along Ukraine’s eastern border—at least for now. Estonia, a Baltic NATO member that borders Russia, is less than 20,000 square miles in size. Militaries can also reform, especially after disaster, as Ukraine’s own army did after its failures in 2014.

The United States has good reasons to want to keep NATO vibrant: The strategic benefits of U.S. leadership are manifold. Not only does American leadership in NATO provide pathways for organizing military coalitions, but it also affords the United States privileged status on trade partnerships and access to bases. If Putin achieves his aim of discrediting NATO, this could lead to trans-Atlantic strategic insolvency: a situation whereby allies, including the United States, are unable to meet their security obligations and, relatedly, maintain favorable standards of living for their populations.

Which brings us back to Madrid. The last time that NATO agreed on a strategic concept was in 2010. It is a document that specified that, among other things, defense of allied territory remains a critical mission for the alliance, but it is silent on naming nation-state threats to NATO. For a variety of domestic and international political reasons, building formal consensus on threats among 30 allied states is extremely challenging. Indeed, in the 2010 document Russia is viewed as an aspirational partner for NATO when it comes to European security—despite the warning sign of Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. In the intervening years, Russia has conducted destabilizing disinformation campaigns in NATO states and has attacked Ukraine twice. And while NATO leaders have condemned Russian aggression, the rhetoric falls short of formally declaring Russia as a long-term strategic threat to the alliance.

Durable consensus requires clarity. To prepare NATO to contend with this threat over the long term requires a frank admission of the strategic realities that Russia poses in the alliance’s new strategic concept, to be adopted in Madrid. As a practical matter, this will commit NATO members to take budgeting, force planning, acquisition, and possible troop repositioning seriously—and put teeth into the declaration. This is needed for NATO planners to determine, for example, whether spending 2 percent of GDP on defense is sufficient to meet the challenges to the alliance.

But the real value of the document is what the collective members reaffirm as to what NATO continues to stand for, what it calls out as the threats to the member territory, and what it intends to do to address, deter, and, if necessary, defend against these threats. By stating up front that Russia is a formal threat, member states—and the alliance as a whole—will find it harder to backslide from their current cohesion. It is difficult to overstate how important it is for NATO to ensure its consensus is durable; as the war grinds on and publics begin feeling the economic effects of the conflict and sanctions on Russia, the temptation to dilute support to Ukraine will undoubtedly mount. Not to mention, calling it like it is will send an important message to Putin: NATO will not be deterred.

Words matter. It is time for NATO leaders to formally accept reality: Putin is a threat to the alliance and its members, and, therefore, they should declare so in the news strategic concept. Indeed, not declaring Russia a formal threat to NATO territory would compromise NATO’s credibility and would give Putin a pass for the atrocities and violations he has committed in Ukraine. Neither NATO nor the United States can afford to allow that to happen.

Kathleen J. McInnis is a senior fellow in the International Security Program and the director of the Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Daniel Fata is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO in the George W. Bush administration. He is currently a nonresident senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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