European Affairs

NATO Goes to Wales     Print Email
Wednesday, 03 September 2014 By Robert Hunter, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO 1993-98

bod.hunter2At last week’s NATO summit in South Wales, there was a most prominent “absent guest” who could have been called to by any of the Western leaders, but especially by U.S. President Barack Obama:

Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with!

But unlike the terror he felt in face of Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth declared himself able to deal with “…the rugged Russian bear…” (or also, stated here for the record, “… th' Hyrcan [Iranian] tiger…”)

Not so the leaders of NATO, who were hard-pressed to decide what to do with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, the unwelcome apparition who had appeared earlier this year, first in Crimea and now in other parts of Ukraine.

Only a few months ago, the NATO summit in Cardiff and Newport was slated to be “dullsville,” a routine act of the schedulers’ calendar rather than an important conclave of Western leaders. Wrapping up NATO’s role in Afghanistan at the end of this year was to be top of the agenda, along with discussing whatever various allies would be willing to do afterwards in that far off part of the world, about which Neville Chamberlain would have spoken for most of the allies: “…a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” The allies planned to talk about increasing their military capabilities, along with the informal understanding that each should spend at least 2% of Gross Domestic Product on defense: but to borrow again from Shakespeare, for all but 5 of them, this is “…a custom more honour'd in the breach than the observance.” (This ritual was repeated in Wales. The outcome is likely to be little different from the past, and laggard allies were given up to a decade to respond fully!). The leaders would also have made some course corrections to the three core NATO tasks set out at the 2012 Chicago NATO summit -- collective defence, crisis management, and

cooperative security -- plus some other bits and bobs, which are standard fare in NATO communiques. But there would have been little of widespread international interest or compelling reason for the US president to cross the Atlantic.

Then enter Putin, stage right, whether as part of a long-harbored ambition to try recreating the Russian empire or opportunism in face of dysfunction in Kiev. Since then, it has been clear that the NATO Alliance would have to revisit its 20-year progression “outside of area,” following what seemed to be the end not just of the Cold War but of its aftermath in Europe. NATO would suddenly have to revivify its original central purpose, which has always been to provide for the security of its member states against external aggression, under Article 5 of the 1949 Treaty of Washington: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…” Recognizing the renewed centrality of this commitment became particularly important to the United States in face of Putin’s actions, given that they impacted directly on the bargain the U.S. struck with its European allies when all of them agreed a decade ago to send troops to Afghanistan, even though almost none of them saw any threat potentially emanating from there against their own homelands. In exchange, the United States would continue to be committed to do the one thing that no other NATO ally could do: namely, the heavy lifting in response to any security challenge in Europe from the Russian Federation, as remote as that seemed at the time.

For NATO traditionalists, the “good news” stemming from Putin’s actions is that NATO has been given a shot in the arm and has again become highly relevant to the needs of its members. The “bad news” for everyone – quelle horreur! -- is that NATO has been given a shot in the arm and has again become highly relevant to the needs of its members. That is, the new sense of purpose and (somewhat greater) cohesion could prove as fleeting as the duration of the current crisis, and there is in any event likely to be a widespread rush, at least west of Central Europe, to “business as usual,” including dollars and euros business with Russia.

The potential Western response to Putin’s actions – and response there had to be in face of such brazen Russian violation of both the Helsinki Final Act (1975) and the Budapest Memorandum (1994)[1] – has been complicated by the fact that (wisely) no NATO ally has been willing to become engaged militarily in countering either the Russian political-military grab for Crimea or the intervention of Russian military forces in southeastern Ukraine. Hence, while President Obama talks of Russian “aggression,” he has shied away from calling it an “invasion.” This is not just because Ukraine is not a member of NATO, thus unprotected by Article 5; nor is it just that Russia would have the local military advantage in any conflict engaging one or more Western allies. Obama may also recognize that too much pressure on Russia could end the possibility of Russian cooperation in other areas of U.S. concern, notably Afghanistan, Iran, and countering the Islamic State. Indeed, one marvel of the last few months has been the apparent inability of the U.S. government to see relations with Russia as anything but all of a piece, instead of being broken up into different regions, shaking a fist over Ukraine and holding out the other hand for help in some other places.

Presumably, President Obama’s linguistic restraint is also an effort to keep from inflating the crisis to the point of irreversibility, not about Crimea (the West now accepts, de facto though not de jure, that it should never have been transferred from Russia to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954), but about Ukraine as a whole or points West. “No new Cold War” is in effect Mr. Obama’s bottom line; though, without Mr. Putin’s whole-hearted cooperation, he may be hard-pressed to ward off the caterwauling from the American political right, from his enemies in Congress, and from those American academics who have never reconciled themselves to living with the lack of a great organizing principle – an “enemy” -- for the United States in international politics.

The Wales summit did hold out an olive branch to Russia, should it be prepared to live by rules that it and its predecessor Soviet Union helped to write (Cf. Helsinki Final Act, Budapest Memorandum). Indeed,

(22) …We continue to believe that a partnership between NATO and Russia based on respect for international law would be of strategic value. We continue to aspire to a cooperative, constructive relationship with Russia, including reciprocal confidence building and transparency measures and increased mutual understanding of NATO’s and Russia’s non-strategic nuclear force postures in Europe, based on our common security concerns and interests, in a Europe where each country freely chooses its future. We regret that the conditions for that relationship do not currently exist. As a result, NATO’s decision to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia remains in place. Political channels of communication, however, remain open.

(23) The Alliance does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia….[2]

It was striking, as well, that the Wales Summit Declaration did not repeat the commitment made at the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit that Ukraine “will become [a member] of NATO,” a misstep at the time that was a red flag to Russia and broke the tacit understanding that Ukraine would not be offered NATO membership unless and until Russia’s role in Europe were also sorted out. This omission at Wales was clearly an olive branch to Russia, especially since the outgoing NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, had incautiously repeated the 2008 commitment only a week earlier.[3]

Whether Putin also sees the need to limit the scope of the crisis – and perhaps, at some point, to join in a “reset” of the NATO-Russia cooperation that began in the 1990s but was not sufficiently pursued by either side -- is, of course, impossible at this point to tell. After what he has done, even under the best of circumstances and his good behavior, it would be some time before this could become politically possible. On the eve of the summit, Putin did embrace a ceasefire with Ukraine, concluded on a bilateral basis. His motives for doing so remain unclear. On the one hand, he could, as President Obama has said, have been feeling the pinch of Westerns sanctions. By contrast, he could have been trying to break apart Western cooperation in containing Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine, counting on a “sigh of relief” among allies who would just as soon that the Ukraine crisis would go away, without their having to do very much that could impose costs on themselves, including economic costs. Or he could simply have been pocketing his current gains – and gains they surely are, at least for the time being – and implicitly challenging the West to take responsibility for raising the crisis’ temperature.

Whatever his motives – and whether his efforts to break apart Western cohesion will work cannot be judged immediately – the Russian president cannot be confident that he holds all the cards (and the initiative) or that he can divide the West or cause President Obama to look for an easy way out of the crisis. He also should know that a new Cold War would eventually end up the way the last one did, with Russia at the short end of the stick. The sanctions that are being imposed, slowly, selectively, imperfectly, and reluctantly on the part of many of the allies and companies (including in the United States) will in the short term be little more than an inconvenience to Russia – and, reportedly, some Russians even see the sanctions as a point of nationalist pride. But, if serious sanctions are sustained over the longer term, Russia has a lot to lose. That includes what is likely to happen to Mr. Putin’s domestic popularity if and when average Russians get over the euphoria of finally “getting our own back” after losing the Cold War and, to a significant degree, since then being treated by the West, and in particular by the United States, as not welcome to play a full and resected part in restructuring European security and politics as a necessary part of fulfilling President George H.W. Bush’s ambition of a “Europe whole and free” and at peace.

In any event, after what he has done, Putin has turned President Ronald Reagan’s dictum on its head. It is not “trust but verify;” instead, it is now “verify, and then after a while we will see whether it will be possible to trust at all.”

The bet, then, is that, while Putin is greedy and ambitious and at a minimum surely wants to chasten other former Russian tributaries in the former Soviet Union – Moldova, Belarus, and the 8 countries of Transcaucasia and Central Asia, along with restive peoples in the North Caucasus – he is also not stupid. This is just a bet, however, and many a tragedy in international politics has come about from miscalculation or, indeed, stupidity.

The work of the NATO summit was less about crafting a strategy for dealing directly with Russia-in-Ukraine than with reassuring anxious Central European NATO allies that their membership in the Alliance truly means what it says in the Treaty of Washington. The Baltic States are particularly anxious, as is Poland (which lies on the East-West axis, the classic highway for great European wars). For Russia to move militarily against any NATO member would be really crazy, although it has already conducted cyber-attacks (against Estonia) and energy manipulation (generally in Central Europe). But Central European NATO allies need reassurance, and it was provided at Wales. This includes, as part of a Readiness Action Plan, air policing, military exercises, preparing and stocking bases to receive Western troops, conducting more exercises in Central Europe, rotating some US forces temporarily back to Europe, and creating a new Spearhead Force (Very High Readiness Joint Task Force) of about 4000 air, land, maritime and special operations forces that could be dispatched in a couple of days (as opposed to the existing Rapid Reaction Force which would take much longer to deploy). The full list of NATO actions can be found in the lengthy and comprehensive Wales Summit Declaration,[4] along with a recitation of sanctions imposed on various Russian entities and commerce.

The allies also recognized the emergence of what is now called “hybrid warfare,” reflecting tactics adopted by Russia and Russian-speaking rebels in Ukraine. They also agreed to broaden the definition of collective defense by including cyber-attacks, although they shied away from a blanket commitment and declared instead that “a decision as to when a cyber attack would lead to the invocation of Article 5 would be taken by the North Atlantic council on a case-by-case basis” (paragraph 72)[5] – subject, that is, to NATO’s unit veto. There was no comparable statement regarding potential interruptions of energy supply, although there was reinforcement of commitments to diversify away from dependence on Russian energy sources – dependence stemming in part during the last two decades from US-led sanctions against Iran and its natural gas exports, in retrospect a poor choice in geopolitics.

There was thus a good deal of substance to the NATO summit in face of Russia’s trashing both written and unwritten “rules” of state behavior in Europe that have slowly evolved over the last several decades. But in regard to the threat from Russia, more important was the symbolism, and particularly that of the renewed U.S. commitment to European security, including in some practical dimensions. It is no secret that, heretofore, the last two U.S. administrations had been paying progressively less attention to the so-called Transatlantic Link, including that represented by NATO. This helps to explain the concerns in Europe about enunciation in Washington of the so-called “pivot to Asia.” Put in terms of the need to pay more attention to the growth of Chinese power, in particular, this was just a fact of life. But since it came against a background of growing U.S. neglect of Europe, it became a cause for concern. Indeed, it is fair to say that, before the Russian “cavalry rode to the rescue” of NATO over Ukraine, day-to-day U.S. interest in European security had fallen to a level perhaps not seen since before Pearl Harbor. A rueful joke in Washington was that the people in Washington truly devoted to making NATO relevant to U.S. concerns could be fit within a small conference room.

The Wales summit did adopt a Wales Declaration on the Transatlantic Bond.[6] Properly crafted and politically heralded, with more than just a passing reference to economic ties (and it contained none to the faltering Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership -- TTIP) it could have been a defining document on the importance of North American-European relations, not just relating to the North Atlantic but applying far more broadly, as a sort of second Atlantic Charter (in reference to the US-UK agreement at Argentia Harbour, Newfoundland, in August 1941). Instead, the moment was missed, and the Declaration, to use an American idiom, is as “dull as dishwater.”

The fall and rise – and perhaps another fall -- of the U.S. government’s interest in Europe is matched by failures in European leadership. Cohesion in face of the Russian challenge was presented at Wales with some art; but there was little sense that the Europeans, including within the European Union, are prepared to seize the day (Carpe Diem!) to revivify the transatlantic relationship or to get on with the essential business of straightening out at least some of the EU’s problems. Britain, meanwhile, continues to cavil from the sidelines of the European Union and may even split up, thus calling into serious question its ability in the future to be a first-line player in Western security.

In sum, in the classic term of art, the Wales summit could be called a “work in progress.” In addition to the foregoing, especially in regard to NATO responses to Russia’s challenge to creation of a mutually-beneficial, long-term European security order, on the plus side was the U.S. effort to underscore that what is happening in the Middle East, and especially the assault on civilization posed by the so-called Islamic State, is also Europe’s business. This emergence of a challenge that cannot be confined to the one region, certainly morally and politically, shows that NATO’s reversion to primary focus on collective defense cannot determine all of the Alliance’s important business, whatever Russia does now.

On the minus side, meanwhile, Wales made virtually no advance on what has to be a critical element of transatlantic relations, the breaking down of the remaining walls between NATO and the European Union, plus full recognition that these relations must, as was true as early as the 1940s, be based on two sets of interactions: politics, economics, and (military) security; and public and private sectors. This essential business for the transatlantic world still needs to gain the impetus that is so far insufficient on both sides of the Atlantic.


Robert Hunter is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the Board of Directors of the European Institute.


[1] For the text of the latter, see

[2] See paragraphs 22 and 23 of the Wales Summit Declaration, at

[3] Notably, the Wales Summit Declaration does repeat the parallel 2008 commitment to Georgia, which was a factor leading to the Russia-Georgia conflict. See Ibid., paragraph 93. This shows that omitting a similar reference to Ukraine at Wales was no accident.

[4] For the full text of the Wales Summit Declaration, see Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Wales Declaration on the Transatlantic Bond, at