Putin badly miscalculated, the US often claims, and his invasion of Ukraine has made NATO stronger and more united than ever.
"He thought NATO would fracture and divide. Instead, NATO is more united and more unified than ever – than ever before," Biden said on February 21. "I would argue NATO is stronger than it’s ever been," he said. "President Putin’s war continues to be a strategic failure," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on February 8, "In fact, that alliance – NATO – is stronger and more united than it’s ever been."
It is not obvious that Putin ever opposed a stronger NATO. There was even a time when he considered Russia joining NATO to form a greater West. "Why not?" he once told interviewer David Frost. "Russia is part of European culture . . . and seeing NATO as an enemy is destructive for Russia." According to Richard Sakwa in Russia Against the Rest, "In the early 2000s Putin seriously engaged with NATO. It appears that informal membership talks were even held in Brussels, until vetoed by Washington."
It is not a stronger NATO that Putin feared. It was a NATO that included all of Europe but Russia, pressing on Russia’s borders.
Over thirty years ago, NATO lost its reason for being. The Cold War ended, the Warsaw Pact disbanded and NATO had nothing to do. It has spent the decades since metastasizing closer and closer toward Russia’s borders in breach of its promise, threatening it and isolating it. NATO became a self-fulfilling alliance, creating the very threat of confrontation it was made to prevent. NATO engulfed countries and left them full of weapons until it provoked Russia into the very conflict it was created to end, a new Cold War.
The era of blocs was over, and the US had been offered an opportunity by Gorbachev and by Russian and Chinese leaders that followed to transcend a world of blocs. A reanimated NATO is a return to blocs, a return to a Cold War. A stronger NATO is not obviously a positive thing.
It is also not obviously true that NATO is stronger. Whether NATO is stronger depends on what you mean by "stronger." Stronger relative to what? Stronger and more united within itself, or stronger relative to the rest of the world. There is some truth to the first formulation; there is much less truth to the second.
There is some truth to the claim that the war in Ukraine has made NATO stronger within itself and more united. But even this claim is not perfect.
The war has exposed a schism between the new NATO members in eastern Europe and the old NATO members in western Europe. The east, led by Poland, has much more aggressively pushed for maximally arming Ukraine and dismissing escalation of the war. Poland led the campaign to send tanks to Ukraine, and, recently, Poland and Slovakia went so far as to promise to send MiG-29 fighter jets. The west, led by France and Germany, has been much more calculating and cautious.
Lithuania has called for regime change in Moscow. Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has said that "From our standpoint, up until the point the current regime is not in power, the countries surrounding it will be, to some extent, in danger. Not just Putin but the whole regime because, you know, one might change Putin and might change his inner circle but another Putin might rise into his place." French President Emmanuel Macron is "against calls for the West to try to provoke a change of regime in Russia.” And German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said that regime change “is not the objective of NATO.”
Even within eastern Europe there have been divisions. Hungary has not been united with NATO. And on January 15, Croatian President Zoran Milanovic opposed sanctions on Russia and accused “Washington and NATO” of “waging a proxy war against Russia with the help of Ukraine.”
Turkey has not been part of the new harmonious unity. It has sought to mediate a negotiated settlement to the war and has spurned the sanctions regime against Russia and drastically increased trade. Italy has also been a more reluctant ally.
The war has also exposed a schism between the US and it key European allies. Both France and Germany have broken with the US in continuing to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin. More significantly, France and Germany have gone well beyond what the US is prepared to negotiate with Russia to end the war. The US has refused to negotiate security guarantees for Russia, including its refusal to negotiate Russia’s December 17, 2021 security proposals. The US has refused to negotiate Russia’s key demands on no NATO expansion to Ukraine and no deployment of weapons or troops to Ukraine. Derek Chollet, counselor to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has admitted that the US told Moscow that negotiating NATO expansion into Ukraine was never even on the table.
Macron, however, has said that “We need to prepare what we are ready to do, how we protect our allies and member states, and how to give guarantees to Russia the day it returns to the negotiating table. One of the essential points we must address – as President Putin has always said – is the fear that NATO comes right up to its doors, and the deployment of weapons that could threaten Russia.” Breaking from the US, France has gone so far as to call Ukraine’s ascension to NATO and NATO deployment of weapons in Ukraine, "essential points" that must be negotiated.
Germany, too, has broken with the US on what they are willing to negotiate as an end to the war. Scholz has said that there is a “willingness” to engage with Putin on issues of arms control and missile deployment. He says that “We have to go back to the agreements which we had in the last decades and which were the basis for peace and security order in Europe.” He then says that “all questions of common security could be solved and discussed. There is a willingness to do so.”
France, Germany and even the UK have all said that Ukraine could assure its security with “access to advanced military equipment, weapons and ammunition to defend itself once the war ends,” but that that arrangement would neither include NATO forces being stationed in Ukraine nor Article 5 protection.
And, though NATO has been unified on sanctioning Russia, even here there have been cracks. While exports to Russia dropped at the beginning of the war, they have climbed back up to near prewar levels. That recovery is attributable to countries, including the US’s European NATO allies, who signed up for sanctions. Many EU companies that announced that they were leaving Russia never did.
Though it may be largely true that NATO is strong and unified within itself when it comes to the general subject of arming Ukraine and sanctioning Russia, it is much less true that NATO is stronger in its position relative to the rest of the world.
Though NATO may have been strengthened internally, much of what Russia calls "the world majority" has refused to join it in sanctioning and opposing Russia. The multipolar world offered to the international community by Russia and China has grown much larger and stronger than the US led unipolar world NATO is meant to defend. Though two countries have applied to join NATO, the world is lining up to join BRICS and the SCO, the two Russian and Chinese led international organizations that exist to balance US hegemony in a multipolar world.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirate, Argentina and Iran are all seeking membership in BRICS. At the recent BRICS Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal and Thailand were all welcomed as guests. Iran has joined the SCO. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain and the Maldives have been admitted as a dialogue partners, and Azerbaijan and Armenia are now included as observers. The UAE is next in line. BRICS includes 40% of the world’s population. All of its members have refused to join the US led sanctions regime on Russia. The SCO is the second largest international organization after the UN, representing 43% of the world’s population.
The war in Ukraine has also strengthened the "no limits" relationship between China and Russia. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently met in Moscow where they "reaffirm[ed] the special nature of the Russia-China partnership." China and Russia have only deepened their relationship since the war began with China promising to "deepen exchanges at all levels, and promote China-Russia relations and cooperation in all areas to a higher level.” Putin says that Russian-Chinese relations "are at the highest level in all our history." Russia was the first country XI visited when he was first elected President, and, he has made a point of pointing out, it is the first country he has visited since his re-election.
Prior to his visit, XIpointed out that Chinese-Russian trade now exceeds $190 billion and that their "mature and resilient" relationship is "moving forward steadily." In their joint statement following their talks, they stressed "[e]xpanding settlements between our countries in national currencies" and pointed out that in the first three quarters of 2022, "the share of the ruble and yuan in mutual commercial transactions reached 65 percent and continues to grow, which allows us to protect mutual trade from the influence of third countries," weakening the role of the US dollar.
They signed the Joint Statement on Deepening Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Cooperation for a New Era and the Joint Statement on the Plan to Promote Key Elements of Chinese-Russian Economic Cooperation. XI also stressed that they "will strengthen our cooperation within multilateral structures, including the SCO [and] . . .and will promote genuine multipolarity."
But the special relationship between Russia and China is not limited to economics and culture. Though they are not a military alliance and have no mutual defense obligations, the strategic partnership now approaches a quasi military alliance that should give NATO pause and cause insecure second thoughts about America’s self-perception as the world’s sole superpower.
In December, China and Russia carried out joint naval exercises that "further deepen the China-Russia comprehensive new-era strategic partnership of coordination." Russia and China have carried out military exercises that have employed a joint command and control system that gave each other levels of access that are unprecedented for either country, indicating a very high level of strategic and military coordination.
Moscow was a very crowded place on the day XI visited. Putin was busy shuttling between meeting the president of China and the representatives from more than forty African countries. Putin was greeted much more warmly by the delegates than Blinken was on his failed trip to South Africa to warn Pretoria away from cooperation with Russia. He was received much differently than Macron who was recently told by Felix Tshisekedi, the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, that "the way Europe . . . treats us" "must change."
Instead, South Africa joined Russia in calling for a multipolar world. Several African nations, in a chorus the US and NATO would hate to hear, joined in the call for a multipolar world, including The Congo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Zimbabwe, Mali and others. The very name of the conference they came to attend is Russia-Africa in a Multipolar World. In July most of Africa’s heads of state will gather in Russia for the Russia-Africa summit.
South Africa has refused to join the US led sanctions against Russia and has abstained from voting against Russia at the UN. On January 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in South Africa for talks aimed at strengthening their relationship. In February, South Africa, ignoring criticism from the US and the EU, held joint military training exercises with Russia and China of its coast. The South African National Defense Force said that the drills are a “means to strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China.”
The US has told African countries that "if a country decides to engage with Russia, where there are sanctions, then they are breaking those sanctions" and warned them that if they do break those sanctions "They stand the chance of having actions taken against them." Nonetheless, not one African country has sanctioned Russia.
India has also refused to sanction Russia or to vote against them at the UN. Russia is now the leading supplier of oil to India who, since the war, is importing 33 times as much Russian oil as it was a year ago. India’s relationship with Russia, according to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has “significantly improved,” and India has reminded the US that, though they are a strategic partner of the US, they are also a strategic partner of Russia.
Pakistan abstained at the UN and continued talking to Russia. Bangladesh abstained from the General Assembly vote and said it will continue economic relations with Russia. Together, China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh make up 45% of the world’s population.
Much of the Middle East has refused to abandon their neutrality or exit the multipolar world. Saudi Arabia is not only pursuing membership in BRICS and the SCO, but they have rejected sanctions and sided with Russia in the OPEC+ decision to cut oil production in defiance of US requests. They have also more than doubled their imports of Russian oil. Speaking of China, Saudi Arabia has said that "We do not believe in polarization or in choosing between sides."
Saudi Arabia is not alone in the Middle East. The UAE, Qatar, Israel, Syria, Iraq and Iran have all, in various ways, insisted on charting independent courses in a multipolar world rather than exclusively signing on with NATO.
Moving west from China, India, the Middle East and Africa, much of Latin America has also added weight to a multipolar world and refused to join the US, Europe and their alliance.
Brazil is a BRICS nation and has refused to join the sanctions regime against Russia. Brazil has promised to remain neutral and has suggested that Brazilian President Lula da Silva could help negotiate an end to the war. Since being re-elected, Lula has met with delegations from both Ukraine and Russia.
In all of Latin America, only French Guiana has said they will impose sanctions on Russia.
If NATO is stronger than ever, then, as a Cold War bloc, its rejuvenation is a rejuvenation of the Cold War. And that is not obviously a good development in the world.
But whether it even is stronger is a complex question. It is internally stronger. NATO has been relatively unified in arming Ukraine and sanctioning Russia. But even here important cracks have been revealed between eastern Europe and western Europe on arming Ukraine and between France and Germany and the US on their negotiating policies toward Russia. The Europe-US crack could become a gorge after the war if Europe finds itself more tightly tied to the US and feeling the effects of a wounded relationship with its giant European Russian trading partner. It could become a canyon if Germany learns that Biden ordered the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline that cut it off from its energy.
It is less obvious that NATO is in a stronger position in the world. The US-NATO approach to the war in Ukraine, dividing the globe and forcing nations to chose a side, has had the opposite effect of leading countries not to choose and pushing them into a strengthened multipolar world. That world rejects Cold War blocs like NATO. That new world strengthens Russia and China and weakens NATO.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.