The war in Ukraine is stretching the NATO alliance. The pull is still gentle and the cracks still small. But the potentially endless duration of the war, the economic suffering it has caused in Europe and even disagreements over causes and solutions is stretching the alliance.
It is sometimes forgotten that Turkey is a member of NATO. Turkey is the second largest military in the NATO alliance; yet, it has not been aligned with NATO against Russia. It has not joined the sanctions regime against Russia, and it has reserved for itself a mediating role rather than a participatory role. Retired US ambassador Chas Freeman says that "The United States has lost most of its influence in Turkey" and that there has been a "deterioration in Turkish relations with the EU, NATO, and US." He says that "The West can no longer count on Turkey to support or acquiesce in its policies."
NATO and the West has been unable to count on Turkey to support its sanctions on Russia. Turkey has continued to increase its imports of Russian oil to the point that it now accounts for almost half of Turkey’s energy requirements. And it is not just imports. Turkey is exporting more to Russia – 40% more – than before the war. And Turkey is doing more than sending goods to Russia, strengthening bonds not only in trade but also in tourism. Recently, Erdogan and Putin met, agreeing to increase energy, economic, and other ties. At present, Russia is helping Turkey build its first nuclear power plant.
But the tension is not just stretching NATO on its eastern edges. NATO is being stretched throughout Europe, including in the heart of western Europe. According to recent polls, 92% of Hungarians want to see peace talks end the war immediately. 49% of Italians believe Ukraine needs to make concessions to facilitate diplomacy. 55% of Germans believe their government has not gone far enough in its efforts to end the war diplomatically. 70% of Romanians are calling for an end to the war.
In Germany, while people continue to express sympathy for Ukraine, 54% think their county is doing enough or too much. Only 40% of Germans strongly support more sanctions, and just 31% strongly support sending Ukraine more weapons.
In November, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz broke with the US and NATO by becoming the first G7 leader to go to Beijing to meet with President Xi Jinping, who has supported Putin throughout the war. The US led consensus has been neither to talk nor trade with nations, particularly China, who have not joined the US sanctions and censure of Russia. In a meeting criticized by other Western leaders, who are trying to contain China and oppose China’s support of Russia, Scholz was accompanied by top German business leaders, including the CEOs of Volkswagen, BMW, BASF, Bayer and Deutsche Bank.
French President Emmanuel Macron was also expected to ask Biden to scale back his pressure on Europe to join his administration’s "full-blown economic war on China" during their talk at the White House.
Scholz has not only broken with other NATO leaders by visiting Beijing, on December 2, he became the first Western leader to talk to Putin in three months. During their phone call, Scholz “urged the Russian president to come as quickly as possible to a diplomatic solution."
Macron has also pulled away from the alliance by again recently advocating a diplomatic settlement to the war. The French leader called on Putin to “come back to the discussion table.” Macron has been one of the few leaders to maintain a dialogue with Putin. In September, Macron insisted that “The job of a diplomat is to talk to everyone, especially to people with whom we do not agree. And so we will continue to do so, in coordination with our allies. . . . Preparing the peace means talking to all the parties including, as I did just a few days ago and will again, to Russia."
In a joint statement following their meeting on December 1, Biden and Macron reiterated that they "strongly condemn Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine," and they promised "to continue working with partners and allies to coordinate assistance efforts." But Macron again steered away from the US by saying that he would continue to talk to Putin to "try to prevent escalation and to get some very concrete results." He told ABC that "he intends to speak with the Russian president in the coming days."
Macron hinted at an even larger crack in the NATO position. Macron told his American audience, "We want to build peace and a sustainable peace means full respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine." But then, hinting at Russia’s demand to be included in a new European security structure that takes its concerns seriously, he added, "but at the same time [it means] a new architecture to make sure we have a sustainable peace in the long run."
To his French audience, Macron was clearer and went further, exposing the crack in the NATO alliance. In an interview filmed with the French television network TF1 during his visit to Washington and aired as he left, Macron 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." Then Macron made his full meaning clear: "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." The content and tone of that statement may reveal the biggest crack of all.
Disagreements like this one have caused rifts between NATO’s European allies. The New York Times reports that "There is deep suspicion of Mr. Macron’s approach to Russia in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and other states in the European Union and NATO that were once under the Soviet totalitarian yoke."
There have been similar suspicions between Poland and Germany. Poland seemed recently to attempt to publicly embarrass Germany for its reluctance to increase military support for Ukraine. After Ukrainian air defense missiles missed their target and fell inside Polish territory, Germany offered to send Poland Eurofighter planes and Patriot air defense missile batteries to protect itself. Initially, Poland said it would accept the offer. But then Poland declared that “it would be best for Poland’s security if Germany handed the equipment to the Ukrainians,” forcing Germany to publicly reject the suggestion that it help Ukraine, pointing out that Patriot air defense missiles, being part of NATO’s integrated air defense, require NATO consent to be used outside NATO area and because it would necessitate sending German soldiers into Ukraine to operate the system, a move that could draw NATO into the war.
Poland, expressing the wishes of Lithuania and Estonia too, also exposed the differences on how far Europeans are willing to go to sanction Russia. On November 27, Poland stymied the EU’s initial attempt to set a price cap on Russian oil. The G7 proposed a cap of $65-$70 per barrel. But Poland, Lithuania and Estonia have been pushing for the drastically lower $30 per barrel. Because of Polish objections, the initial attempt at a deal failed. “The Poles are completely uncompromising on the price," one diplomat said, "Clearly there is growing annoyance with the Polish position."
The US led sanctions on Russian oil have also led to cracks between Europe and the US. Europe has publicly launched a bitter attack on the US. High ranking European officials are furiously accusing the Biden administration of selfishly profiting from the war at the expense of freezing Europeans. “The fact is, if you look at it soberly, the country that is most profiting from this war is the US because they are selling more gas and at higher prices,” a senior European official charged.
US led sanctions have deprived Europe of the Russian oil they depend on. That has left Europe optionless, save for asking the US for gas. But the US is charging its European customers four times what it is charging Americans. Macron called the gouging “not friendly.” Germany has implored the US to start showing “solidarity” by reducing the cost of badly needed gas. “America needs to realize,” a senior EU official said, “that public opinion is shifting in many EU countries.” He was referring both to Europe’s role in the war and its relationship with the US. The Economist recently remarked that "It is not just the continent’s prosperity that is at risk, the health of the transatlantic alliance is, too."
The war in Ukraine is testing and stretching the NATO alliance from Turkey to the US, from Brussels to Washington and from Eastern Europe to Western Europe.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.