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NATO’s weaknesses are in full view

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has claimed yet another casualty: the NATO alliance.

Most assuredly the human costs — the loss of 298 lives in the shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines flight, on top of nearly 500 Ukrainians killed since April alone — are the real tragedies of Ukraine’s national turmoil now turned into geopolitical struggle. But tragedy comes with strategic costs, too: Ukraine’s loss of Crimea, a Russian economy battered increasingly by Western sanctions.

Among these now is the credibility of the NATO alliance. Having just turned 65, NATO is conspicuously absent from this latest turn of events, despite the loss of hundreds of lives from member nations. This may be a display of subtle diplomacy — certainly a better alternative than war — but it undercuts the credibility of the world’s most successful political and military alliance, too.

Contrary to public opinion, unfortunately, military shootdowns of civilian aircraft are horrendously common. Since 1950 there have been some 20; on average that is one every three years or so. China, the old Soviet Union, the United States, France, Israel and Ukraine itself have been implicated in those shootdowns either immediately or years later, as have irregular forces from Africa to Georgia to Sri Lanka.

The blame is usually a messy mix of exercises gone awry, mistaken targeting in combat or quite purposeful mass murder. Often, militaries will deny responsibility despite overwhelming evidence. Usually, the nation that lost the airliner will back away from confrontation because incidents are just awful military mistakes. And no such incident in the last 60-plus years brought an entire alliance nose-to-nose with an adversary — except perhaps the destruction of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983. That is, until now.

The expansion of the NATO alliance nearly to all of Russia’s western borders has provided an important backdrop in the struggle over Ukraine, which made a bid for membership only to drop it a few years ago. The Putin government in Moscow continues to fan the flame of fear over NATO in its propaganda as it intervenes in Ukraine and effectively divides the country in two, with Russian Crimea in one hand and separatist pro-Russia eastern Ukraine in the other.

Now, the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has killed not just 298 individuals — but more than 200 citizens of NATO nations, including Belgium, Canada, Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands. If the shootdown was a purposeful act — either by Ukrainian separatists or Russian forces — NATO could easily invoke its core founding principle: Article 5 of its charter, which provides for collective defense, meaning that an attack on any member is an attack on all.

In doing so, for example, the alliance could impose and enforce a no-fly zone over eastern Ukraine. Alliance aircraft could search out and destroy illegal surface-to-air missile sites not only in self-defense but in the name of preserving security in Europe — even if the shootdown was not purposeful. This may sound radical but it’s not; there is plenty of precedent. NATO invoked Article 5 after 9/11 to join the American invasion of Afghanistan. And NATO has gone beyond collective defense to collective security in military operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and, most recently, Libya.

Yet this time the alliance is remaining curiously silent. It is the dog that doesn’t bark, leaving individual member nations to take their own individual actions.

There is probably a very sound reason: NATO action on the Russian periphery, however they might be justified, would provoke a Russian military response. The unwillingness of the alliance to even risk such a response strongly suggests it would have difficulty in really fulfilling Article 5 and defending, say, Poland and the Baltics. It is already clear that the alliance has not transformed some new member militaries into effective, integrated fighting forces.

People may wonder why the United States hasn’t taken a stronger line against Russia over Ukraine. This is why. The Putin government has determined that what happens in Ukraine, a day’s drive from Moscow, is of vital, strategic importance. The United States and its allies have determined that it is not. President Barack Obama himself quashed the idea of an American military response immediately after the shootdown. It was a prudent decision, not unlike Ronald Reagan’s after the shoot-down of KAL 007.

But in this case there is collateral damage to the world’s most successful alliance. It has never been bigger nor have its missions ever been more ambitious. And yet it is paralyzed, incapable of playing any role in a crisis right on its European doorstep. Whether the wounding of NATO’s credibility is merely grave or mortal has yet to be seen. But it will not go unnoticed in Moscow, and elsewhere.

Journalist Richard Parker’s writing has appeared in the opinion sections of The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review, The New Republic and elsewhere.

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