Russia’s more aggressive military posture in Europe during the past year has pushed NATO to take new steps to strengthen its defenses, providing it, analysts say, with a much-needed new mission.
The change in NATO-Russia relations grew out of protests in Ukraine that led to the ouster of the country’s pro-Russian president. Russia sent operatives and troops into Ukraine’s Crimea region and forcibly annexed it. Then Russia backed separatists in two eastern Ukraine regions, causing a months-long war that is still going on.
Meanwhile, Russian warplanes and ships conducted a series of close encounters with NATO members and other Western countries, with Moscow taking stealthy and aggressive actions not seen since the Cold War.
Nick Witney, a former British and European Union defense official, now with the European Council on Foreign Relations, says Russia’s posturing has breathed new life into an old alliance.
“I think NATO leaders should raise a glass to Vladimir Putin as the year draws to an end,” he said, adding the alliance needed a challenge. “A healthy NATO needs a Russian threat, and Mr. Putin has been foolish enough to supply one, in spades.”
Witney says the Russian president’s actions have “galvanized” NATO, inspiring a series of steps. They include more exercises like this one in western Ukraine, the stationing of more troops in Poland and the Baltic states, a reaffirmation that it will defend all its members and the creation of a new rapid reaction force.
At London’s Royal United Services Institute, Malcolm Chalmers says President Putin wanted to roll back gains made by NATO since 1990, but his actions have had the opposite effect.
“Russia is looking for weakness. They’re looking for gaps in NATO’s armor," he said. "They’re looking for divisions in NATO. And, certainly, NATO member states believe that through solidarity with each other they’re more likely to deter any Russian moves.”
Significantly, Chalmers says Putin has alienated his former best friend in Western Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“Chancellor Merkel, throughout this crisis, has gone further than any other Western leader to try and find a diplomatic way through," he said. "Merkel was looking for some sort of compromise. And Putin certainly hasn’t, so far at least, been prepared to settle.”
Meanwhile, NATO members and other countries have imposed economic sanctions on Russia, which, combined with a drop in the price of its major export, oil, have caused a 50 percent fall in the value of the ruble.
Experts, Witney among them, say the Russian economy will slide into a deep recession next year.
“These are big strategic reverses for Putin. So, if he is meant to be a ‘chess grandmaster,’ the game has gone horribly wrong for him at the moment,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Putin will back down; indeed some experts say the problems could make him more hostile. But late in the year, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia’s position on eastern Ukraine was beginning to change. Kerry said Russia had “made constructive moves” that could open the path to resolving the conflict and easing tensions.