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Asia / Europe

Russian atrocities have pulled NATO closer than ever before

Of course, no one in the soulless, concrete monolith that is Nato HQ here in Brussels expresses happiness about the current situation in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But they are quick to tell you how surprised, amazed, or encouraged they are, and how “very” united the alliance is.
And, for example, transatlantic and EU-NATO cooperation on sanctions against Russia has been so smooth, however, this is not always the case.

“If you had asked me in February, or even six months ago, there’s no way I could have predicted the unity we have now,” a US official in Brussels told me.

So, what is the glue that holds Western allies together?

Consider how many headlines we’ve all read predicting a schism in Western support.

This summer, five months into the war, “Ukraine fatigue” was declared.

Then, as a result of Russia’s invasion, the cost-of-living crisis and exorbitant energy prices were predicted to erode Western leaders’ support for Kyiv.

With Russia having the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear warheads, it was assumed that some countries would prefer to stay away from Ukraine for fear of Moscow taking drastic action.

That, however, was not the case.

“Russian atrocities – targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure – have aided the strong resolve to stand with Ukraine that we see now,” a senior Nato official told me on condition of anonymity.

They, like many of the officials I spoke with, would prefer to be able to express themselves more freely.

“Images of war crimes are bombarding our screens on a daily basis. That makes it difficult to turn away.”

Russia has denied committing war crimes on numerous occasions.

Western officials say the Kremlin’s tactics have backfired spectacularly.

“[Moscow] has tried to blackmail or manipulate nations supporting Ukraine with a ‘we can make you suffer too’ message,” a large Nato country official told me.

“However, it has completely backfired. Russia has not worn-down Ukrainian resolve with the daily war crimes it imposes on the country.”

Vladimir Putin’s blaming of Nato’s eastward expansion for the current conflict has also become an own goal.

As a direct result of the Kremlin’s actions, Sweden and Russia’s neighbour Finland has chosen to join the alliance after decades of preferring non-alignment.

Many officials also linked Ukraine’s unexpected military advances against Russia to strong Western support. Or, to put it another way, by making it politically much more difficult for allies to reduce their support.

NATO countries are juggling two types of support for Ukraine: practical and political.

The practice focuses on how to structure industries so that Ukraine can continue to manufacture and provide military support.

Officials from NATO say that aid to Ukraine is now more deliberate and long-term than it was in the panicked first weeks following Russia’s invasion.

However, the alliance draws a deliberate distinction between military assistance provided to its own members and assistance provided to Ukraine, where aid is decided and provided by the national governments of Nato members, not by the alliance as a whole.

The Kremlin does not recognise this “gossamer-thin” distinction, as one Brussels-based diplomat put it to me. However, it is critical for Nato as it desperately attempts to avoid a direct, and thus escalating, conflict with nuclear power Russia.

So, while Nato has significantly increased defence capabilities for its “Eastern flank” of member countries geographically close to Russia, the alliance claims it has no organised mission inside Ukraine. As an organisation, it does not train Ukrainian soldiers or provide military assistance to Kyiv.

The political aspect of sustaining support for Ukraine is something that Nato member countries must deal with in their home parliaments and populations.

Analysts say the cost of assisting Ukraine is negligible in comparison to what the US or European countries like France or the UK spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, but recent opinion polls in Germany, France, and Italy bear this out.

They point to dwindling public support (just 28% in France, Germany, and Italy, according to a Morning Consult study) for ongoing sanctions against Russia, which have a direct impact on the cost of living.

Nonetheless, the leaders of those countries appear to be unwavering in their support for Ukraine for the time being. In fact, they are arguably more steadfast now than they were earlier in the conflict.

What a difference from the second Gulf War. Then, prompted by strong anti-war sentiment at home, Berlin and Paris did not hesitate to withdraw.

So what’s going on now?

Simply put, Russia’s attack on Ukraine is Europe’s 9/11, according to Camille Grand, former Nato assistant secretary general for defence investment and now at the European Council for Foreign Relations.

“[Russia’s invasion] has served as a massive wake-up call-in terms of defence and security,” he said. “A watershed moment, bringing conflict directly to our borders.”

Whatever happens in Ukraine, he believes the situation in Europe will remain complex – both geopolitically and in terms of security – for many years to come.

A US official in Brussels goes even further: “What Russia did cause a paradigm shift in global security calculations.”

He claimed that Nato was not the only organisation that recognised this. Other democracies, such as Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Australia, regard Vladimir Putin’s actions as a grave threat to the democratic world order. There is a widespread belief that if he is allowed to “get away with it” in Ukraine, no one is safe.

Of course, not everyone around the world feels this way.

When Western forces were accused of human rights violations and war crimes in Iraq, for example, the West and its allies were accused of hypocrisy and double standards in their rush to defend Ukraine or call Russia out for war crimes.

And the welcome extended to Syrian refugees arriving in Europe in 2015 was far less widespread and enthusiastic than that extended to those fleeing war in Ukraine this year.

However, back in February at Nato, the shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and concern about the wider implications if the Kremlin’s actions went unchecked – caused the US to shift its focus away from China and the Indo-Pacific.

Ukraine accuses Russia of committing war crimes throughout its full-scale invasion - including in Bucha, near Kyiv

Ukraine accuses Russia of committing war crimes throughout its full-scale invasion – including in Bucha, near Kyiv © Getty Images

It reluctantly refocused its attention on Europe’s military defence, even if it meant jeopardising President Joe Biden’s chances in the recent midterm elections (though it didn’t appear to hurt him in the end).

That US resolve, along with Russia’s actions in Ukraine, arguably changed the tune at the leadership level in France, Germany, and Italy, which were initially seen as too soft on Russia.

Berlin and Rome had strong commercial and energy ties with Moscow. And, according to his detractors, President Emmanuel Macron appeared to be seduced by what he perceived to be a personal understanding with Vladimir Putin.

Artillery provided by Nato member states has played a key role in the war

Artillery provided by Nato member states has played a key role in the war  © Getty Images

Fast forward to this autumn, and weapons-delivery shy is still a thing. Germany is now the fourth largest donor of military aid to Ukraine, though the United States dwarfs European contributions by orders of magnitude.

The EU has worked quickly, both as a member state and as a bloc, to wean itself off its reliance on Russia for energy, and Mr Macron isn’t minced words when it comes to Moscow these days.

This week, he described ongoing attacks on Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure as “war crimes that cannot go unpunished.” These attacks have knocked out power and water to 75% of Kyiv.

“At first, there were a few stragglers in the (NATO) waters,” a US official in Brussels told me. “But not any longer.”

What about those oft-criticized one-on-one phone calls between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and, in particular, President Macron and Vladimir Putin?

Ukrainians are without power and running water after Russian attacks on infrastructure - relying now on phones and candles for light

Ukrainians are without power and running water after Russian attacks on infrastructure – relying now on phones and candles for light © Getty Images


“[The United States] also maintains open lines of communication with Moscow. Not to discuss Ukraine’s future – that is up to the Ukrainians – but to discuss other issues, such as the nuclear issue.”

What about the long run, I wondered. It appears that Paris and Berlin believe that once the Ukraine crisis is over, it will be possible to resume “business as usual” with Russia.

The US official expressed his doubts. However, one could legitimately question whether it is ever possible to discuss the future of European security while completely excluding Russia.

Unlike earlier in the conflict, there is no sign of any Nato big players musing about a negotiated settlement between Russia and Ukraine as we head into what Europe fears will be a cold, hard winter.

The West recognises that it forced Ukraine into unfavourable peace talks with Russia in 2014, only for Moscow to return for more in 2022.

Volodymyr Zelensky's forces are now slowly retaking land captured by the Russians

Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces are now slowly retaking land captured by the Russians © Getty Images

Representatives of Nato countries assisting Ukraine’s military say they now see their role as assisting Kyiv to perform strongly militarily so that it can negotiate with Russia when the time comes.

President Volodymyr Zelensky says he isn’t even thinking about it right now.

Aside from talk of Nato unity of purpose, it would be naive to believe that no differences exist between Ukraine’s allies.

The United Kingdom is frequently described as having a more “hawkish” attitude toward Moscow, along with Nato members that are geographically closer to Russia or have a recent painful history with it, such as the Baltic States and Poland.

Germany is now regarded as a “silent partner” who pays up and shuts up. The US is portrayed as trying to maintain the balance, both internally within the alliance and externally, in order to avoid direct military contact with Moscow.

For the time being, these national differences are referred to as “nuances.”

According to defence expert Camille Grand, there are no easy outcomes in this conflict. Only one is preferable, and that is Russia’s defeat.

But how will Moscow react? Making that end scenario manageable will undoubtedly be a challenge for all countries involved.


Source: BBC News

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