WARSAW, POLAND – President Joe Biden’s high-stakes summit with other NATO leaders on Thursday will be one of the most scrutinized meetings on the world stage in decades and could have huge implications for both the war in Ukraine and the global balance of power.
Despite pleas from Ukraine to do more to help avert Russia’s ruthless invasion, Biden has been cautious, fearful of escalating the conflict by drawing in US forces as part of a more direct response from NATO. But after nearly a month of fighting, some ABC News foreign policy and national security experts said it might be time for the alliance to take a more direct role.
Prepare for the “worst-case scenario”
Before the fighting broke out, Biden insisted that US troops would not fight Russian forces inside Ukraine, warning that clashing would lead to “a Third World War”.
But Barry Pavel, a former senior National Security Council official in the Bush and Obama administrations and senior vice president and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, says it’s far from inevitable.
“There were other instances where US and Russian forces unfortunately came into conflict and World War III didn’t start,” Pavel said, calling the strategy simplistic. “There are hundreds of options that could be made between what NATO is doing now and risking World War III.”
The biggest threat, warns Pavel, could be leaving Putin unchecked.
“If he is emboldened by success in Ukraine, then he will be more aggressive in his efforts to nibble and move into areas of perceived weakness among NATO members,” he said. “If he achieves his goal, you will have Russian forces on the borders of seven NATO members, including nuclear forces in Belarus, and so he will use this new posture to really increase European insecurity to a large extent. “
And it’s not Biden’s — or NATO’s — only choice. Moscow could also escalate the conflict by hitting a NATO member, intentionally or accidentally, triggering a drastic response.
“Article 5 – in its most basic sense – is NATO’s ‘three musketeers’ provision, i.e. ‘all for one and one for all’ – an attack on any member is an attack on all NATO members,” said Sean Monaghan, a former British Ministry of Defense official and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, calling it “the most important red line of international politics”.
“This is an eventuality that NATO forces are already preparing for,” Monaghan said. “That’s what the military does – prepare for the worst case scenario.”
While the response to a Russian strike wouldn’t necessarily need to be an eye for an eye, Monaghan says, in theory the alliance would be forced to provide “an overwhelming response” if a member state was hit.
“Practice, some would say, with NATO being a collective of 30 nations, who have to come to a consensus for any action to be taken, that could get in the way of a response. But I think in this conflict, NATO has shown itself much more resolute and quicker in action than many people would have predicted,” he added.
The next step for NATO
While the Biden administration has underscored the power of overwhelming NATO unity in the face of Russian aggression, when it comes to charting a course to counter the Kremlin, fissures within the alliance begin to appear. If the summit will be an opportunity for the powers to get on the same wavelength, it will also be able to highlight the points of disagreement.
For example, Poland plans to propose a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine – a move the US has effectively ruled out. Article 5 makes it clear that an attack on a member deserves a response, but will the alliance retaliate if Russia uses chemical weapons in Ukraine? And while NATO may not be willing to establish a no-fly zone over the country, Pavel says that doesn’t mean there isn’t a debate to be had about what can more should be done to help the country defend its own airspace.
“As for the weapons pipeline, we should be doing a lot more. We can’t let the Ukrainians fly planes for their own defence? Forget those ridiculous restrictions on what equipment we can supply to a sovereign country that demand to defend against an invading force,” he said, referring to the reluctance of the United States and other allies to hand over fighter jets to Ukraine for fear of Russian retaliation.
Pavel added that additional anti-aircraft and anti-ship weapons, as well as increased intelligence support and humanitarian aid on the ground, could go a long way towards resistance efforts.
Thomas Graham, former NSC senior director for Russia and distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that beyond talks on support for Ukraine, NATO leaders should use the upcoming summit to fine-tune reporting them to the Kremlin.
“NATO leaders want to make sure they did everything they could to deter the Russians,” he said. “Have we increased the forces in Eastern Europe to the appropriate levels? And have we convinced the Russians that in fact we are determined to honor the Article Five guarantee and protect every square inch of NATO territory?
Monahan predicts this week’s rally will result in a reversal of a mindset not seen since the days of the Soviet Union.
“We can foresee this as the start of a sea change, almost a return to NATO’s Cold War posture of, if not territorial defence, at least a much increased forward presence to deter a Russian regime. who is clearly willing to resort to war,” he added. noted.
Future battle lines
Beyond resolving the immediate crisis, experts say NATO must ensure it is ready to respond to a more aggressive Russia and prepare for the new geopolitical frontier it is creating. to forge.
“The war in Ukraine will end at some point, but Russia will remain,” Graham said. “And what the conflict has demonstrated is that our hopes of integrating Russia into the Euro-Atlantic community are dead.”
Pavel says that it will be essential to develop a strategy not only to end the conflict, but also to exactly manage the end of the conflict.
“When wars ended in the past, the new borders were drawn where the strength stood, in the middle of Germany, in the middle of Berlin,” Pavel said. “When the dust settles, where do we want Russian forces to be and where do we want Ukrainian and potentially NATO forces to be?”
Another repercussion could be an onslaught of arms races. Russia’s alleged deployment of hypersonic missiles — a technology the United States has yet to master — is one area of competition, but Pavel says it’s not the only one.
“Putin spent 10, 15 years upgrading Russian nuclear forces – a lot of new types of exotic, quite large Russian nuclear weapons,” he said. “Certainly the United States and some members of NATO have nuclear capabilities, but they are aging. They have not been modernized at the rate we should be.”
“All of this means that we will have a lot more to do, unfortunately, on the safety program in the future,” added Pavel.