NATO leaders convened in the Polish capital Warsaw on July 8-9 as a number of conventional and non-conventional security threats increasingly challenged the 28-nation bloc. Hence, this year's summit was held amid the shadowy developments of the recent Brexit referendum, massive refugee influx to Europe, the ongoing civil war in Syria, the Afghan riddle and DAESH's terror attacks that have targeted several member countries. But the issues surrounding the future of NATO-Russian relations such as more troop deployments in Eastern Europe, reinforcing the security of the Black Sea and the frozen conflicts in eastern Ukraine and the Caucasus were central topics at the summit.
Starting from scratch: NATO vs Russia impasse
All these issues rendered the summit one of the most important NATO gatherings since the end of the Cold War during which Warsaw was the center of the Soviet Union's collective security alliance. The summit again raised the question of NATO's new strategic concept as Russia became more resurgent on the bloc's eastern flank soon after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Since then, the spat between NATO and Russia has reached its peak in rhetoric, which also accelerated the armaments race of the parties in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea basin. From the 2014 Wales Summit until now, NATO has been worrying about the Russian military presence on its eastern borders whereas Russia has long labeled the Euro-Atlantic community's eastward expansion in the former Soviet sphere of influence a direct security threat to its national sovereignty and regional interests.
In fact, not all NATO members, first and foremost the France and Germany, perceive Russia equally as a real military threat due to factors that are influenced by the differences in east-west history, geography, religion and economy. This group of countries finds the Western sanctions sufficient to deter Moscow for the time being and believe in focusing more on terrorism and the refugee problem with which the EU has been struggling to cope over the past several years. Germany's diplomatic tone on NATO-Russian relations can be considered in this manner. Both Berlin and Moscow had robust commercial and energy ties despite the increasing tension.
German leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier, have been trying to calm the political-military tensions that they believe is a result of some "saber-rattling and warmongering" rhetoric used either in American media coverage or by policymakers and intellectual circles in Europe. French President François Hollande also emphasized that Merkel's approach, highlighted at the summit, as deterrence and dialogue that should go hand in hand and expressed his view:"NATO has no role at all to be saying what Europe's relations with Russia should be. For France, Russia is not an adversary, nor a threat."
On the other hand, NATO's newest former communist members bordering Russia represent the pessimistic camp since they have long been under the Russian military and political influences. Russia's seizure of Crimea and military intervention on behalf of the separatists in Ukraine's eastern oblasts constitute the basis of their apprehensions. From this perspective, Russia gradually becomes a real threat as being the old hegemon of the region where it had not hesitated to use its military force, particularly in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine after 2014. NATO has responded to Russia's recent assertiveness by enhancing its troop deployment from 3,000 to 4,000 in the Baltic republics and Poland and installing an anti-missile defense system in Romania. Poland is also due to host a similar missile shield which the Polish leadership welcomes as a supplementary measure to counterbalance the so-called Russian aggression in the region.
In return, Russia's reaction to NATO's military build-ups on the edge of its borders has been directly given by Russian President Vladimir Putin as he openly threatened some of the bloc's members and potential candidates during his recent visits to Greece and Finland. Putin has vowed retaliation against any U.S.-led NATO military initiative near its borders and signaled the deployment of long-range nuclear-capable missiles, known as Iskandar, in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Poland and the Baltics. Besides, Russia is more likely to install the same missile system in Crimea, a dangerous step that would not only jeopardize collective security in Eastern Europe, but would also put pressure on the regional security complex in and around the Black Sea.
It would be a litmus test for all NATO countries to stand firm as much as the Russian military existence limits the alliance's eastward expansion for which Ukraine and Georgia, for instance, are regarded as geopolitically key countries to open up towards ex-Soviet territories. Therefore, the issue of NATO's new strategic vision would be nourished from the old antagonistic patterns vis a vis Russia. Although NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has reiterated several times that they would not desire a new Cold War with Russia, the aforementioned developments have so far shown the reverse between Moscow and Brussels.
As far as NATO lists some countries for the prospective membership in the eastern realm where some aspirant former Soviet and former Yugoslavian countries have also manifested their enthusiasm, the alliance's turbulent relations with Russia will continue to define the Euro-Atlantic security agenda in the coming years. Without doubt, the so-called Russia threat, as it is narratively securitized, seems to have emerged for Europe's eastern members or cooperative dialogue partners in the former Soviet geography. However, for the time being, invoking the Article 5 of the alliance's Washington Agreement would either be a military risk and/or a zero-sum game for both parties, which are not eager to wage a third world war.
Hybrid warfare in Europe: More real, more urgent
One might also say that there are more emergent and concrete problems that Europe has to face for the sake of its own prospective unity and survival. The current political and security environment created by the hybrid warfare in the wake of military and humanitarian crises in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan have undoubtedly generated more significant results for NATO's European allies. The refugee problem, DAESH terror threat and cyber security challenges can be regarded in this category and they have already undermined Europe's collective security, which has long been left in NATO's responsibility since the post-war period.
Especially the massive refugee influx from those war-torn countries into Western Europe either through the Mediterranean Sea or from over the territorial borders in the Balkans has become the most urgent problem for EU member countries. The issue has started to challenge not only conventional security but also all security sectors given the fact that over 1 million people – refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons – have succeeded in their journey by arriving in Europe since 2015. NATO has sent a maritime patrol force to the Aegean Sea in order to help Turkey, Greece and the EU's border agency, Frontex, to stop human trafficking. Despite the numbers of people coming to Europe sharply decreasing this year following an EU-Turkey deal, which formally came into effect in March, the refugee issue has remained the number-one problem in Europe, which is divided over how to handle the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.
As a result, social and political discontent and distrust in European polities has been steadily rising among peoples and governments across the EU. The rise of the radical right, Islamophobia and xenophobia in general might be considered in this vein, which has shaken the foundations of European values like multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, pluralism and democratic governance. In addition, an increasing number of DAESH terror attacks that targeted France, Belgium and Turkey over the past year further complicated the issue of security that NATO needs to overcome for the sake of its credibility in Europe.
Meanwhile, a 52 percent vote in favor of leaving the EU by the British people has already opened a new debate on the future of the EU and the union's relations with the Transatlantic community members in NATO, namely the U.S. and Canada. Thus, the outcomes of Brexit would strategically mean for both the U.K. and EU the weakening of efforts to tackle security challenges as well as depriving them of strong parties in world affairs. In the context of NATO, Britain's attitudes towards the security of continental Europe have long been perceived as pro-American by the European allies. The British exit from the EU will deepen those divergences that might only serve to make NATO dysfunctional and eventually lead to its dissolution, a scenario that has long been anticipated by Russia.
What if NATO cooperates with Russia?
NATO has been seeking a new strategic vision since the end of the Cold War, which also marked the end of its contender, the Warsaw Pact, namely the military umbrella alliance of the Soviet Union and its ideologically constituent states in Eastern Europe. Within the euphoria of prevailing over the so-called red threat during the "end of history," NATO was the only triumphant party to maintain order and peace in the world. In the present situation, both belligerents have found themselves in a new political-military atmosphere, for many, which started to resemble the same-old patterns of animosity at least in rhetoric, particularly over the past two years. But, it is clear that this new climate has not been to the benefit of all parties as a number of security threats have been seriously challenging to both the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasia.
Clearly, neither an expansionist NATO eastward nor a pugnacious Russia moving westward would be able to serve for peace, stability and safety in the world. Rather, there are a number of issues on which NATO might cooperate with Russia and vice versa, including terminating the bloodshed in Syria, bringing stability in Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine, and eradicating the DAESH terror threat instead of using it as a legitimizing source to interfere in the Middle East conflicts on behalf of their own interests. Otherwise, leaders and policy-makers will continue to debate the results rather than the causes of instability, insecurity and threats posed by current and prospective problems in the upcoming NATO summits. Therefore, this analysis in its final remarks suggests all parties are avoiding the militant language of realism and are opening some spaces for moralism especially at a time when hundreds of thousands of people are either killed or dislocated, and thereby in return, negatively affected the whole structure of collective security elsewhere in the West.