Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

How Kremlin Dictators Keep NATO Alive

Putin isn’t the first Russian leader to resuscitate a dying trans-Atlantic alliance.
March 24, 2022
How Kremlin Dictators Keep NATO Alive
NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. (Thierry Monasse / Getty)

Nothing unites like a common enemy—and that goes doubly for NATO. In an astonishing reversal of recent trends, the alliance’s internal troublemakers such as Turkey and Hungary, its German pacifists, and its French mavericks are all united in common defense and in supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.

Long before Vladimir Putin decided to try to swallow Ukraine, leaders and commentators had begun questioning NATO’s purpose and future. Late in his second term, President Barack Obama called America’s NATO allies “free riders.” Brexit became a wedge between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. President Donald Trump had called the alliance “obsolete,” and, by the time he left office, disagreements over military spending were reaching a boiling point. Then, in 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron called NATO “braindead” and proposed a new European security architecture led by France and paid for by Germany. More recently, Turkey and Hungary have cozied up to Russia militarily and diplomatically, and Germany was well on its way to redoubling its dependence on Russian energy as it completed the now-defunct Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Some experts suggested that NATO should be repurposed to focus on Asia.

But, at least for now, Putin’s barbaric aggression against Ukraine has ameliorated or resolved these differences. It should come as no surprise. Both NATO’s identity crisis and Moscow’s intervention accidentally saving NATO from itself have historical precedents.

NATO’s first crisis began almost as soon as the North Atlantic Treaty was signed. The alliance, formed in 1949, was as much a product of the Europeans’ distrust of each other as of Cold War tensions, hence the unprecedented decision to entrust the United States with maintaining security in Western Europe. NATO’s first secretary general, the British soldier-statesman Lord Hastings “Pug” Ismay, remarked that the alliance’s purpose was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” But less than a decade after the war, some European governments had come to believe that another European war was unlikely. According to historian Timothy Sayle, the primary danger for NATO at the time was not the Soviet Union, but “the great challenge to NATO’s survival in the mid-1950s was the absence of an imminent Soviet threat to Western Europe.”

Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 had eased Western fears, and some hoped that the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, would be easier to reason with. At the 20th Communist Party Congress in February 1956, Khrushchev even denounced his predecessor, reassuring nervous NATO members that war was unlikely, and thereby diminishing NATO’s urgency.

Around the same time, internal European disagreements were bubbling back to the surface. Starting in 1954, France complained that NATO was unsupportive of its war in Algeria, while the United States, a nation born in anti-imperialism, at least partially sympathized with the Algerian independence movement. All the while, the United States was pressuring its allies, still recovering economically and demographically from World War II, to spend more on their own defense.

Amid the dissent, disagreement, and distrust, war broke out in the Middle East. Three months after Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956, creating an economic crisis in Europe, the United Kingdom and France joined forces with Israel to reopen the key sea route. While the Anglo-Franco-Israeli military operation at Suez was swift and successful, the crisis was a failure of alliance management on all sides. The United States failed to anticipate the attack and to communicate its objections. The Europeans took American support for granted, not appreciating the United States’s instinctive anti-imperialism or its imperative to manage relations with the Soviet Union and its client states carefully. The Soviets had significant influence in Egypt, and the United States could not afford to push a key Middle Eastern state further into Moscow’s sphere of influence, nor drive other Middle Eastern powers toward Moscow for protection against Anglo-French imperialism.

The Eisenhower administration responded to the crisis with enormous financial pressure on its allies, mostly the United Kingdom. Paradoxically, both the United States and the Soviet Union—NATO’s leading power and primary enemy—were united against two NATO members, throwing the entire political basis of the alliance on its head. By November, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was considering the postponement of the NATO ministerial conference scheduled for the next month. His German counterpart declared NATO “dead for the moment.”

Yet, just as NATO was declared dead, it sputtered back to life thanks to unintended resuscitation by the Soviet Union. Just as the Israelis moved on Suez, a revolution erupted in Hungary. Reformist Imre Nagy had overcome the Moscow-backed regime in Budapest in an attempt to build a new form of socialism that would be more democratic, less oppressive, and less beholden to the Soviet Union. To hold onto their satellite, Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary on November 4, killing and wounding thousands of demonstrators and innocent civilians. The Soviet intervention reminded NATO members of the alliance’s purpose. Only three days later, Ango-Franco-Israeli forces withdrew from Suez. Dulles traveled to the Paris meeting the next month. If not for the Soviets’ ill-timed display of intransigence and inhumanity, NATO might not have survived.

NATO’s second existential crisis began in the early 1960s and even more closely resembled recent events. Allied spending remained a grievance of the Americans’, especially regarding Germany, which was uniquely vulnerable to Soviet aggression and reliant on American security guarantees. The Germans, for their part, interpreted American demands to spend more on defense as a threat of abandonment and an insult.

As in the 1950s, NATO suffered in the mid-1960s because a war in Europe seemed unlikely. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 had convinced French President Charles de Gaulle that the stakes of war were higher than what either the United States or the Soviet Union were willing to pay. Instead, he proposed a new European security architecture with France at its center—not unlike Macron’s 2019 proposal. America’s involvement in Vietnam angered many Europeans, while some politicians in Washington, led by Senator Mike Mansfield, argued in favor of reducing American forces in Europe and transferring them to Asia. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. advised President John F. Kennedy that NATO was an obstacle to German reunification. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, NATO’s chief architect, suggested that NATO needed a new purpose.

As intra-NATO tensions mounted, De Gaulle ordered the French fleet to withdraw from NATO’s Mediterranean command in 1963. Four years later, he ordered the withdrawal of all French forces from NATO’s integrated command and the departure of all NATO troops from French soil. Meanwhile, he pursued détente with the Soviet Union and vetoed the British application to join the European Common Market twice.

By this point, NATO had less than two years to survive. The year 1969 would mark its 20th birthday, which, under the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty, was the first year when members could leave the alliance altogether. NATO even formed a commission to come up with a new purpose for the alliance—or, in other words, to convince its members to stay put. The alliance that had preserved peace in Europe and deterred Soviet aggression, the alliance which is now often considered the most successful in the history of the world, was hurtling toward dissolution due to complacency and distraction.

And once again, at the moment of crisis, a Soviet satellite started a revolution. In January 1968, a new Communist government in Czechoslovakia under Alexander Dubček championed “socialism with a human face” and undertook modest liberalizing reforms and entered talks with Moscow about withdrawing the remaining Soviet forces from the country. Though Dubček was forced out three months later, the reformist trends persisted. By August, Leonid Brezhnev, the hardliner who had replaced Khrushchev as the Soviet leader, lost patience and ordered 200,000 Soviet soldiers and 2,000 Soviet tanks into Czechoslovakia to suppress dissidents and prop up a more conservative government.

Everybody in NATO was caught by surprise. The alliance’s military headquarters had anticipated an intervention months earlier, but nothing as forceful as what Brezhnev ordered, and they were shocked that it came months after the reformist government had been replaced. While many fewer people were killed than in Hungary eight years earlier—hundreds, rather than thousands—the overwhelming display of military force reminded NATO of what it was up against and dashed hopes that the Soviet Union had somehow softened.

NATO’s twentieth birthday came and went without a single member state opting to leave. To date, no country has ever left the alliance, while its membership has enlarged to 30 states and more seek to join.

During Vladimir Putin’s 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference, in which he condemned the United States and what he considered its abuse of its superpower status, most of the Europeans in the audience nodded in agreement. The following summer, Russia invaded neighboring Georgia and seized one fifth of its territory. Six years later, when Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas, threat assessments of Russia were still so low that not a single American tank was present in Europe. Once again, NATO had taken peace for granted.

Last month, Moscow once again disillusioned the world, reminding it that war is an immutable part of nature. As in previous crises, NATO members have responded to the latest example of Russian expansionism and barbarism with unity and a renewed sense of purpose. Kremlin dictators have an odd habit of reinvigorating the alliance when it’s at its weakest.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.