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How NATO ‘woke up’: The response to Putin’s war

One month into the war in Ukraine, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO looks at the alliance’s response, fears of an escalation and the legacy of Madeleine Albright.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies blame NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe for provoking the conflict, but if the invasion of Ukraine was meant to push the alliance back, it’s accomplished just the opposite. NATO’s response to the war has been united, and more military might is now flowing to the countries on the alliance’s eastern edge to protect them from possible future Russian aggression.

At the same time, NATO leaders are struggling to balance an imperative to back Ukraine and punish Russia, against fears of sparking a direct Russia-NATO conflict, which could have apocalyptic consequences.

At the one-month mark of the war, Grid spoke with Ivo Daalder, who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO during Barack Obama’s administration, to discuss the state of the alliance and its collective response to Putin’s war. Daalder is now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ivo Daalder: I think you see an alliance that sort of woke up out of a slumber and decided that the mission for which it was created is back. It wasn’t completely asleep. Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 stopped the decline in defense spending, and for the first time [NATO] sent serious military capabilities forward into Eastern Europe. But this is qualitatively different. There’s now a real sense that the collective defense of NATO territory and promoting security and stability throughout Europe is, again, the core of the NATO mission.

As the strategic context of this war changes, so will this line, specifically, if Putin escalates in a significant way. Of course, if he directly attacks NATO territory — cyber, missile or whatever — the context changes. But also if he doesn’t do that, but starts using chemical weapons or bombs chemical industrial facilities that lead to large-scale casualties, or God forbid, if he uses a nuclear weapon, that line will change. And I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that at that point, the conclusion becomes that the best way to defend Ukraine is to become directly involved and make sure that Russia doesn’t win.

[Budapest purposefully] wasn’t a sort of “Article 5-light.” Now, I don’t see how Ukraine is going to be satisfied with anything less than that. And whether the United States and others are willing to provide that is an open question. My sense is that the issue of NATO has changed. Whenever this war is over, or whenever Ukraine has taken control over all or most of its territory, the willingness of NATO countries to bring Ukraine into NATO will have increased.

Most importantly, [Biden] has been leading in a very different way than I think we have generally seen American presidents lead, which is, “Here’s what we’re going to do. And now you do the same.” In fact, he has worked with the Europeans and often pushed them to move early, to move before the United States. It happened with SWIFT, it happened on the imposing of sanctions on Putin himself.

In a variety of ways, what we saw was the U.S. deliberately helping the Europeans to move and move quickly, and for us to then come in behind. So, they could say, “We’re doing this because it’s important,” as opposed to “We’re doing it because the United States asked us to.”

We need to be aware that economic globalization has now become weaponized. We have weaponized it against the Russians, but the Chinese weaponized it against Norway and South Korea and Australia, and Lithuania, and that’s likely to continue in the competition between us and the Chinese.

The second big change from the Cold War is that Russia and China are far more linked economically into the global economy than the Soviet Union ever was. And part our policy over the next five years will be to delink in some form or another, or to reduce the vulnerability that linkage creates.

The Europeans were generally skeptical about this. They started to move already last year, in part because of the pressure of the United States on issues like Huawei. But I think this shock has made the Europeans realize that their preferred strategy — economic entanglement leading to peace — no longer works. So, we have to adjust.

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