The recent NATO summit in Warsaw, earlier this month, was full of contradictions and tensions between members of the alliance. The fragility of NATO’s power and the instability of world relations were on display for all to see.
[Note: this article was written before Donald Trump’s recent statement on NATO and the crisis erupting between NATO and Turkey. These events however, merely serve to underline the general process described in the article.]
The headline decision taken at the summit was the stationing of a four battalion multinational force rotating between Poland and the Baltic states. This was agreed two years ago at the NATO summit in Wales but it has taken two years for NATO members to cobble together 4,000 troops, whose main task it is to deter a Russian aggression in the region.
But idea that such a small force could deter the powerful Russian army is laughable and NATO has already admitted that it is not a serious fighting force. Before the new deployments, the Pentagon and the RAND corporation - an important think tank - who ran a series of war games, found that the Russian army could overrun the Baltic states within 60 hours. The RAND corporation suggests a deployment of a minimum of seven Brigades (i.e. between 30-40,0000 troops!) along with significant air and logistical support to stave off such an invasion. Even then, they write, this force will “not [be] sufficient to mount a sustained defense of the region”.
Instead of such a force, however, the summit concluded that the deployment of four battalions of up to 1,000 troops each, is a “sign” of NATO’s support for its eastern European members and a “tripwire” which, they say, will trigger large-scale NATO intervention against Russia in the event of “aggression”. Since NATO itself admits that these troops in and of themselves cannot mount much resistance to any Russian offensive, they are essentially deployed as cannon fodder whose deaths can legally force their home countries to mobilise a larger force.
Of course, the military strength of NATO and US imperialism, is unmatched on a world scale. They have, however, been weakened by the effects of the crisis of world capitalism. Thus in many instances they stand unable to act and their real ability to defend their spheres of influence has been weakened.
The military crisis of NATO that was on display at the summit is a product of the domestic weakness of the alliance’s member states. But this is also linked to tensions and divisions between NATO members themselves.
The Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a cruel wake-up call for NATO. In particular Eastern European nations like Poland and the Baltic states who feel intimidated by Russia. They are keen for a show of force against Putin. The US ruling class is not opposed to this in principle. The deployment of 4,000 troops in itself is an aggressive move. But NATO is wary of going too far. The political and economic implications of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still haunt the political establishment and the US is anxious not to provoke the Russians into any further conflict in eastern Europe. The “symbolic” 4,000 troop are therefore an attempt by the USA to appease its eastern European allies but without provoking Russia too much.
Since the Ukrainian crisis Russia has adopted a firmer stance towards NATO. This is a response to NATO’s constant encroachment on and provocation towards eastern Europe, which used to be a Russian sphere of influence and which geo-politically is the country’s “soft underbelly”. Russia has deployed sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-ship defenses, bombers and missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad which is located between Poland and Lithuania. These A2AD systems are intended to “deny” enemy forces “access” to these regions. Essentially this amounts to neutralising many NATO military options. Furthermore, the Iskander missiles deployed in Kaliningrad have the capacity to be converted into tactical nuclear weapons.
This is very worrying for the eastern European ruling classes. One analyst from the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained the concerns of eastern European countries: “They’re saying ‘we can’t count on either Washington or Berlin’ and that’s making them doubly nervous.” An eastern European diplomat anonymously said, "We're vulnerable to bullshit thrown in the fan, I'm more nervous about Russia than Islamist information warfare."
The deployment of 4,000 NATO troops will not do much to appease these countries. Seeing the (lack of) response of NATO and US imperialism to the annexation of Crimea and the lacklustre result of the summit, which was supposed to prevent another similar incident, the eastern European leaders are worried about the future. They could not help but see the pathetic status of Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko, who was pacing around the summit reminding those present of the urgency of taking steps against Russia in Crimea. Besides uneasy smiles and a “pat on the back”, however, no action was taken to calm the Ukrainians. Poland and other eastern European countries have also been hysterically calling for a forceful NATO response to Russia, but nothing has come of it.
As Russia asserts itself in the region, the internal divisions and the vacillations of NATO itself is enough for Russia's influence in eastern Europe to grow as the ruling classes realise they need Russia's goodwill. The countries in the region will be increasingly inclined to adopt stances which are independent of the interests of US imperialism. This will lead to more instability in the future.
EU and NATO
The main aim of the summit, from the point of view of US imperialism, was to assure and defend its sphere of influence in eastern Europe, to further isolate Russia and, most importantly, to push the EU - and in particular Germany and France - to assume a bigger role in these measures. To this end an EU-NATO declaration was signed to further integrate the EU into the alliance. In spite of the pleasantries and formalities of the summit, however, there was a huge void between the the ruling classes of the US and the European states.
Western European governments are wavering in their opposition to Russia. The Prime Minister of Italy recently participated in the St Petersburg forum, a conference similar to Davos hosted by Putin which had been ignored by most other European leaders. In fact, immediately before the NATO summit, Hollande and Merkel participated in a conference call with Putin to discuss the business coming up at the summit.
Arriving at the summit, Hollande cemented his position saying, "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." He then went on to qualify his statement slightly, but the position was clear: France wants to improve ties with Russia.
In the run up to the summit a major military exercise, operation Anakonda, was organised in Poland with the participation of 30,000 troops from 24 different countries. This was the biggest ever western military exercise in eastern Europe and was aimed at showing Russia the strength and unity of NATO. In spite of big pressure from Poland and the US, however, it never materialised into an official NATO exercise due to resistance from the EU and Germany in particular.
Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, attacked the exercise as “loud saber-rattling and war cries.” saying that NATO should “not deliver up any excuses for a new, old confrontation.”
An article in the New York Times, "Does NATO Still Exist?", explained the meaning of this:
"Sure, it was only a drill. But when Poland called on its NATO allies last month to help fight off hypothetical invaders who poured into the country from the east, Germany was, well, annoyed. The exercise, called Anakonda — with 25,000 troops from more than 20 countries, the biggest since the end of the Cold War — was intended as a message to Moscow, a show of force ahead of the alliance’s summit this week in Warsaw. Berlin sent a message of its own to Poland, contributing a total of 400 soldiers, none of them combat troops."
What was was supposed to be a posture towards Russia and to reassure Poland and the Baltic countries, instead only exposed the weaknesses of NATO and the divisions within the EU.
As much as the US and Poland wish for France and Germany to stand up to Russia, there is little will in Germany where big business are eager to have the sanctions on Russia removed. “Russia is not particularly interested in dialogue at the moment but we should shower it with offers,” Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference and former German ambassador to Washington, wrote in an op-ed for Spiegel Online.
Many major German companies have invested heavily in Russia and wish to clear the path for exploiting those investments. Western Europe is also highly reliable on Russian natural gas. Far from reducing this dependence, however, Berlin is pursuing plans to build a second gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea linking Russia and Germany. The pipeline would circumvent Central European countries which make billions in transit fees from Russian gas headed for western Europe. This would also leave western Europe unharmed in case Russia were to close off the gas in a conflict similar to the ones it has had with the Ukraine.
Furthermore, the German public are strongly opposed to a standoff with Russia. Some 81 percent of Germans favour closer ties with Russia, second only to France, according to an April poll by the Körber Foundation. Steinmeier himself, who is a Social-Democrat and softer on Russia than Merkel, is the most popular German politician - his stance on Russia being one of the factors in his popularity.
The effects of Brexit
Traditionally Britain has been the main mouthpiece of the US within the EU and a counterweight to France and Germany who were more independent from US interests. Britain was, for instance, instrumental in pushing for and upholding sanctions against Russia.
Although Britain will remain a member of NATO, its exit from the EU will have the effect of pushing the scales in the opposite direction within the European Union. Germany, France and Italy are interested in re-engaging with Russia after the hard-line stance they adopted after annexation of Crimea. With Britain weakened they now face less resistance. This will likely lead a softening of relations between the EU and Russia in the coming period.
Due to a relative decline in its powers, US imperialism is pushing Europe to play a bigger role, but having witnessed and experienced the disastrous Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Europeans, who have plenty of problems of their own, have no intention of engaging in new economically and politically costly adventures. Far from the pipedream of a powerful European military power, the EU is engulfed in a deep crisis which it has no intention of exacerbating further by embarking on new conflicts.
The populist and nationalist trends which are gaining ground in countries like Germany, France, the Benelux and the Scandinavian countries, not only put a question mark on the future of the EU but will also lead to a more isolationist foreign policy. With less appetite for confrontation on the part of western European ruling classes and with their eastern European counterparts feeling exposed, EU-Russia relations could become another source of conflict and crisis within the EU itself. Something, needless to say, Putin is very capable of using for his own benefit.
The biggest factor in the decline of NATO is the crisis of US imperialism. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed the limits of US imperialism. At the summit, Angela Merkel explained after the meeting that negotiations with the Taliban must now be part of any solution to the problems in the region. This is a far cry from the position of the US just a decade ago, which was bullish about wiping the Taliban out entirely. Seeing its inability to defeat these primitive fighters, it is forced to make a compromise with a section of them. In Iraq the situation is not much better as the US has been forced to rest on Iranian troops and proxies to fight the Islamic state.
US imperialism has since entered a social, economic and political crisis which limits its ability to intervene militarily on a world scale. Putin exploited this weakness when Russia annexed Crimea at a time when the US could do nothing but scream and shout.
The probabilities of a change in these circumstances are slim. The class and political polarisation in the US is leading to the rise of leaders such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both of whom have isolationist foreign policies. Donald Trump, who could win the US presidency, has called NATO “obsolete” and has called the European countries “freeloaders”, and has threatened to withdraw US troops if the EU doesn’t pay more towards the alliance. Isolationism as a political trend is spreading within the US establishment and even Barack Obama has made statements similar to those of Trump. If it comes to it, the Europeans have no choice but to call Trump’s bluff, as the state coffers are empty in Europe.
Even in Europe the US is finding a hard time gaining an echo. The US is willing to deploy a few thousand troops, but they want the EU to provide the bulk of the necessary troops against Russia. France and Germany, however, are not that interested. In fact they are annoyed by the stand-off with Russia, which they see as a political and economic nuisance.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, US imperialism emerged as the sole superpower in the world. Although on many occasions it promised Russian leaders that it would not encroach on its traditional spheres of influence, it was too easy a prey to let go. NATO expanded far into the old Russian dominated areas, basically surrounding Russia with NATO bases. In fact, the summit’s working dinner was arrogantly organised at Warsaw’s presidential palace, where the Warsaw Pact was originally signed in 1955.
NATO also laid plans for a missile shield aimed at Russia and went on to intervene in Yugoslavia, breaking up the country and setting up permanent NATO bases.
For Russia, these were aggressive provocations which left it exposed militarily. Being too weak in the aftermath of Soviet collapse, however, it could not do much but look on as NATO aggressively encroached on it borders.
The turning point came in Georgia in 2008 where Russian troops crushed a CIA backed attempt to draw the country into NATO. Four years later, Russia reacted to another CIA backed provocation in Ukraine by annexing the Crimean peninsula. In both cases, western imperialism was left humiliated and unable to act.
In Syria as well, the US and its Turkish and Saudi allies were aggressively moving against a Russian ally which hosted an important Russian naval base. The intervention of Russia in Syria completely changed the balance of forces in the civil war, leaving the fate of the warring parties in Putin’s hands. The intervention revealed the limits of US imperialism.
Turkey objected to the Russian intervention, but the west and the US in particular had no interest in Turkey’s agenda. Turkey attempted to call on NATO to step in and save their imperialist intervention - which they originally had embarked on along with the US and Saudi Arabia. That was the reason behind its shooting down of the Russian jet in October last year. In fact, since the start of the Syrian civil war Turkey has invoked article 4 of the NATO Treaty twice, and threatened to invoke it again in July 2015 after the Suruc massacre. Erdogan has been trying to pull the full force of NATO into a war, but the original plans of western ruling classes did not even make it past their parliaments. There was no appetite within the alliance to go to war after Russia had stepped in.
For all those who thought Putin’s entrance into the Syrian civil war would lead to the end of the US, Saudi and Turkish supported groups in the last few months this has been a wake-up call.
With minimal resources Russia used its weight to become the life jacket, not only for the Assad regime, but also for US imperialism which was facing serious problems. The Russian de-escalation in March this year was designed to keep the balance of forces on a knife's edge giving him the leverage against all parties.
In the end, seeing little support from NATO and EU countries, and feeling the effects of Russian imposed sanctions, Russian threats to cut the much needed natural gas deals and increased pressure on Turkish supported proxies in Syria, Erdogan had to back down. This is the reason for his sudden turn, with his government calling for a normalisation of ties with the Assad regime and Russia, to whom he has “apologised” for the downing of a Russian military jet last October. In return, of course, it seems that the Russian and Assad regimes are signalling readiness to unite with Turkey to crush the Kurdish enclave of Rojava at a later stage.
Far from the initial hue and cry over Russia’s intervention, the US, seeing its designs completely collapse in Syria, has agreed to a close cooperation with Russia to end the war. The level of humiliation for Erdogan and Obama in Syria is entirely in the hands of Vladimir Putin. No doubt they were reminded of this as they read news of the besieging of the city of Aleppo during the NATO summit.
By creating a de facto frozen conflict involving all Middle Eastern powers, Putin has turned himself into a major force in the whole region. For the past year a stream of Middle Eastern foreign ministers have been flying in and out of Moscow vying for Putin’s favour. Putin’s relationship with Netanyahu appears even warmer than Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama.
Seeing the crisis of US imperialism, Russia is stepping in where a vacuum opens up and where the country has some prior infrastructure. In Libya for instance, Putin has started engaging with General Hifter who leads the strongest single faction in the country and whom the western supported (Islamist) factions desperately need to form a unity government. Although Russia does not have any major interests in Libya, Putin knows that the west and in particular the EU is eager to settle the conflict there. This gives Putin leverage on other matters.
In Europe, there is a fear of Russian meddling. Seeing the fracturing of the European Union, Putin could gain influence in eastern European countries and use that leverage within the EU as a whole. The mere threat of this scenario is enough to have an influence on German and French decision making today. While economically weak, Russia has used its military power, partially a remnant from Soviet times, to become a global power which western nations must take into consideration when making big decisions.
NATO and crisis of Capitalism
NATO was formed in 1949. The impact of the cold war and the post-war economic boom created the conditions for a converging of interests. Tension between the west and the Soviet block was extremely high, while the boom softened the internal competition between NATO members. That was the basis for the unity between the member nations, which is the foundation of NATO and which is formalised in NATO’s article 5 “musketeer oath”.
Today, however, the crisis of capitalism and its effects on a world scale has drastically changed the context. The US has a historically high sovereign debt, a social crisis and rising class polarisation all of which has led to a deep political crisis. This limits its ability to intervene on a world scale as it used to in the past. But Europe is no better off. The European Union is cracking and the British Brexit vote has set in motion a chain of crises which had been prepared over the last period.
The Italian banking crisis is only one of these, but it is huge and it is in turn affecting the German financial system which is at the heart of European capitalism. All of these are in turn feeding back into the global crisis. This summit demonstrated that the power of NATO is suffering from the same crisis which is affecting all levels of society.
In spite of attempts to act as if nothing has happened, The Guardian reports of a different mood behind the scenes:
“However, a Nato official said the issue was driving anxious conversations behind the scenes ahead of the summit.
“‘How can it not affect western cohesion? How can trillions being wiped out in market value not affect perceptions of western strength?’”
Another commentator, Krzysztof Blusz, said:
“Regardless [of] how and when Brexit happens, it will create a situation where Nato member states are more inward looking, more preoccupied with their nationalist tendencies. The impulse is already there, but this will add to the distraction and the Kremlin will not miss the chance to use the situation for its advantage.”
As well as pitting national capitalist classes against each other, the economic crisis has also paved the way for a rise in class struggle and through that political turmoil in the west. The political stability which was based on the post-war economic boom is at an end. In one European country after another, the established parties of the ruling class are losing legitimacy and new left- and right-wing parties are gaining influence. The attitude towards foreign interventions is extremely critical and parties are increasingly reluctant to risk their political future on imperialist adventures with little chance of success.
Of course NATO is still an important tool of the western ruling classes used to subjugate and exploit nations throughout the world. But it is clear that the conditions which brought NATO into being no longer exist. In fact as a recent article in the New York Times put it, “it is hard to imagine that Europe and the United States would, if they had the chance in 2016, write another Article 5 at all.”
The result is a NATO entering into a period of crisis erupting from the contradiction between the present underlying objective situation and the treaty of a past period. The most intelligent bourgeois see this and are worried about the repercussions of major incident on the cohesiveness of NATO:
"It’s easy to imagine how the scenario would play out: Poland and the Baltic countries would call for a strong response to pre-empt another annexation like that of Crimea. The Germans and French would call for negotiations with Moscow, doubting that Article 5 would be invoked. The Greeks, Italians and Spanish would make clear that their economies had already suffered enough from the sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea. And much of the public across Europe, manipulated by Russian propaganda, would ask if the Russians weren’t somehow right in trying to support their fellows in the Baltic States. Wasn’t it actually the imperial United States who set all this up, some would argue, just like Washington’s agents were behind the coup in Kiev?" - Does NATO Still Exist?
In this context Russia could play a larger role on a global scale by exploiting the crisis of western imperialism. Western European ruling classes are wary of provoking Russia to meddle in EU affairs and the eastern European ones fear Russia intervening in their countries politically and militarily. This fear in itself will be enough to strengthen Russia’s influence in the region.
The crisis and decline of western imperialism - the most reactionary force on the planet - is a part of the general crisis of capitalism. In the next period this will increase instability and tension between the nations, but it will also be an impulse for more intense class struggle. The only alternative to the barbarism spread in the wake of imperialism is an international revolutionary working class movement. As the contradictions come to the fore and the narrow minded corrupt nature of the ruling classes are exposed, the basis for building such a movement will also grow.