NATO’s New Activity Makes Russia Anxious and Angry

Every Russian stereotype about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been disproven by the alliance’s surge of activity in its 75th year.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib shake hands after cutting a commemorative cake during the alliance’s 75th anniversary celebrations at NATO Headquarters on April 04, 2024. Photo: Omar Havana/Getty Images

Moscow portrays NATO as an aggressive and indecisive institution, rigidly controlled by the United States, and disunited.

The meeting of NATO foreign ministers, which took place in Brussels from April 3 to 4, alarmed many Russian experts as the member states demonstrated resolve in strengthening their solidarity (Kommersant, April 4). NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg proposed creating a fund of 100 billion euros (about $108 billion) to support Ukraine over the next five years — a move that took Moscow by surprise and led Russian state media to quickly amplify any sign of doubt among the NATO members (Izvestiya, April 5). While it is uncertain whether the initiative has unanimous support, the broad commitment to expand Western military aid to Ukraine was beyond doubt.

Most recent proposals for strengthening multilateral bonds come from smaller European players, such as Prague and Copenhagen (, April 2). Stoltenberg’s proposal to transfer control of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group to NATO is being interpreted in Moscow as further evidence of weakening US leadership. (The group was formed by US Secretary of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in April 2022 to coordinate the West’s aid to Ukraine.) (The Moscow Times, April 3). Mainstream pundits speculate that the Europeans are desperately trying to prepare for the possible changing of the guard after the US presidential elections in November, which the Kremlin eagerly anticipates (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 3). Only a few outliers argue that the reelection of Donald Trump will not help the Russian cause, particularly if Congress approves the long-overdue aid package to Ukraine by the end of this month (Rossiyskaya gazeta, April 2).

Russian experts have been focusing on a new quality in the consolidation of the European pillar of NATO, underpinned by a significant increase in military investments (RIAC, April 4). France is trying to position itself as the champion of European assertiveness in the security sphere, and Russian propaganda has discussed the ambitions of French President Emmanual Macron with much scorn (, April 5). While French farmers and pensioners may cherish very different aspirations, the demand for leadership in Europe is real. The persistent squabbles in the coalition government of Germany has left the driver’s seat unfilled (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 1).

One manifestation of the French claim for leadership was a phone call on April 3 between Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu (Izvestiya, April 3). They discussed opportunities for cooperation in counterterrorism after the terrorist attack in Moscow last month (Kommersant, April 4). Shoigu persisted with accusations focused on the “Ukrainian connection” allegedly supported by Western special services. These lies, conveyed with a threatening tone, hardly leave any space for the proposed cooperation (, April 4). The confirmation of Moscow’s readiness to talk about ending the war in Ukraine only on its terms did little to foster a productive dialogue (RIA Novosti, April 5).

The combination of a readiness to raise the stakes in supporting Ukraine and to re-open lines of communication with the Russian High Command adds credibility to France’s leadership in supporting Kyiv (, April 3;, April 6). Russia has no convincing counter to this investment-based strategy. Its attempts to push tactical advances on the battlefield continue to produce heavy casualties (, April 1). Thus, Kremlin propaganda predicting certain victory cannot dispel worries about the gradual shift in the balance of capabilities. Still, the only recommendation that Moscow experts can formulate is to boost its deterrence posture by demonstrating a readiness to resort to Russia’s nuclear might (Kommersant, April 5). Paris is well-suited for countering the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail and has already initiated consultations with European allies about the relevance of Europe’s nuclear “umbrella” (The Moscow Times, April 5).

Russian political discourse plays up the prospect of NATO refusing to issue a formal invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance at the forthcoming Washington summit in July (Novaya gazeta Europe, April 5). It takes a stretch of geopolitical imagination to construct a European security system in which Ukraine would constitute a buffer between an expanded Russia and an inherently hostile, but divided West (Valdai club, April 4). Nevertheless, the difficult political work of resolving problems in Kyiv’s economic integration with the European Union and issuing proper security guarantees is progressing (Re: Russia, April 3).

The “long war” generates multiple risks for Ukraine and the Western coalition. The looming Russian summer offensive and a potential nuclear escalation indicate that more concerted collective work is necessary to ensure that the former is defeated and the latter deterred (, April 2). Many Europeans are uncomfortable with the notion of a “pre-war period,” as UK Defense Minister Grant Shapps has warned (, April 4). NATO can only move forward with this work by addressing doubts and overcoming disagreements. This is part of the democratic process—something that is seemingly beyond understanding for Putin’s courtiers and propagandists. What they depict as the weakness of the declining West is in fact a source of new energy. Simultaneously, the proclaimed Russian determination to unite under Putin’s leadership can hardly camouflage the deepening dysfunctionality of the Putin regime (, March 28).

Each step forward NATO makes in upgrading its institutions and capabilities brings a spasm of angst in the Kremlin, where suspicions, rather than understanding, of the depth of problems that Russia is facing are flourishing. Exaggerating Western disunity has become a means of denying these problems, much as emphasizing “friendliness” to the Arab world is a means of denying the root causes of Islamist radicalism in Russia. An apparent inability to address the cruel exploitation of labor migrants from Central Asia creates fertile ground for new terrorist attacks (see EDM, April 1). The refusal to assess the degradation of its military machine propels Russia toward defeat in the war of its own making.

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