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Home / Politics / News /  US rebuilt NATO to face down Russia. Putin scrambled those plans

BRUSSELS : The U.S. and other NATO members have deployed thousands of troops and invested heavily in weaponry to rebuild the alliance’s front line facing Russia. Moscow has parried that strategy by opening up new fronts just beyond NATO’s reach.

Now, as Russian officials visit North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday to address grievances raised by the Kremlin, the 30-country alliance is grappling with how to counter Russia’s increasing assertiveness.

Rather than confront NATO head-on, Russian President Vladimir Putin is exerting pressure in other countries including Ukraine, Syria and Libya. He is testing alliance unity with natural-gas deals while probing its democratic defenses with cyberattacks and disinformation, Western officials say. The approach is testing both the alliance’s military might and Western political will.

NATO is divided over how to respond. Allies such as Germany and France have long urged caution and negotiations with Moscow.

Germany blocked the sale of sniper rifles to Ukraine via NATO last year, saying only defensive systems should be provided to help Kyiv, an alliance partner that has faced a simmering war against Russian-led separatists in its east since 2014. Hungary, led by a pro-Russian authoritarian, is preventing high-level NATO meetings with Ukraine.

Eastern members such as Poland and the Baltic states worry the Biden administration is leaning toward concessions to Mr. Putin in the hope of focusing instead on China. U.S. officials have said they won’t accede to Moscow’s demand that NATO commit to never accepting Ukraine and Georgia as members, but could consider other measures, such as mutual reductions to military exercises.

“If we give Putin concessions now, he’ll come back for more," said a European diplomat at NATO. “Russia is a long-term threat with the political intent to weaken us."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in December that NATO had become “a purely geopolitical project aimed at absorbing territories left ownerless after the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union."

A decade ago, NATO was a solution looking for a problem. The West had won the Cold War and belatedly subdued fighting in former Yugoslavia. For ex-Soviet bloc countries such as Poland and Hungary, NATO membership came to be seen as a steppingstone to European Union membership because investors felt comfortable diving into frontier economies under Washington’s security umbrella. Prospects of serious warfare appeared remote. Two rounds of enlargement in 1999 and 2004 brought in former Soviet bloc countries from Bulgaria to the Baltic states.

Russia, consumed by domestic economic and political strife, grumbled but could do little. NATO sought to placate Moscow by agreeing a cooperation pact that committed to not permanently base forces in former Soviet domains, allowing Moscow to open a diplomatic mission at NATO headquarters and establishing a council to address concerns.

NATO cut military budgets and shrank forces in Europe. It invoked its mutual-defense pact for the first time—not against Russia, but following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—and it launched a mission in Afghanistan.

The dynamics began to shift in 2004, when Mr. Putin blamed the West for sponsoring a popular uprising in Ukraine that overturned the disputed election of his protégé. He began bolstering the Russian military, which had atrophied from its Soviet-era might.

In 2008, Germany and France blocked a U.S.-led effort to offer the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia a path toward NATO membership. The alliance came up with a workaround: Ukraine and Georgia could eventually become members, but no timeline was offered.

“That was a big mistake," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO secretary-general at the time. “We sent the wrong signal, a signal of disunity, weakness."

Russia was somewhat mollified, but in August 2008 crushed Georgia in a short war that placed two breakaway Georgian regions firmly under Russian control. Russia already had troops in a breakaway territory in Moldova, Ukraine’s neighbor, after a war that ended in 1992.

Mr. Rasmussen said he believes Mr. Putin wanted to install himself as NATO’s doorkeeper by deploying troops to freeze conflicts in countries that the alliance and the EU would then not want to join their blocs.

In 2014, Mr. Putin upended NATO’s balancing act by grabbing the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and fomenting an armed rebellion in its east. It then launched a covert invasion to carve out two separatist territories. Caught off guard by the brashness and violence on its doorstep, NATO begrudgingly began rebuilding forces in Europe.

To deter a possible Russian invasion, members have stationed some 5,000 troops in the Baltic states and Poland. The U.S. rushed troops across the Atlantic to reinforce European allies and established a new Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Va., to protect sea lanes.

Partly under pressure from former President Donald Trump, many European NATO members agreed to buy new weapons systems and meet previous spending commitments, adding billions of dollars to defense budgets. Belgium and Poland struck deals to buy the Pentagon’s newest warplane, the F-35, with Greece and other members also considering the sophisticated aircraft.

The alliance’s planning and weaponry doesn’t appear to have deterred Mr. Putin in Ukraine or other countries outside NATO. And it doesn’t completely reassure current members. Some are arguing over how much economic pressure to put on Moscow, with Germany equivocating over whether it would cancel the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia if Moscow invades Ukraine again.

NATO’s beefed-up European forces might not scare Mr. Putin, who has much more significant troops stationed in the region, but they do allow him to claim that the alliance threatens Russia, one of the issues Russia wants to address at the NATO meeting Wednesday.

Few military analysts foresee Mr. Putin attacking NATO directly. The stakes for him are much lower in weaker countries such as Ukraine, which he sees as critical to Russia’s security and part of its sphere of influence.

NATO members have provided Ukraine with weapons and equipment, trained its soldiers and offered political support, but the alliance has said it won’t send military forces as there is no mutual defense pact.

Meanwhile, the Russian military buildup continues, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday, although diplomats say not at a pace that would suggest an imminent invasion.

“The challenge," he said, “is that when you see this gradual military buildup combined with the threatening rhetoric—capabilities, the rhetoric and the track record—of course that sends a message that there is a real risk for a new armed conflict in Europe."

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