Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How the war in Ukraine has reshaped NATO


EDWARD R MURROW: On April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed by Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands.


More simply, NATO was formed. The alliance came together in the aftermath of World War II as Russia became increasingly more threatening toward its neighbors. Famed journalist Edward R Murrow explained the purpose of the allied countries in this NATO archival film.


MURROW: They were sworn to stand together against aggression. An attack against one would be an attack against all.

DETROW: And that one-for-all-and-all-for-one mentality is codified in NATO's Article 5. When war is waged on NATO territory, all of the allies must agree to respond. But things at NATO's military headquarters in Belgium, which is called the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe - or SHAPE - have been pretty quiet since the end of the Cold War. Then, when Russia's war in Ukraine began over two years ago, NATO asked itself, was it prepared to defend its territory if war arrived on its doorstep? The answer was no. So its military chief decided it was time to ramp up NATO's strategy and revive its military headquarters. NATO is growing its response force by eight fold, and just last week it added a 32nd member. Here's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.


JENS STOLTENBERG: This is an historic day. We welcome Sweden into NATO at a critical time for our shared security.

DETROW: National security correspondent for Foreign Policy, Jack Detsch, has spent some time at SHAPE and with NATO officials to observe its revival. I spoke to him about that transformation.


JACK DETSCH: Scott, good to be with you.

DETROW: So, first of all, you've recently visited SHAPE in Belgium. How would you describe the place?

DETSCH: SHAPE is not like any American military headquarters you'd visit. You don't see Army troops training. You don't see artillery fire. You don't see sort of any hustle and bustle in the way that you'd see in American military headquarters elsewhere. What you do see is a multinational headquarters, a 32-nation headquarters. You see uniforms from all stripes.

And the the hallways are getting a little bit busier since they've begun to make these changes and to get on more of a war footing that had been really put aside during the years of the post-Cold War era. You see people flighting up to build war plans. You see a command center that hasn't existed since the Cold War, really coming back together to be able to communicate from Shape all the way to the eastern flank of NATO, where a potential war could break out.

DETROW: And this is a piece that's about the restructuring and reorganizing of, you know, operations at a specific building, right? But it's about a lot more than that. I feel like this gets to the basic questions of how NATO sees itself and how it sees its role in any future conflict.

DETSCH: Yeah. That's really right. And sort of in the years of the post-Cold War era, you sort of had NATO military strategy kind of go to sleep. If you go back all the way to the founding of NATO in 1949, when 12 allies signed the North Atlantic Treaty, there was only a military chief. It was Dwight D. Eisenhower in a U.S. Army uniform. But over the years, and particularly after the Cold War, you saw the civilians kind of begin to call the shots. And the military headquarters really did this 180, where they were reporting all the way back up to Brussels.

Now they're in the process after Ukraine, after seeing that the Russians could indeed be on NATO's doorstep, of beginning to do the job of commanding again, getting SHAPE to be able to communicate all the way downrange to do the job of commanding, really, to map out military targets on Russian soil, to tell bombers, fighter jets, all sorts of military assets what to do in case things really do go awry.

DETROW: One of the interesting things that that you noted in the article is how reluctant people at SHAPE were to specifically pick out targets inside Russia to strike if there ever was a direct war. Why was there that reluctance, and how has that changed? And just - can you explain? I guess it's pretty straightforward if you're at war with a country, but why that is such an important thing here.

DETSCH: Yeah. I mean, I think dating back to the 1990s and even further, there was this hope you could have a rapprochement with Russia. You had NATO beginning to build out NATO countries in former Soviet satellite countries. And you also had a partnership with Russia itself. So at that point, it was a hard no in terms of actually identifying military targets that were in the Kremlin's backyard.

I think now what's changed is you just have a lot more resolve within the alliance. Remember, NATO operates under unanimity. So you have to have all 32 allies now with Finland and Sweden and - agreeing to delegate more authorities to SHAPE if they wanted to take out military targeting. And we saw last summer the alliance actually giving SHAPE the authorities to map out military targets on Russian soil. So there's much more alignment in terms of actually being prepared to do this if there's an Article 5 scenario because there's an image in Europeans' minds that this could really happen.

DETROW: And with that current concern, there's also two trends to talk about here. Let's talk about the trend in the direction of NATO getting stronger. You mentioned those two new members, Finland and now Sweden. How much of a real difference does that make? Especially Sweden, the most recent member.

DETSCH: It makes a significant difference, Scott. I mean, particularly when you look at the maritime map of the Baltic Sea. Before, you had a huge gap in NATO's defenses with Finland and Sweden out of the picture. So you have much more coverage of Russian vessels, much more intelligence in terms of what the Russians could do and the potential for that intelligence to be used for targeting to deter the Russians. The Finns and the Swedes bring in significant capability in geography. So Russia's border with NATO is now significantly longer, and they have to contend with the Swedes in particular bringing in an enormous arsenal in terms of the ability to produce ammunition, the ability to produce submarines, the ability to produce all sorts of weapon systems that now can be in NATO's arsenal.

DETROW: So let's talk about a trend or a possible trend in the other direction then. You've talked so much about the resolve of NATO members right now. This is coming at a time when Donald Trump could return to the White House. And Donald Trump has made it very clear how skeptical he is of NATO, how on the fence he seems to be about Article 5. You had that moment at a rally in recent weeks where he said, I'd tell Russia to do whatever the hell they wanted if a NATO member had not paid the full amount into its national security funding that NATO requires. Can that resolve withstand Donald Trump coming back into office? And how much of these plans that we're talking about would be irrelevant if Donald Trump were in the White House again?

DETSCH: Yeah. You flagged the central weakness of the alliance, Scott, which is that there's always going to be the problem of political will. NATO can't defend itself until 32 members actually agree that there's an Article 5 - no matter if there's an invasion, no matter if there's an attack. The problem of another Trump administration for NATO is certainly something that's central on the minds of Europeans right now because the alliance effectively can't defend itself without the Americans coming to bat at some point in a Russian invasion scenario, potentially 45,000 to 90,000 troops actually coming over the Atlantic to fight alongside the Europeans. If you don't have that, not just the troops, but the nuclear umbrella, it's difficult to see how these war plans work.

DETROW: A lot of the changes that you're reporting on, you make it clear, probably going to take decades to really fall into place. So what happens if there's a direct, immediate threat from Russia before then in the next few years?

DETSCH: NATO officials I've talked to have expressed that there's medium confidence they could actually carry out these war plans if there were an Article 5 scenario today and you had political agreement to take a response. You do see, again, with these steadfast defender exercises, 90,000 troops on the European continent - only a quarter of them are Americans - doing a high degree of complex exercises. These range from amphibious assaults all the way to parachuting into Poland.

But there's still some questions within the alliance, particularly on the eastern flank, of how solid those war plans are, especially since we see Russia potentially mobilizing to put more troops in place. So there's a lot of consternation about how quickly you can get this done, especially as you mentioned the timeline of developing out all these units, developing out all these plans and actually putting sort of the nuclear backstop behind them just takes a lot of time and a lot of money. And it's not in the hands of every single ally.

DETROW: That's Jack Detsch, a national security correspondent at Foreign Policy. Thanks so much.

DETSCH: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.