Russia’s goal is not to destroy Ukraine—this could be accomplished at any time. Rather, the goal of Russia is to destroy NATO by exposing its impotence, writes Scott Ritter.
High-water monument at Gettysburg National Military Park. (Veggies /Wikimedia Commons)
By Scott Ritter
Special to Consortium News
In the quiet fields outside the sleepy college town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, sits a bronze monument, in the form of an open book. Known as the “High-Water Mark of the Rebellion” monument, it contains the identities of the various military formations that, in the afternoon of July 3, 1863, fought a life and death struggle on and around the soil where the monument is set.
Here, some 12,500 men under the command of Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, formed into three divisions, and launched a frontal assault on some 10,000 entrenched Union troops commanded by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock.
While around 1,500 confederates managed to pierce the Union line, they were quickly surrounded and compelled to either surrender or die. It is at this point on the battlefield that the “High-Water” monument is located, commemorating what has become to be known as “Pickett’s Charge,” named after one of the division commanders who participated in the battle.
The Confederate Army was able to withdraw from the Gettysburg battlefield in good order to continue to fight for nearly two more years, before surrendering. But it never recovered from the disaster that was Pickett’s Charge. It was truly the High-Water Mark of the Rebellion.
A Messy History
Students of history might be experiencing what Yogi Berra once famously called “Déjà vu all over again” when examining the frenetic activities undertaken by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) today, as it responds to what it alleges is a provocative Russian military buildup along the Russian-Ukrainian border.
The Trans-Atlantic alliance is a strange amalgam of political, economic, and military belief systems cloaking a mass of 30 nations who manage the day-to-day activities of their organization through a consensus-based, collective decision-making process that is as unwieldy as it is inefficient.
Originally formed as a collective of 12 nations united by the desire, as the first secretary-general of NATO, Lord Ismay, once quipped, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”, the Trans-Atlantic alliance was, first and foremost, a club comprised of nations which had two things in common—a shared belief in the primacy of democratic governance, and a desire to be protected under the umbrella of American military power.
Signing of Washington Treaty that established NATO, April 1949. (NATO)
Early on the alliance witnessed a period of expansion, as it grew to 16 nations following the admittance of Turkey, Greece, Spain, and Portugal. These 16 nations served as the foundation of NATO throughout the Cold War, united in their determination to stand up to any potential Soviet aggression targeting the territory of western Europe.
NATO was always, from a political standpoint, a mess. Strong pro-communist movements in France and Italy led to the unseemly situation where the intelligence services of an allied nation, the United States, were engaged in manipulating the domestic political affairs of two ostensible allies to keep the communists out of power.
West Germany carried out its own unilateral Ostpolitik, seeking better relations with Soviet-occupied East Germany, much to the consternation of the United States. France, offended by what it (rightly) believed to be the dominance of the United States in the military command structure of the alliance, withdrew its military from NATO command authority. And Turkey and Greece were engaged in their own regional Cold War which, in 1974, went hot over the island of Cyprus.
The glue that held the alliance together was the collective defense provisions of Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which provides that if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked.
For much of the Cold War, the NATO alliance was configured militarily so that there was little doubt as to what actions would be taken, with a standing NATO army deployed in West Germany in constant combat readiness, prepared to repel any attack by the Soviet Army and its Warsaw Pact allies. Likewise, NATO maintained significant air and naval forces deployed in the Mediterranean Sea ready to confront any Soviet aggression there. These forces were anchored by a massive standing U.S. military presence comprising hundreds of thousands of troops, tens of thousands of armored vehicles, thousands of combat aircraft, and hundreds of naval vessels.
This full-time presence of concentrated combat-ready military power, prepared as it was to fight at the drop of a hat, gave the Article 5 obligation far more gravitas than it perhaps deserved. The reality of Article 5 is such that, upon its invocation, Allies can provide any form of assistance they deem necessary to respond to a situation based upon the circumstances.
While this assistance is taken forward in concert with other Allies, it is not necessarily military in nature and depends on the material resources of each country. In short, Article 5 leaves to the judgement of each individual member country to determine how and what it would contribute in the case of its invocation.
With the end of the Cold War in 1990-91 came the dismantlement of this full-time combat-ready military force. The unified nature of the NATO military component that existed in the 1980’s ceased to exist barely ten years later, with each member state carrying out its own demobilization and restructuring based upon domestic political requirements, and not the requirements of the alliance.
NATO Goes on Offense
The former military headquarters in Belgrade, bombed intensively by Nato 10 years ago. (Dennis Jarvis/Wikimedia)
During this time NATO also watched its long-held mantra of being a purely defensive alliance fall to the side as it engaged in offensive military operations on the soil of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, and non-member, and a offensive bombing campaign against Serbia, despite Serbia not having attacked any NATO member.
This deconstruction of NATO’s military capabilities and status as an exclusively defensive organization took place hand in glove with a decision by NATO to expand its membership to include the former members of the Warsaw Pact, beginning with the accession of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999. The enlargement of NATO was seen as achieving two objectives—from the NATO perspective, it brought most of Europe together into a single collective of allied parties who, because of their membership, would contribute to the overall stability of Europe.
But there was another perspective at play, that being that of the U.S.. While NATO responded to the U.S. invoking of Article 5 after the 9/11 attacks, providing airborne surveillance aircraft for North American patrols and naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea, several core members, led by Germany and France, balked at becoming involved in the post-9/11 military misadventures of the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This prompted then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to make a quip denigrating “Old Europe” at the expense of “New Europe.” The continued expansion of NATO eastwards, absorbing all of the former nations of the Warsaw Pact along with three former Soviet Republics in the Baltics not only pushed NATO’s geopolitical center of gravity further east, but also put NATO on a collision course with Russia, whose opinion most NATO members had conditioned themselves to ignore.
NATO went on to provide military and police training support to Iraq in 2004, following that nation’s defeat at the hands of a military coalition which included the U.S., U.K., and Poland providing combat troops, and Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands providing political support.
Likewise, NATO contributed significant military forces to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. These troops operated under Article 4 authorities after the U.S. brought the Afghan situation post-9/11 to the attention of the general membership, which voted to authorize member states to deploy to Afghanistan in support of U.S. reconstruction and nation-building operations.
In 2011, NATO engaged in offensive military operations in Libya, part of a larger political campaign to remove the Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, from power.
A US Adjunct
By 2008 NATO had become a bloated edifice largely unrecognizable from the organization that had been created at its founding, in 1949. Its appetite for expansion knew no bounds, with membership offers being dangled before two former Soviet Republics, Georgia and Ukraine, and military engagements being initiated in North Africa and the Persian Gulf.
While the bloated organizational structure of NATO looked impressive on paper, there were two realities that no amount of puffing and posturing could obviate. First and foremost was the absolute dearth of real military power on the part of the non-U.S. NATO components. To support and sustain their respective military commitments to Afghanistan, the major NATO nations involved—Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy—were forced to cannibalize their overall military capability to surge their respective military components forward. Even then, none of these nations could accomplish their Afghan mission without the logistical support provided by the United States.
This over-reliance upon U.S. military capacity only underscored the inconvenient reality that NATO had become little more than an adjunct of U.S. foreign and national security policy. The U.S. had always played an oversized role in NATO. If this was singularly focused on preserving European security, the non-U.S. members of NATO could deceive themselves into believing that they were co-equal partners in a defensive-oriented Trans-Atlantic arrangement.
Once NATO began expanding, both in terms of membership composition and scope and scale of its non-European military commitments, it was obvious to any observer exercising a modicum of intellectual curiosity that NATO existed for the sole benefit of the United States.
Nothing drove this point home more than the humiliation NATO suffered at the hands of the U.S. when it came to the abandonment of the Afghan reconstruction mission. The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was made unilaterally by the United States, without consultation. NATO, faced with a fait accompli, had no choice but to do as ordered, and leave Afghanistan with its tail between its legs.
The ultimate humiliation was yet to come. Nothing takes place in a vacuum, and the expansion of NATO, combined with its offensive re-orientation, drew the ire of Russia, which took extreme umbrage over the encroachment of a military alliance no longer bound by the constraints of collective self-defense, but rather imbued with a post-Cold War posture built around the notion of containing and constraining a Russia which was recovering from its post-Soviet collapse malaise and, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, was actively restoring it position as a regional and global power.
U.S.-backed, violent coup in Ukraine, 2014. (Wikipedia)
Russia had, since 2001, been sounding a claxon call about NATO expansion and the threat it posed to Russian security interests. These calls were ignored by NATO and its U.S. masters, largely because they believed Russia to be too weak both militarily and economically.
While NATO chased post-9/11 ghosts in the Middle East and Afghanistan at the behest of its American overseer, Russia worked to reform its economy and military. In 2008 Russia defeated Georgia in a short but violent war precipitated by a Georgian military assault on the breakaway territory of South Ossetia. In 2014, Russia responded to the U.S.-orchestrated Maidan coup that ousted the democratically-elected president of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovich, by annexing Crimea and throwing its support behind pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region of Ukraine.
The important thing to note about the current crisis in Ukraine is that while the underlying issues are solely the byproduct of NATO overreach, the timing of the crisis is based upon a Russian timetable defined by purely Russian goals and objectives. The goal of Russia is not to destroy Ukraine—this could be accomplished at any time. Rather, the goal of Russia is to destroy NATO.
This will not be accomplished through the direct use of military force, but rather the indirect threat of military action which forces NATO to react in a way which exposes the impotence of an organization which long ago lost its raison d-etre, collective defense, and instead flounders under the weight of a mission—the containment of Russia—it cannot achieve, and which its membership is not united in pursuing.
Here are a few statements of fact—the Russian military would defeat any force NATO can assemble in a stand-up conventional fight. The entire notion of collective self-defense is predicated on the ability to deter any potential adversary from considering military action against a NATO member because the outcome—the total defeat of the attacking party—was never in dispute.
While a truly defensive alliance would have the moral authority to call out the build-up of Russian military power around Ukraine as un-duly provocative, NATO has long since lost the ability to apply that label to itself with any degree of seriousness. From the standpoint of Russia, when the same “defensive” alliance which bombed its ally Belgrade and worked to overthrow the leader of Libya puts its sights on acquiring Ukraine and Georgia as members, such actions can only be viewed as aggressive, offensively oriented-measures that function as part of a broader anti-Russian campaign.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and others representatives of NATO countries in a group photo at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, March 23, 2021. (State Department, Ron Przysucha)
By militarizing the Ukraine crisis, Russia has exposed the absolute military impotence of NATO. First and foremost, after dangling the bait of NATO membership before Ukraine for the past fourteen years, NATO was compelled to confess that it would not be able to come to the defense of Ukraine in case of any Russian military invasion because Article 5 only allowed collective defense to be invoked for NATO members, which Ukraine is not.
Moreover, the “massive” economic sanctions that NATO has promised to unleash in lieu of a military response have turned out to be as impotent as NATO’s military power. Despite what the political leadership of NATO and the United States may say to the contrary, there is no unity of purpose when it comes to imposing sanctions on Russia in the event of a military incursion into Ukraine.
In short, any sanction package that targets Russian energy and/or access to banking institutions will hurt Europe far more than Russia. While the United States continues to push for Europe, and in particular Germany, to wean itself off Russian energy supplies, the fact is there is no viable alternative to Russian energy and, moreover, Europe is increasingly recognizing that the U.S. position has less to do with European security and more to do with a play by the U.S. to grab the European market for itself.
Under normal conditions, the U.S. cannot compete with Russia in terms of price and volume when it comes to natural gas deliveries. If, through sanctions, the U.S. can cut off Europe from Russia, then the U.S. will be able to impose its own energy products on Europe at prices that otherwise would be uncompetitive.
The individual members of NATO are beginning to awaken to the reality that their organization is little more than an impotent tool of American global hegemony. Hungary has cut its own gas deal with Russia, in defiance of U.S. directives to pull back. Croatia and Bulgaria have made it clear that they will not be deploying troops in support of NATO posturing on Ukraine.
Turkey has stated that it views the Ukraine crisis as little more than a thinly disguised effort by NATO and the U.S. to weaken Turkey by forcing it to fight Russia in the Black Sea. But perhaps the most telling moments came when the two European powerhouses of NATO, Germany, and France, were compelled to come face to face with the reality of their subservient role vis-à-vis the U.S..
When French President Emmanual Macron flew to Russia to try and negotiate a settlement to the Ukraine crisis, he was confronted with the reality that Russia won’t negotiate with France without the U.S. first expressing support for the positions being put forward by the French President. The U.S. matters; France does not.
Likewise, the German chancellor was forced to stand mutely during his visit to the White House while U.S. President Joe Biden “promised” that he would unilaterally shut down the NordStream 2 pipeline project, even though the U.S. had no role to play in the construction and administration of the pipeline. Germany, Biden was saying, is little more than a colony of the United States.
Chinese President Xi Jinping with Russian President Vladimir Putin during visit to Moscow in 2019. (Kremlin)
The final nail in the NATO coffin came on Feb. 4, when the Russian president met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. The two leaders issued a 5,000-plus word joint statement in which China threw its weight behind Russia’s objection to NATO expansion into Ukraine.
The Sino-Russian joint statement was a de facto declaration that neither Russia nor China would allow the U.S.-led “rules based international order” being promulgated by the Biden administration to go forward unchallenged. Instead, the two nations announced that they will be pursuing a “law based international order” which draws on the United Nations Charter for its authority, in contrast to unilateral rules which only serve the interests of the U.S. and small blocs of allied nations.
A Different World
The world has fundamentally changed. NATO literally has no relevance. Its last gesture of defiance lays in the deployment of forces into eastern Europe to bolster the defensive capabilities of that region in accordance with Article 5. The forces deployed—a few thousand American paratroopers, and a smattering of other contingents from other NATO nations—not only cannot defeat a Russian adversary, but doesn’t even provide a modicum of deterrence value should Russia be inclined to shift its sights away from Ukraine toward Poland and the Baltics.
What NATO doesn’t realize is that Russia has no intention of invading either Ukraine or eastern Europe. All Russia has done is demonstrate the empty shell that NATO has become by underscoring just how empty the Article 5 promise of collective defense truly is.
In this regard, one should view NATO’s current round of muscle flexing as the modern-day equivalent of Picket’s Charge, the high-water mark of the Trans-Atlantic alliance. In the weeks and months to come, NATO will be faced with the reality that Russia is not invading anyone, and that the muscle flexing it is currently engaged in is not only not needed, but worse, unsustainable.
The fractures exposed in NATO’s membership when it comes to Ukraine will only grow larger over time. It may take years for NATO to go away, but let no one be fooled by what is happening—NATO is finished as an alliance.
Scott Ritter is a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD.