The security situation in Europe is getting more complicated. In recent years, most European countries have been facing a huge influx of migrants from the Middle East, terrorist attacks, blows to their budgets, and a change in the national structure of the population. In addition, Europe and the rest of the world have been shaken by major economic problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
In a relatively short period of time, the pandemic has revealed not only the inability of developed democracies to cope with the newly formed situation, but also the true nature of a significant number of international organizations that seemed stable, to a greater or lesser extent, until half a year ago. One of them is NATO. While Russia and China fought heroically against the first wave of coronavirus pandemics and delivered medical aid to European countries, even the United States, NATO did nothing to help its members. Montenegro, then the youngest member of this alliance, stands as a clear example of this. The country turned to NATO for help in the form of medical equipment and was in return offered taxi services, that is, the transport of medical equipment from China. The situation was no better in the developed European countries and long-term members of this alliance. The crisis was not even at its peak when these allies reduced themselves to predatory behaviors manifested by medical equipment confiscation, or shall we say looting, and border closure. Germany, along with France, prevented the export of medical equipment to EU member states, and thus to NATO, as well as to countries outside the Union, despite numerous criticisms.
This sudden outpouring of realpolitik on the political scene, otherwise filled with demagoguery about unity, common values, Euro-Atlantic cooperation and other worn out and overused phrases and expressions, clearly indicates the superficiality of NATO’s ideological superstructure, which no longer serves as a unifying factor but as a means of hiding problems from the public. However, amid the pandemic, NATO received its 30th member on March 27, 2020. It is Northern Macedonia, which, like Montenegro, joined this alliance without, at least, formal consent of its own citizens. Additionally, the agreement on the country’s accession was signed by the technical government during the state of emergency in the country due to the pandemic. Given the size of the task, let’s take a look at how the newest member of the alliance contributes to its combat readiness and strength. The Macedonian army has 8,000 active soldiers and another 5,000 in reserve. The air force of the newest member consists of twenty helicopters. Without the fleet and with an annual military budget of $ 150 million, Skopje has not improved the alliance’s statistics or security at all. That, after all, was never the goal.
From the NATO perspective, Macedonia is just another domino that puts additional pressure on Serbia, and thus Russia, because controlling Serbia reduces the possibility of further strengthening of Russian influence in the Balkans, assuming Russia actually has interest in this region it the first place. Along with opening new possibilities for Macedonian political elite, Skopje’s also sees NATO membership as a way of resolving the internal problem with the Albanian minority and their ideology of creating a Greater Albania, which would if created usurp almost half of the current Macedonian territory.
Given that Northern Macedonia and Albania are both NATO member countries, by logic, tensions and territorial claims should be reduced, but judging by the relationship between Athens and Ankara, NATO membership will not help Skopje curb Tirana’s appetites. The long-term membership of Greece and Turkey in the alliance did not prevent Turkey from constant violations of Greek airspace and provocations in the Aegean Sea. The migrant crisis has added a new dimension to the tensions, since the Greek government recognizes Turkey as a main catalyst in the constant movement of migrant groups towards the Greek islands in the Aegean. Given the length of the conflict between Greece and Turkey and the alliance’s inability or disinterest in resolving the issue, it is to be expected that Macedonian-Albanian tensions will be left to their current state and course, presumably, to the advantage of Albania as one of the most loyal US ally. In addition to the historical conflicts between the member countries that found themselves in NATO thanks to the rapid growth of the organization, criticisms keep coming from the old and much more important members, such as the United States and France.
The current President of the United States, Donald Trump’s position on the issue of NATO is well known. Although he’s been constantly under fire in the mass media for his attitude, his arguments are based on the facts. While the United States pays most of NATO’s costs, more than half of the other members do not spend enough on their own defense capabilities. In terms of security, that was one of Trump’s basic criticisms, but note that the future of NATO is also influenced by the development of economic relations between the United States and Europe. Donald Trump was more than clear in this regard as well. He sees European companies and EU interests as competitors to the United States. The lack of cohesion at the economic level, visible in Trump’s determination to impose tariffs on goods the US imports from the EU, will undoubtedly spill over into the political and security scene. Given Trump’s style and ideological platform «America first», his verbal attacks on the EU and NATO were, to a certain extent, expected from the current American president. It was the French President Emanuel Macron who caused a storm by saying that European countries can no longer rely on America to defend NATO allies. “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO,” Macron declared in an interview with The Economist. Europe stands on “the edge of a precipice”, he said, and needs to start thinking of itself strategically as a geopolitical power; otherwise it will “no longer be in control of its destiny.”
Despite the criticism, Macron maintained his position, justifying his statement by the change in American behavior towards European allies and the need to pay more attention to security threats coming from Africa, with a special emphasis on terrorist organizations. A particularly interesting position of the French president, which stirred up many spirits in Eastern Europe, was the remark that «the real enemy of Europe is neither Russia nor China, but terrorism.»
In his analysis of current relations within NATO, Macron did not miss the opportunity to criticize Ankara for sending the troops to northern Syria, which brings us to the next crisis point in the structure of the alliance — relations between Turkey and the United States, Ankara and the rest of the Alliance.
The deterioration of relations between Turkey and Washington, which further led to the deterioration of relations within the alliance itself, resulted from a series of events that began with the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016. Turkey’s new geopolitical positioning has brought it into closer ties with the Russian Federation, which resulted in the purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system and the opening of the TurkStream, a natural gas pipeline that will transfer energy from Russia to Europe. The US reaction to all this included ending Turkey’s participation in a project to develop a fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet and disabling the delivery of the fighter jets to Ankara. Turkey is one of the most important NATO members since it is militarily the second largest country in the alliance, right after the United States. The sole intention to act in its own interest, and to establish closer relations with Russia, Iran and China, is enough to bring instability in the structure of the alliance. Although currently there is no indication of Turkey leaving the organization, such a move would significantly reduce NATO’s ability to influence some areas of the Middle East and the Caucasus. This clearly visible and media-emphasized crisis in relations between the United States and Turkey, makes other discords within NATO less noticeable. The public image the alliance creates gives an impression of unity around the same goal and same principles, but as is usually the case, it is only an idyllic image intended for the public. The emergence of groups with different interests within the North Atlantic Alliance was inevitable given the almost manic speed of the alliance’s expansion. The new member states have introduced different geopolitical perceptions, diverse political and historical experiences, and completely unbalanced relations in terms of military capabilities and contribution to common security; and many different interests are a fertile ground for conflicts.
The French president is not alone in his view on the current state of NATO and enjoys the support of the Netherlands and Luxembourg. But there also exists a group of countries united over one other cause. It is composed of Great Britain, Canada, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, whose elites prefer to see Russia as a threat to Europe. Another group of countries — Greece, Italy and Hungary oppose them, while Slovakia and France have a more moderate attitude towards Moscow. At the same time, the United States, Canada, Germany and France see China as the main threat to Europe. They are opposed by Croatia, Hungary, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal and Italy, which have mostly benefited from Chinese investments and they see the Chinese Belt and Road project as an opportunity for further economic development or a way out from the unenviable situation they found themselves in thanks to their EU partners.
With Northern Macedonia recent accession to NATO, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina remain the only Balkan countries outside it. Due to its complicated political and state composition, it’s extremely questionable whether Bosnia will ever become a NATO member. Before the pandemic pushed everything else aside, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political scene was marked by a debate on the nature of the ANP document (the Annual National Plan). Most of the document indicate further cooperation between Bosnia and Herzegovina and NATO, with an important exception in the very introduction of the text which states that «the document is submitted without prejudice to the final decision on membership, adoption of which will require an additional decision of the Presidency and the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina.» Judging by the wording, the Serb representatives in joint institutions have the opportunity to stop the possible accession of Bosnia, i.e. Republic of Srpska, into NATO.
Taking into consideration everything mentioned above, Russia remains the main (real or imagined) opponent as perceived by NATO. Bearing in mind the seriousness of the situation, the threating nature of NATO’s latest series of moves, its expansion and the constant moving of the military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders, Russia’s relatively peaceful and diplomatic response barely affects the alliance’s perception of Moscow. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, given the way it was founded, sees or simply just has to automatically see the Russian Federation as its main adversary, because without the existence of some «common threat to world peace», which is how Russia’s presented in the mass media, it loses its purpose. Everything else can be considered an excuse to support the illusion that NATO has redefined its original goal.