NATO at 75: Can the Alliance Adapt to Global Security Shifts?

Alexander Lanoszka

How can NATO navigate internal disagreements and external pressures to effectively support Ukraine while maintaining unity and strategic stability amid global geopolitical uncertainties? In this episode of the Expert Series, join Alexander Lanoszka as he explores the high-stakes dynamics of the upcoming NATO Summit in Washington. This episode features discussion on Ukraine’s recent tactical successes in the war against Russia, the need for increased NATO support, Ukraine’s membership prospects and the symbolic significance of the 75th NATO Summit amidst uncertainties such as the potential return of Trump and the rise of populism in Europe. Lanoszka also discusses Canada’s defence spending and explores the broader implications of US political shifts for NATO’s future stability.

What do you think will be the key agenda items or concerns heading into the Washington Summit next week?

There are two things.

The first is the war between Russia and Ukraine itself. Ukraine has achieved more tactical success as of late, in part because the restrictions on the use of Western-provided munitions against targets located within Russian territory have been lifted. Nevertheless, there is still a sense amongst many NATO capitals that in the medium to long-term, Russia may pull off some sort of victory. There has been some sense recently that Ukraine may not necessarily liberate as much territory as believed some time ago. These are two things that are very much related to one another.

Ukraine is going to look for more assurances about the support that it can receive, and there may be some packages that could be announced to this end. Although so many of those packages do get negotiated on a bilateral basis, there will probably not be any movement on the membership question because there is still enough internal disagreement within the alliance to thwart Ukraine’s aspirations at the moment.

The second issue is one of symbolic politics. It is the 75th anniversary and there is a lot of unease about how things are going to look politically by the end of the year with the U.S. presidential election and the possibility that Trump could return to the White House. So, there is some symbolic heft that attends this meeting. That does not necessarily mean anything of practical significance. However, the fact that it is taking place in Washington on the 75th anniversary with these sorts of dark clouds looming over the horizon – not just in the United States but in France, given the recent first round of the parliamentary election. One cannot help but think that populism remains a major concern amongst many allies, that could trouble the cooperation seen within the organization in the months, but not years to come.

How would you currently assess the military and geopolitical dynamics of the Ukraine war? Have you seen any discernable shifts in control or strategy as of late?

Russia is taking heavy losses. Russia has been taking heavy losses since the start of the full-scale invasion to be sure, but the ratios seem to have reversed once more in favor of Ukraine. Ukraine defenders are inflicting punitive strikes on Russian forces. Russian equipment losses are significant. There are estimates that by the second half of 2025, Russia will be out of much equipment. We are seeing Russia undertake various raids or offensive actions along the line of contact that do betray a lack of force protection.

The frontline that Russia has along various parts of Ukrainian territory remains robust. How robust the rear is remains to be seen. There are some who may argue that they are weak. The Ukrainians can penetrate the frontline – a very difficult challenge to be sure, but they can still score significant gains. There is a sense in NATO capitals that Ukraine will not be able to achieve that much, and that the most likely outcome is a stalemate to the effect that Russia will be able to remain in its position on Ukrainian territory. This view is unfortunate. It is not that we should be overly optimistic as to what can be achieved against a well dug in adversary like Russia with all the resources that it has at its disposal. However, it could create self-fulfilling prophecies in that it might make some allies disinclined to provide further military assistance, when in fact more is needed precisely to unlock various elements of the battlefield. There is some concern that NATO is resigning itself too quickly to certain outcomes associated with this war, not doing sufficient work to push back against the narrative precisely because Russia is taking massive losses, and those losses must result in some sort of negative dividend.

On part of Russia, there is no way Russia can lose 50- to 80,000 military personnel without blowback. It might not happen any time soon, but it will probably happen. NATO should encourage an outcome that could lead to a disintegration of at least part of Russian lines.

There is not so much stalemate – there is a lot of attrition. It is a positional conflict to be sure. My sense is in the West, there is still insufficient support for Ukraine to really achieve its strategic victory.

What do you mean when you say that “Ukraine may not achieve strategic victory” or that “there may be a stalemate” Does that mean protracted conflict continues indefinitely? Is there an agreement between the two parties that would be signed at some point, maybe unfavorably for Ukraine? What do you think the ultimate result looks like?

Ukraine already achieved its strategic victory by being able to withstand the first attacks after the 24th of February, making sure that it can retain independence and have Kyiv still stand in the face of Russian military aggression. That is a victory of strategic importance, in its own right. That was a major war aim that Russia continues to have that I do not think it will realize anytime soon.

When we talk about victory on the part of Russia, in this context we mean one that falls short of its maximalist aims but does entail a significant seizure of Ukrainian territory. Will there be a negotiated, written-down settlement? Those sorts of agreements have become less likely. We see in the record that countries are not only declaring war less but negotiating peace treaties less.

I expect something similar is going to happen with Ukraine. There was no real declaration of war in the February 21st, 2022, speech. That was tantamount to a declaration of war, but not legally made. Russia was eager not to use the word war to describe its own activities. A peace negotiation could be written in some chamber in some European building in some European capital, but it is going to be unlikely given the empirical record that we have seen.

As much as there could be smaller agreements relating to prisoners of war and the use of maritime routes and so on, on the larger questions of the war there will be little to no agreement on paper. There will maybe been a tacit agreement about Ukraine ceding certain parts of Russian territory. Even such an agreement like that one would be domestically unpopular.

Any agreement with Russia would be seen as a temporary reprieve to the Russian forces so that they may gather their strength and break any agreement in the future. There will be statis that will result in the war continuing for as long as Putin lives. This is his pet project. It is one he began in 2014 and escalated in 2022. He has no desire to see it slow down. What will probably resolve the conflict, more likely, is Russia exhausting itself come 2025 and not being able to carry out large-scale offensive operations of the sort that it tried and failed to do this past spring in the Kharkiv area.

Can you touch upon describe the strategic roadmap NATO envisions for Ukraine’s path towards deeper integration and potential membership in the alliance?

The main problem that is handicapping Western assistance to Ukraine is the lack of strategy. This is apparent with respect to how the United States under the Biden administration has been going about this issue. It has shown itself to be a little too timid, taking stated escalation threats on the part of Russia too seriously. I see this in Canada, where our leaders talk about being with Ukraine for as long as it takes, not for whatever it takes.

It is important for NATO militaries to train Ukrainian military personnel and given them the wherewithal so that they can defend, if not to go about counter-offenses. That is all very important. However, it all seems to be taking place in the absence of strategy. The equipment and the training happens in fits and starts. Sometimes the training itself has been misaligned with what exactly is happening on the battlefield in various parts of Ukraine – that they are more aligned NATO’s own experience in combat operations over the past 20 years, distorted as that may have been in the global war on terror.

These things, in principle, are very good. They have been useful to a certain extent for Ukraine, there is no glue that keeps all these things together. There is no overarching strategy that would allow Ukraine to prevail at a reasonable cost and as quick of a manner as possible.

We’re heading into the second half of 2024 when there are serious doubts, at least in some parts of the alliance, about the perseverance of the military organization going into the future in view of the domestic politics of certain members. That is a situation that we have created. We have been slow, and we are not very good at doing strategy anymore. There was a good moment in 2024 to come together, with the shock of the invasion and the outrage that followed, to devise such a strategy. However, we did not quite do that. We gave equipment in drips, and some of the equipment we have given has not been very useful to Ukraine, either because they are in bad shape or do not operate well of in parts of the location terrain. That has been the question that has been hanging over along the military assistance and training assistance that has been given to Ukraine.

To what extent would you say that NATO’s response to the Ukraine war, especially as of late, reflects the health of the alliance?

I would say that the alliance is quite robust. Right now, it is a 32-member alliance. There are many different interests that have been able to overcome their differences to provide important levels of support to Ukraine.

If you think about other historical large alliances that existed, they do not do nearly as well as NATO. The Warsaw Pact could not survive regime change, and no one really liked it in the first place. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that Russia leads now has seen a lot of fragmentation, with no CSTO allies really giving meaningful military assistance. While Belarus has given a staging ground, none of Russia’s treaty allies have given significant support, let alone have contributed to the fighting itself. Armenia has announced its intent to withdraw from the alliance, although whether they will follow through is another question. The fact that Russia had to reach out and form yet another military alliance with North Korea suggests that Russia does not see its existing alliances as adequate.

The difficulties within NATO are not ones we should dismiss. There are important challenges that the alliance faces and will face in the future, especially if elections go in a certain way in November in the United States. It is an alliance with a history of lurching from one crisis to another, precisely because it is made up largely of democratic republics. It is also a very large alliance. But if you look at other alliances and the larger empirical record regarding military alliances, NATO is doing very well.

What adjustments might NATO need to make to align with U.S. foreign policy changes if Trump is elected President in November?

We got one glimpse of how U.S. strategy would be under a Trump 2.0 with how Trump was envisioning the structure of the U.S. Forces in 2019-2020. Trump and his administration discussed a significant shift in the force posture of the U.S. with regards to Europe. They called for a withdrawal of some assets, especially from Germany, and relocation of others, perhaps in more flexible formats, in and around Central and Eastern Europe. I am not sure if he would really go about a complete withdrawal from European security, but any predictions of what Trump will do are very difficult.

The U.S. bailed out Europe in 2022 with the sheer size of the military assistance that it gave to Ukraine. At that time, Europe would not have had the wherewithal to go it alone and needed the time that U.S. bought it. In 2024, Europe is in a better position to go it alone, although maybe not as well as it could if the U.S. remained an indispensable partner. However, because of that additional time the U.S. was able to buy Europe, the Europeans now have much more industrial capacity for various deterrence and defence measures in addition to providing military assistance to Ukraine.

In some respects, the alliance is a little more Trump-proof than it would have been a couple years ago. This is far from perfect: Europe is very complicated. However, industrial defence, cooperation, and production have been the most important factors by which Europe can provide themselves greater security, regardless as to what happens this November.

What challenges and opportunities Canada expect going into the NATO summit?

Canada has done a terrible job. Frankly, regarding our defence commitments, we have been very derelict. We are in the embarrassing position of being the only NATO country to cut defence spending when everyone else is increasing spending precisely because the world is becoming much more dangerous. There is a greater premium in being as self-reliant as one can be, although that itself is very challenging in an interdependent context, like the Euro-Atlantic.

Therefore, Canada already has made it very difficult for itself. I do not necessarily expect Canada to be brow-beaten during the summit, but there is bipartisan angst towards Canada for its dereliction of duties in this domain. Some European countries do not take the Canada seriously. Canada sometimes does not even get mentioned in some leading policy in academic conferences.

Canada is absent. That is a challenge that will require a lot of national attention, resources, and several years to remedy. This will be the case no matter the substance of the Washington summit or even the election later this year. But it is one that Canadians should certainly recognize as characterizing their country’s place in this world.

Do not expect too much of practical significance from the Washington summit. The NATO summits in Warsaw in 2016, or Madrid in 2022, are much more significant precisely because they led to practical decisions, namely the posturing of the importance of presence in Central Eastern Europe and a planned upgrade to brigade size.

So, I do not foresee any breakthrough announcements. I would temper whatever expectations people have of it. It is a summit that will probably grow in symbolic importance, pending certain events in certain countries’ national elections. Practically, however, I would not expect too much.

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