It could indeed be argued that Putin’s ultimate aim is no less than to achieve the age-old Soviet goal of breaking up NATO and driving the U.S. out of Europe once and for all. He evidently believes that NATO’s expansion following the Cold War brought on board weak and vulnerable states who cannot easily be defended, and that NATO’s resolve to defend them is itself fundamentally weak. He views the drawdown in U.S. forces from Europe and the steep reduction in defense spending by most European allies as indicative of diminished capabilities. He sows disarray by driving refugees into Europe through reckless bombing of civilians in Syria. Exposing NATO as a hollow shell through a combination of aggression and intimidation, he seeks eventually to create in its wake a new security system in Europe with Russia at its core.
All of this underscores what is at stake for NATO today, which is above all the need to reinforce the credibility of its deterrent power. There can be, and there have been, honest differences of opinion about how much to support an independent country subject to Russian aggression such as Ukraine, which Russia covets as a kind of vassal state and for whom the U.S. and its European allies have no treaty obligations. Critics on both sides have argued persuasively both that muscular support to Ukraine was critical to checking Russia elsewhere and that doing so was futile, provocative or both. But when it comes to any potential Russian threat to NATO member states there can be no debate and no ambiguity whatsoever.
American security, and that of all of our treaty allies, depends utterly on the credibility of NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee—the certainty that the alliance collectively will spring to the defense of a member state threatened with, or subject to, attack.