It has been widely asserted that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has been grappling with an identity crisis after the abrupt end of the Cold War. The military alliance has been struggling to define its role in a world now devoid of the existential Soviet threat while being bogged down in out-of-area counter-terrorism campaigns. Adding to its struggles, NATO has been dealing with the daunting task of maintaining unity among member states with varying national interests and divergent threat perceptions. As a result, it has faced criticisms of obsolescence, both from within and without, hence coming up short in justifying its continued existence in a rapidly changing global landscape for three decades until Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

NATO has experienced a resurgence of unity and resolve. Reminiscent of its Cold War genesis, the Russian threat has once again galvanized the allies by reconstituting an overarching geopolitical rationale of deterring Russia from aggression.

The invasion of Ukraine has thus served as a wake-up call for the member states who now collectively share the same threat perception as their Baltic or Eastern allies. Moreover, they recognize the strategic imperative of meeting the alliance’s security requirements by ramping up defense production. They have also successfully held the line on supporting Ukraine, militarily and financially and having the money to not yield to Russia’s political arm-twisting on reduced energy supplies to Europe.

NATO’s reinvigorated resolve is perhaps most visible in the scale of the Steadfast Defender 2024, the largest Military exercise in decades that began in February. The months-long drills will involve 90,000 allied personnel, more than 1,000 combat vehicles, 50 naval vessels, and 80 aircraft.

Following Russia’s invasion, NATO’s operational readiness has been repeatedly called into question, these drills therefore could be intended to address the prevailing skepticism by demonstrating a credible show of force. They could also underline a unified commitment to both friends and foes that NATO remains steadfast in ensuring a cohesive and decisive response to any threat, especially from Russia. This has reinforced the deterrence posture that has been central to the alliance’s foundational principles.

Strengthening deterrence is a core tenet of the new Strategic Concept 2022, characterized by a commitment to proactive defense by deploying multi-domain combat-ready forces, especially on the Eastern flank. Coincidentally, the concept draws parallels with the dynamic forward defense strategy of the Cold War era. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has conceded this strategic recalibration as being the biggest overhaul of NATO’s collective defense and deterrence to date.

The defense overhaul also includes the ‘Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space’ (APSS) initiative. Seemingly, this project underscores an appreciation of the integral role played by space-based ISR and AI-automated intelligence processing in the Russo-Ukraine war.

It is centered on integrating government-owned and commercial space assets to enhance NATO’s intelligence capabilities using cloud-based solutions and AI tools.

Such initiatives had become necessary, considering Finland’s accession to NATO last April instantly doubled the length of Russia’s border with the Alliance. Similarly, Sweden’s recent accession to NATO will undoubtedly be consequential on the geopolitical chessboard by potentially transforming the Baltic Sea into a “NATO lake”. Hyperboles aside, the Baltic Sea has acquired renewed geopolitical primacy and along with it, the potential to become a new regional flashpoint like the Black Sea.

However, operationalizing its extensive military plans and projects requires NATO member states to follow through with their decade-old commitment to increase national defense spending to 2 percent of GDP. Defense spending has increasingly been a matter of intense debate and remains a bone of contention with the US in particular. Former US President Donald Trump has been a frequent vocal critic on this issue. Most recently, during a rally on 10 February, he once again reiterated his position of disregarding collective defense in the wake of a potential Russian attack against “delinquent” states not meeting the defense spending threshold.

His comments might have irked European leaders but certainly would have reinforced the assumption that in the future, NATO’s credibility could no longer depend on the man in the Oval Office, so European states would have to step up and carry their weight. There may have been a time when NATO allies took US security guarantees for granted, however, such complacency will no longer do. Resultantly, there has been a palpable strategic realization among member states to collectively defend Europe with or without US aid.

This realization could not have come any sooner as the alliance will mark its 75th Anniversary this year amid renewed Great Power competition. Cognisant of the evolving world politics, NATO has been making inroads in the Indo-Pacific as well while also gearing up for a looming conflict with Russia and its allies. From an alliance that was declared “brain-dead” a few years ago by President Emmanuel Macron, to currently one that is collectively brainstorming how to address its external challenges and internal divisions, NATO’s reinvigorated resolve will be tested by the turbulent winds of geopolitics. It thus remains to be seen whether its member states can stay the course and address the gap in their rhetoric and reality regarding the materialization of their strategic recalibration.

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