Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen

From the islands of the South China Sea to Korea's DMZ, the tribes of Arabia across Africa and throughout Europe, red lines have been setting agendas and changing history for centuries.

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Chapter 11: NATO, A Most Eternal Line

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Chapter 11: NATO, A Most Eternal Line

In Episode 11 of A Red Line in the Sand, a companion podcast to the book of the same title, author David Andelman examines the nearly impregnable red line surrounding the 30 members of NATO - the North Atlantic Alliance.

David Andelman: We have already explored many red lines on our global journey, but one still looms large. It is perhaps the most unchallenged of all. This red line is the one that surrounds NATO, established by the Western alliance as a bulwark against potential threats. First were the Soviets and their Cold War allies. Today, there is Russia and its outlying client states of Central Asia, the ’Stans, and a handful of outposts managed by the Kremlin from Moldova to Belarus.

I’m David Andelman, author of the new book A Red Line in the Sand. I’m your host as we hopscotch around the world in this 12-part podcast. Together, we’re examining the red line boundaries that have changed history, set political agendas, spilled blood and smoothed paths toward peace.

Today, in episode 11, we’re examining the nearly impregnable red line that surrounds the 30 members of NATO … the North Atlantic Alliance.

The NATO red line came to be in August 1941, off the coast of Newfoundland. President Roosevelt on the US cruiser August, and Prime Minister Churchill on the British battleship, Prince of Wales, were anchored together. This was a pre-war discussion between only Britain and the United States, still four months away from entering World War II. The document that emerged would become known as the Atlantic Charter. It had eight key points, including self-determination for all people, free trade, full economic collaboration, and no use of force, except if one or the other was threatened from the outside.

Both Churchill and Roosevelt returned to their respective capitals, each to a hero’s welcome. New York Times correspondent James MacDonald reported: “Bronzed by the sun and sea breezes, Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived back in London amid vociferous cheers from an admiring populace.” If anyone doubted that this meeting was historic, that was soon dispelled. An impressive group of dignitaries met Churchill at King’s Cross Station when his train arrived—Clement Attlee, Lord Privy Seal; Anthony Eden, foreign secretary; and Albert V. Alexander, first lord of the admiralty. Churchill made a speech to the British people that following Sunday describing the conference. It was carried by national networks in the United States as well. This was clearly the most important moment for these two countries, which together would be responsible for defending themselves and their allies. At Christmas, the two leaders gathered again, this time in Washington to light the national Christmas tree. President Roosevelt set out the challenge:

President Franklin Roosevelt: The year 1941 has brought upon our nation a war of aggression by powers dominated by rulers dedicated to destroying free institutions. They would thereby take from the freedom-loving peoples of the earth the hard-won liberties gained over many centuries. The new year of 1942 calls for the courage and the resolution of old and young to help to win a world struggle in order that we may preserve all that we hold dear.

DA: The next day, Churchill went before a joint session of the American Congress….

Prime Minister Winston Churchill: Some people may be startled when like your president I speak of a long and a hard war. Our peoples would rather know the truth, somber though it be. And after all, when we are doing the noblest work in the world, not only defending our hearths and homes, but the cause of freedom in every land, the question of whether deliverance comes in 1942 or 1943 or 1944 falls into its proper place in the grand proportions of human history.

DA: Eight years later, the Atlantic Charter would form the foundation for the NATO alliance. Its twelve founding nations pledged a common goal: To secure peace in Europe, to promote cooperation among its members and to guard their freedom. This was all in the context of threats posed by the Soviet Union. The founding treaty commits the Allies to democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law, as well as to peaceful resolution of disputes. Importantly, the treaty sets out the idea of collective defense, meaning that an attack against one Ally is an attack against all Allies.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization–or NATO–ensures that the security of its European member countries is inseparably linked to that of its North American member countries. The critical issue, and the heart of NATO’s virtual boundary lines, is one-for-all and all-for-one. Over the next six years, the Soviet Union watched the growing unity of NATO with anxiety. Finally, in 1955, the Soviet Union created its own counterpart. It united its client states across Eastern Europe—Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania. Known as the Warsaw Pact, its boundary with the West was as inviolable as NATO’s boundaries with the East.

But there was one paramount difference between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact was not a mutual defense pact. No Warsaw member was in any position militarily to confront a massive incursion on their own, without help from the Soviet Union. While Britain and France each maintained its own independent nuclear arsenal, no Warsaw Pact nation other than the Soviet Union possessed any nuclear weapon. At the same time, forces of the Warsaw Pact were fully prepared to invade other members of the pact to enforce adherence to the Kremlin line. This was demonstrated twice in its first 15 years. Soviet-backed Warsaw Pact forces rolled through Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. They violently suppressed the Hungarian Revolution and brought an end to the Prague Spring. All other elements of the Atlantic Charter—self-determination and freedom of choice—had no place in the Warsaw Pact.

Other nations were added to the initial NATO dozen following the breakup of the Soviet Union, including all the founding members of the Warsaw Pact and the three Baltic Soviet republics. The red line that surrounded NATO expanded accordingly. There has never been an overt effort to penetrate that line. This effective red line has been as inviolable as any in the world. But as we shall see, it has been tested.

There are three sets of red lines that I would describe as intractable. We examined two in our last two episodes: the Durand Line in Afghanistan and the lines that separate Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land today. The third is the set of NATO boundaries. These immutables are not truly red lines, but rather black ones. Each is a hard line, likely never to be breached. We must find a way to live with them. Attempts to destroy or erase them may be as dangerous to the world order as allowing them to remain in place.

Vladimir Putin has never been very happy about the extension of NATO’s lines, especially as his beloved Soviet Union came unglued and the alliance added former Warsaw Pact allies and Soviet republics. He has repeatedly poked and prodded the lines, testing them at every perceived vulnerable point. Putin came to power at a particularly tumultuous moment in Russia’s history. Russia was on the verge of collapse. In the midst of a vicious war in Chechnya, a series of bombings of massive apartment blocks left more than 300 dead and a thousand injured, spreading fear across the country. The economy, too, was collapsing. A decaying, alcoholic president, Boris Yeltsin, named former KGB officer Vladimir Putin as his prime minister. On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin resigned and Putin took over completely. Putin went to work. For the next five years, Putin focused on bolstering the impoverished nation and quickly strengthening Russia’s armed forces. By 2007, Putin was ready. His first direct target was the former Soviet republic of Estonia. As we examined in Episode Five, Moscow embarked on a crippling cyberattack that lasted three weeks. Estonia had become a member of NATO just three years earlier along with Latvia and Lithuania. Several years later, I spoke to Estonia’s foreign minister at the time, Urmas Paet. I asked him why his nation had not invoked Article Five of the NATO charter, which holds that an attack on one member is an attack on all. There were no actual casualties of this war, Paet told me. This was his red line.

Article Five has only been invoked once - on September 11th, 2001. Unlike the 9/11 attack, the Estonian cyber-attack had not led to any loss of life. What it did accomplish, however, was the creation in May 2008 of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre. Located in an old military post on the outskirts of Tallinn, it has become a bulwark against large-scale attacks on NATO by any power. Russia is clearly the leading target, but the Kremlin largely seems to have learned that lesson. NATO’s cyber red line has never been tested again in any such systematic fashion. Even the Russian attack on the United States’ 2016 election never rose to the same level as the across-the-board attack on Estonia’s entire infrastructure and government. Putin has clearly learned, at least in this respect, how far he could go.

One of Putin’s objectives is to reassemble the Soviet empire, which he believed had been torn apart unreasonably. Putin has retained the loyalty of a number of former Soviet republics, particularly the Asian ’Stans. He has been building his own new red line in opposition to NATO and with a nod to the old Warsaw Pact. Forming the Commonwealth of Independent States, known as the CIS, each member state, with the exception of Moldova, signed the Collective Security Treaty. Known as the Tashkent Pact, the military forces of the members have held periodic maneuvers to “boost their joint defense capabilities.” Moreover, the KGB’s successor, the FSB, maintains close ties with the security services of most of these states, particularly in Central Asia.

In 2000, the year Putin came to power in Moscow, “Russia backed the establishment of a CIS Antiterrorist Center, headquartered in Moscow with a branch in Kyrgyzstan. Its “mandate was to create a database for intelligence sharing among the security services of all member countries.” Andrei Soldatov, perhaps the leading independent Russian monitoring the FSB and author of two landmark books on the subject, believes this has deep roots:

Andrei Soldatov: Well I think that right from the beginning, right from 2000, when he became a president, he wanted to expand the influence of Russia's secret services and to make it matter. And of course, his first goal was to reset the relationship with the secret services of the post Soviet Union.

DA: All of these nations are Putin’s “near abroad,” and he has been determined to hold his friends close and potential enemies closer. Clearly, the Baltic republics were a difficult loss. But now firmly behind the NATO red line, reclaiming them was just too challenging. Putin’s next adventures were against Georgia in 2008 and Crimea, followed by Ukraine itself, in 2014. Each has proved to be a substantial victory for Putin. His seizure of Crimea was the first substantial redrawing of Russian boundaries since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But his other ventures have also had success—effectively redrawing psychological red lines. Neither Georgia nor Ukraine—despite their recent elections of pro-Western leaders—has taken any significant steps toward joining NATO. Still, Soldatov believes that NATO is of enormous use to Putin and his Kremlin allies far beyond a reflection of its external threat that must be neutered.

AS: In most cases, they use the NATO threat as an excuse to fight problems they have. Political problems, not military, but political problems, in the countries they think are important for political stability of Russia.

DA: But these challenges are useful for NATO too. In December 2017, NATO’s secretary general observed that the alliance was committed to providing Georgia with the advice and tools it needs to advance toward eventual NATO membership.

The operative word, surely not lost on the Kremlin, was “eventual.” Two years later, the Russian Foreign Minister said: “we do not want to see NATO near us.” He added that if Georgia did accept an offer of NATO membership, “we will not start a war, but such conduct will undermine our relations with NATO and with countries who are eager to enter the alliance.”

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Russia’s efforts to test NATO’s red lines do not seem to be exhausted. Russia has repeatedly flexed its muscles around NATO’s borders, particularly on the oceans and in air space near the northern NATO periphery. Among the most blatant such actions took place in August 2019 in the Norwegian Sea. Some 30 Russian ships armed with cruise missiles, along with submarines and aircrafts, undertook a complex operation. This operation was designed to block NATO’s access to its northern flank - the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and the Norwegian Sea. Norway’s Chief of Defense, Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, described Russia's goals and NATO's mission:

Haakon Bruun-Hanssen: We need to be aware, not naïve, that we need to have the military capability that is capable of clearly indicating what our interests are and that we are capable of protecting them.

DA: Six months after the latest Russian naval exercise, British monitoring picked up seven Russian warships “lingering” in the English Channel. The British Royal Navy deployed nine of its own ships to monitor them off the coast. A Navy statement read: “The navy has completed a concentrated operation to shadow the Russian warships after unusually high levels of activity in the English Channel and North Sea.” Russian warships often travel through the channel to and from the Baltic and the Mediterranean. This time, they just hung around. Too long. There were also two incidents when Royal Air Force Typhoon jets scrambled to intercept Russian bombers north of the Shetland Islands heading into transatlantic passenger airline routes. In all of these cases, NATO forces have stood firm and Russia has not gone further in its provocative acts. But there may be a greater danger to the NATO alliance’s red lines. Forces that could fracture NATO from within may be more toxic to the long-standing and immutable red lines of the alliance than any external threat.

These challenges from within have increased since the inauguration of Donald Trump. Trump believed most NATO members were not paying enough for their defense and the upkeep of the alliance. In July 2018, he decided to force the issue. At an emergency summit in Brussels, Trump warned that if every country did not begin spending at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense within six months, he would “do his own thing.” At that same summit, he also condemned Germany’s purchase of vital natural gas from Russia. Such transactions, he held, weaken the alliance from within.

President Donald Trump: Germany, as far as I'm concerned, is captive to Russia because it's getting so much of its energy from Russia.

DA: Trump believed that transactions like this one foster reliance on an external power for a strategic resource that could be used for blackmail. This could be as toxic to NATO as insufficient defense spending. Trump admitted he was pulling no punches.

DT: I told people I would be very unhappy if they didn't up their commitments substantially because the United States has been paying a tremendous amount, probably 90% of the costs of NATO, and now people and countries are going to start upping their commitments.

DA: To a degree, he even got his way at this session. Several members pledged $266 billion in new military outlays by 2024, though that would still leave some members shy of the 2 percent threshold. But Trump could not grasp what success seemed to be his for the taking. He promptly upped the ante to a demand for 4 percent of GDP by each NATO nation, more even than the United States spent at the time. After Trump raised the bar, he promptly turned tail and left. The Bulgarian president, Rumen Radev, took the floor and asked NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to react. Radev described what immediately followed. ““I asked Stoltenberg about the ‘what if’ scenarios. What happens with the transatlantic link, which is the backbone of NATO, if we don’t reach the 2 percent target, not speaking of a 4 percent target,” Radev said. “I asked my question, and there was silence.”

Many NATO nations did raise their defense spending in response. But there were others whose fragile economies simply would not allow such a dramatic boost. Some began to fear what might happen were they ever attacked. Would NATO, and its American military backbone, recognize Article Five if a nation below the 2 percent threshold were threatened? Not surprisingly, European partners began to think about themselves. After all, Donald Trump’s nationalist operating philosophy was “America First.”

In November 2018, Trump was due to arrive in France to celebrate the centenary of the armistice that ended World War I. But two days before, French President Macron proposed a European Defense Force, suggesting that Europe could no longer rely unequivocally on the United States, and by extension NATO, to assure its defense. Trump was furious. He promptly shot back that the French “were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along,” referring to World War II. A thirst for gratitude seemed to be taking a front-row seat to actual strategy. NATO had never before seemed to be so on the ropes. Fortunately, other issues distracted Trump. And several countries did raise their military spending substantially.

A year later, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg paid a fence-mending trip to the White House. He thanked Trump for his “strong leadership and commitment to the Alliance.” As he left, he and Trump both talked briefly with a gaggle of American and European reporters outside the West Wing entrance:

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: The United States is not only committed to NATO and Europe in words but also in deeds. For the first time since the end of the Cold War we see an increase in US forces in Europe, leading one of the battle groups in the Baltics and increasing them in Europe. So this is a strong sign of the US commitment to NATO.

DA: Comments like these allowed Trump to claim that without him, NATO would never have had the resources it was developing. Still, the “resources” he claimed to have won for NATO were in fact committed by the individual members to their own defense. Still, all this sturm und drang has left NATO intact, though the European Defense Initiative has not died either. What has died, it would seem, is a bit of the internal unity that preserved the NATO red lines so definitively through most of its existence. Though the unanimity of thought and action were beginning to evaporate, the external red line remained. Still, Turkey, a NATO member and guardian of its southeastern flank, purchased an advanced anti-missile defense system from Russia, then joined Russia in an operation in Syria that forced the US to pull back its forces. Internal challenges to the alliance, to its indispensable unity, cannot be ignored. As I have sought to convey in the course of our series, any red line is only as strong as the determination of those who live on either side.

You may recall from Episode Five that in August 1978, I visited the village of Szombathely, less than ten miles from the Hungarian frontier with Austria. It was one of the most carefully patrolled red lines in Europe—the most direct point of contact between the Warsaw Pact and the West. Tall guard posts were spaced close together. There were strands of wire well inside the actual frontier. And carefully raked earth would identify a single footprint of anyone foolish enough to try to sprint to freedom. Today, barbed wire is going up again. Along Hungary’s border with Serbia, a fellow member of NATO, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, ordered a $500 million fence built. It is even more elaborate, more high-tech, more secure than the barrier the Soviets once built. Viktor Orban’s fence is double-hung with razor wire. There are loudspeakers that announce if someone is approaching too close. It is heavily patrolled.

60 Minutes spoke to Laszlo Toroczkai, mayor of a small Hungarian border town. His was among the loudest voices insisting that the Hungarian government build the wall. He said it was about preserving European values. The 60 Minutes correspondent Jon Wertheim asked the mayor what that meant. “For me,” Toroczkai said, “the European values are the classical music. Mozart. Beethoven. Tchaikovsky,” It goes beyond pleasures of the ear, though. He also objects to mixing tastes, or it would seem almost anything else. “The foods,” he continued. “For example, the doner kebab, in Berlin, Budapest? No, I would like to eat the doner kebab in Istanbul.” “You’re spending a half a billion dollars on a fence to keep out doner kebabs?” Wertheim asked. “You know—we need this border fence to preserve our safe country,” Toroczkai said.

But there is one fundamental difference between now and the ’70s. The Soviet red line was designed to keep people in, and ideas out. Viktor Orban’s red line has a different purpose. His is designed to keep people out. He feels that immigrants threaten Hungarian security and their way of life. Ideas seem to be immaterial. At the same time, by keeping out these immigrants, the Orban line is keeping ideas out. Ideas that suggest the role compassion and promise can play in improving the human condition. Red lines can sustain that purpose, or when misguided, destroy it. In the end, red lines are most deeply dependent on where you are coming from and where you are going.

So now we are left with one final stop: the shape of the world during Covid-19 and how the worst pandemic in a century may be transforming these traditional barricades.

Thanks for listening. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll check out my new book from Pegasus, "A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen."

If you’re enjoying the show, make sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts to help other fans of history and adventure find the show.

Red Lines is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. My special thanks to producer Isabel Robertson, engineer Sean Rule-Hoffman, and executive producers Michael de Aloia and Gerardo Orlando.

Visit evergreenpodcasts.com to access a transcript and get more info on the show. Subscribe to the podcast to see the next episode in your feed the moment it’s published. See you next time!

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