The Realist Prism: Libya Could Shift NATO Focus Southward

By Nikolas Gvosdev

The commencement of military operations in Libya has led to some unexpected reactions in Eastern European capitals. It was widely expected that Russia, whose uneasiness with the very principle of humanitarian intervention is well-known, would have used its veto at the U.N. Security Council to block the passage of Resolution 1973. After all, Russia's firm opposition to the Kosovo intervention in 1999 led the United States to work through NATO rather than bring the matter to the Security Council. And Moscow has had a clear track record over the last decade of resisting Western calls for intervention on humanitarian grounds in places like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma. Yet Russia chose to abstain from the vote on the Libya resolution, not veto it, and in the absence of Russian resistance, China chose not to be the lone standout on the issue. While there has subsequently been a great deal of criticism -- most notably expressed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- emanating from some circles in Russia, there has been no indication that Moscow is prepared to take any drastic steps to register its displeasure.

At the same time, Poland, which traditionally has been one of the strongest proponents of the concept of a "league of democracies" and sent contingents to Iraq and Afghanistan, was far less enthused about the prospects of the Libya operation. Warsaw's reluctance to endorse the Libya mission, combined with its decision to play no active role in it, caught many American policymakers by surprise. Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke for many in Washington when he expressed his concerns with the "passively neutral stand that Poland has taken on this issue."

However, Moscow's lack of existential concern over the Libya mission and Warsaw's cool reaction to it are more understandable when we consider that both Russia and Poland sense the operation may prove to be a turning point in the future direction of the North Atlantic alliance.

Only a few short years ago, it seemed that NATO was beginning to coalesce around a post-Cold War purpose: the extension of the Euro-Atlantic zone deep into the Eurasian hinterland. Even as the alliance embraced the stabilization mission in Afghanistan, a third wave of expansion brought the Baltic States into NATO and efforts began to encourage other post-Soviet states, notably Ukraine and Georgia, to move along the path to membership. Meanwhile, a Yeltsin administration which had proven to be relatively compliant with Western directives was replaced by a more assertive Putin administration anxious to reclaim a Russian sphere of influence in its immediate geopolitical neighborhood. That allowed some in the West to argue that NATO's original mission of "keeping the Russians out" of Europe was still relevant, even in a post-Cold War context.

But this led to tensions within NATO, which were famously on display in the 2008 Bucharest summit. A resurgent Russia might indeed have been throwing its weight around, but Western Europeans did not see Moscow as an existential threat. Russian tanks might cross the border into Georgia, but they weren't going to be gunning across the Elbe and through the Fulda Gap, or racing for the English Channel anytime soon. NATO's continued eastward focus was at odds with attempts -- particularly on the part of the Germans, the Italians and the French -- to build new economic and security partnerships with Russia.

Over time, the intractable nature of the Afghan conflict also drained away whatever enthusiasm there might be have been for promoting stability and reconstruction in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. When the Obama administration came into office, it tried to convince its partners in NATO that the Afghan mission was the defining test of the relevance of NATO. Indeed, in March 2011, Defense Secretary Robert Gates read the riot act to NATO defense ministers, bluntly stating, "Frankly, there is too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right; too much discussion of exit and not enough discussion about continuing the fight; too much concern about when and how many troops might redeploy and not enough about what needs to be done before they leave."

But the Libya mission, when combined with the ongoing deployment of a NATO task force off the shores of Somalia, provides a new rationale for the alliance's existence: securing the soft southern underbelly of Europe from the threats that lie across the water. Afghanistan is far away, and its chaos unlikely to be solved anytime soon. Why not, therefore, expend time, effort and resources to stabilizing the Mediterranean basin, in effect declaring it to be NATO's "mare nostrum"?

Such a shift would fit very well with France's own conception of European security, reinforce France's claims to renewed leadership within the alliance, and permit Paris to avoid the zero-sum choice of either improving its ties with NATO or pushing ahead with a new partnership with Russia. In turn, Moscow need not fear the rejuvenation of the North Atlantic alliance if its primary field of focus and activity turns toward North Africa instead of the Eurasian steppes.

That kind of change in focus, however, would be regarded with unease in the former Soviet-bloc states of Eastern Europe. While Poland's relations with Russia have been steadily improving over the past year, there is no doubt that Warsaw would prefer to see NATO's attention remain focused on expanding its eastern vector. That explains why the Polish government might be less sanguine about a NATO mission in Libya that could end up demanding a great deal of time and engagement.

For NATO, however, this could be a "Tilsit" moment. Just as Napoleon Bonaparte reached an accord with Tsar Alexander in 1807 that stopped France's eastern advance, permitting Paris to focus more time and attention on the empire's southern flanks, the Libya mission could be the alliance's first step toward formally abandoning any further eastward expansion. By this argument, the stabilization of the Baltic basin has been accomplished: Europe's natural frontiers in the east have been reached at the Vistula and the western shore of the Black Sea, and now it is time to look south.

In doing so, NATO would effectively acknowledge that the status quo achieved in the borderlands between Europe and Russia is likely to last, with Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych assuming a "neutral" status marked by the pursuit of a balanced approach to both Moscow and the West. Tilting the axis of NATO away from an East-West divide and toward a North-South bridge diminishes the relevance of Western "beachheads" across the Black Sea: If the future of the alliance is the Mediterranean basin, not the Eurasian plains, a NATO-aspirant country like Georgia becomes far more distant and peripheral to the alliance.

Russia's 2010 military doctrine identified the continued expansion of NATO as a prime security threat to the country. But an Atlantic alliance that looks south instead of east would be a NATO that Russia could learn to live -- and even partner -- with. The effort to oust Moammar Gadhafi might have the unexpected consequence of allowing NATO to write a new chapter of its history not only with the Arab world, but also with Russia.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest, and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government