For decades, as the world perched on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, NATO had more than a million troops pressed against the Iron Curtain, ready and capable of waging war against the Soviet Union.

Until the 1970s, pairs of Canadian Starfighter warplanes, armed with nuclear bombs, were on 15-minute readiness, part of the North Atlantic Treat Organization’s “quick reaction” strike force that was ready to obliterate Russian tank columns in the Fulda Gap before they could reach the Rhine. More than 6,000 Canadian troops were permanently stationed in Germany. It was an era when the stark reality of NATO’s mutual defence pact meant Canadians and Americans were poised – not just pledged – to fight and die to keep Communist legions out of Western Europe.

Now, as NATO leaders gather for what was originally billed as an “Out of Afghanistan” summit, they face the worst military crisis in decades in Europe. Finding a response to Moscow’s incursions in Ukraine – and finding the money to make it credible – poses a grave test for the alliance.

“We take our Article 5 commitments to defend each other very seriously, and that includes the smallest NATO member,” U.S. President Barack Obama vowed as he headed for Estonia and then on to the summit. But whether Russian President Vladimir Putin believes NATO has the political will to back its tough talk with action remains uncertain.

The identity crisis

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO spent most of the next quarter-century seeking new roles in far-off conflicts and nearly doubling in membership – from 16 to 28 nations – while dwindling in combat capability and overall defence spending. The alliance, still the world’s most powerful, fought its first “hot” war over Balkan skies in 1999 as warplanes from a dozen nations, including Canada, pounded Serb targets for months, setting the stage for an independent Kosovo.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, NATO nations collectively waged a long-running counter-insurgency campaign against the Taliban while attempting to prop up the Afghan government in Kabul. Almost all NATO nations, and a dozen non-members, were involved – with the number of foreign troops peaking at more than 150,000. But after more than a decade in Afghanistan, the outcome of NATO’s biggest war remains murky and most nations, including Canada, have packed up and left.

In 2011, NATO warplanes were back in action for eight months of air strikes that eventually toppled Libya’s ruthless dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But the successful air war, commanded by Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, soured in the aftermath as Libya slid into a continuing civil war.

With its expeditionary wars at best a mixed success, NATO was still struggling to find a 21st-century reason to exist. “In some ways, NATO should thank Vladimir Putin because it was really searching for its purpose,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “[It] was having a fairly significant identity crisis and now has now not only been repurposed, it’s been reinvigorated.”

The wake-up call

Even before next week’s summit and even as Russian tank columns penetrate deeper into eastern Ukraine, Mr. Obama has made it clear what NATO is not going to do. There will be no war to defend Ukraine, a non-NATO nation.

“It is not in the cards for us to see a military confrontation between Russia and the United States,” Mr. Obama said this week as he prepared for a presummit stop in Estonia.

But NATO will add serious military presence, especially to its rapid reaction force. The Polish base at Szczecin, already a NATO headquarters, will likely host thousands of troops from other nations rotating every few months. The alliance is also expected to step up its multi-national combat air patrols close to the Russian frontier in the three Baltic member states – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – and push forward with more warships in the North Atlantic.

Leaders at the summit in Cardiff will be “trying to skate a fine line,” said Colonel George Petrolekas, a former strategic adviser to Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

“There’s a need to demonstrate a commitment to NATO’s eastern allies, but not go so far as to provoke a second round of the Cold War.”

The new front line

Ukraine will dominate the summit but it’s hardly NATO’s only unravelling crisis. In Syria and Iraq, on NATO’s southern flank, major conflicts threaten to spread and destabilize the region. And the end game, at least for the alliance, is playing out in Afghanistan.

Enlargement is supposedly off the agenda, especially for small Balkan aspirants such as Bosnia. Both Finland and Sweden may want in – and together they would redraw the northern flank. Ukraine, in a plea for military help, called Friday for full NATO membership.

With very different wars in Ukraine and in Iraq and Syria where Islamic State extremists are attempting carve out a caliphate, “leaders of NATO member states don’t have the luxury of ignoring one or the other; they are going to have to look at both,” said Janine Davidson at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Perhaps NATO’s biggest challenge, says Ms. Davidson, is how to cope with the “rising threat of unconventional warfare: namely, Russia’s ‘covert, implausibly deniable invasion’ of Ukraine and the rampaging ISIS forces in the Middle East.”

Meanwhile, the Arctic – where climate change is turning a Cold War confrontation zone limited to nuclear-powered submarines into a potential Klondike at the top of the world – will also be on the summit agenda.

On that front, Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to deliver the message that “we cannot be complacent about Russia and its military activities in the Arctic,” said Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, who was on the Prime Minister’s most recent northern tour.

WASHINGTON — The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Aug. 29 2014, 8:53 PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Aug. 29 2014, 9:49 PM EDT