NATO at 70: Critical challenges ahead

Ezzat Ibrahim , Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 11 Apr 2019

Discussions were held last week between NATO’s divisions and the Egyptian press as part of celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the organisation’s foundation, writes Ezzat Ibrahim and Ahmed Eleiba from Brussels

Jens Stoltenberg and Donald Trump
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and President Donald Trump at the White House on April 2, 2019

Challenges facing the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) extend beyond pressures against its budget.

Russia’s military expansion outside its borders and into regions such as Crimea, Ukraine and Syria is causing the ire of NATO member states.

Also raising tensions in the organisation are the anticipated repercussions of Russia’s imminent withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

Among the unorthodox threats NATO is currently occupied with is the alliance’s approach towards developments in the fight against terrorism after the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) and the possibility of terrorists relocating in new countries.

Foreign IS recruits returning to their countries of origin from the wars in Iraq and Syria constitute a peril to their homeland — as well as to NATO — particularly in the absence of a clear strategy to neutralise their threats.

Cyber-attacks feature high among the list of hazards that are making NATO worrisome. Hence, the establishment of NATO’s Cyberspace Operations Centre in Mons in Belgium, to deter cyber-attacks against the infrastructure and polling stations during elections in NATO countries.

Afghanistan remains in the centre of NATO’s attention, amid uncertainties as to where the ongoing negotiations between the US and Taliban — in Doha — will lead.

Washington welcomed the celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary last week, an occasion commemorated by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s address to a joint session of Congress.

But the celebratory climate barely concealed the unprecedented strain between the US administration and the rest of the transatlantic alliance.

Since coming to power, US President Donald Trump has frequently criticised NATO policies, and while he may have softened his tone to a certain extent recently his stances continue to pose challenges to the alliance, especially on such matters as the distribution of the burden of military expenditures.

Stoltenberg appears resolved to try to overcome such challenges following the renewal of his term as secretary-general until 2020.

At the same time as the Washington commemoration, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) division of NATO’s Political Affairs and Security Policy Section and other bureaus arranged meetings between NATO officials and an Egyptian press delegation that included Al-Ahram Weekly.

The discussions addressed major issues of current concern to NATO against the backdrop of changes in the security environment in Europe and the Middle East.

What is NATO’s outlook on Russia’s policies towards Europe? How is it responding to new security threats such as cyber-warfare? What is its vision for counter-terrorist operations and mechanisms for cooperation between NATO and partners outside the alliance such as Egypt? The answers to such questions offer important insights into NATO’s thinking. 


Russia dominated the discussions since from NATO’s standpoint Russia presents a grave threat in the opinion of some of the officials at the meetings.

They outlined a two-pronged approach to handling the Russian threat: defence and deterrence measures, on the one hand, and averting a clash, avoiding isolating Russia and sustaining dialogue, on the other.

“The policy for dealing with Russia is a two-sided coin,” said a NATO source. “Since 2014, Russia has forced NATO to contend with aggressive modes of behaviour as exhibited in attacks against its neighbours, in the intensification and escalation of tactically offensive military manoeuvres which have lacked monitoring transparency, making it impossible to identify their goals, and in violations of the INF.”

“This is why we speak of the defensive and deterrent measures that need to be taken in order to protect NATO members. However, on the other side of the coin there is the dialogue process. We do not want a confrontation with Russia. Nor do we want to isolate it.”

According to the source, NATO has been forced to revise its position towards Russia since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and deployed combat units on its western borders. Such actions have necessitated a shift towards deterrent and defensive measures such as the deployment of military forces along the eastern border of NATO countries such as Romania and Poland.

Other responses have included NATO military patrols to monitor Russian military activity. Russia, in return, has boosted its military presence, though it denies the commonly cited statistics and argues that it is logistical support personnel for military activities that have led to the inflated figures.

“NATO does not accept this,” the source said.

On the other hand, some participants in the meetings feared that channels for NATO-Russian dialogue were narrowing. They noted that Russia had reduced its diplomatic presence in NATO countries.

There are now only 20 accredited diplomats at the ambassadorial level and only a Russian chargé d’affaires at NATO. Moscow stopped sending an ambassador to NATO a year and a half ago.

Ukraine is only one of the controversies fuelling tensions between NATO and Moscow. Among the others is the situation in Afghanistan where, according to the NATO officials at the meetings with the Egyptian press, there had been a certain level of coordination until 2014.

There had been channels of dialogue at that time in the framework of the relationship between Moscow and the Taliban regarding what was termed the “hybrid” warfare in the country.

Other sources of tension include the controversy over the Russian role in influencing the outcome of elections in various countries through cyber-attacks and the attempted murder of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK.

NATO officials find Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions worrisome. The source told the Egyptian journalists that “at present, I don’t think that the leadership structure in Russia will change as long as Putin is there, quite simply because he will not relinquish control.

He’s been there for more than 20 years. That is longer than Stalin. Russian young people know no other leader. He’s now 65 and is still youthful. Other Russian leaders are also similar to Putin, which is why it’s difficult to deal with them.”

On the Russian presence in Africa, those at the meetings believed that Putin is in the process of seizing a window of opportunity. One source said that “as I see it, Russia is in a race with China in Africa. Whenever China enters an area there, the Russians rush in too. But the Chinese come with investments, whereas the Russians lack such resources.”

In Syria, meanwhile, Russia has realised its long-standing dream of reaching a warm-water port, according to the source. “Russia has a military base in Syria. It has always dreamed of having a port on the Mediterranean.”

Some of the speakers harboured suspicions over how Russia was using religion as a foreign-policy tool. One of the participants said that “the Russians have their own Christian Church. It is clear that they miscalculated, however. It appears that they were planning to try to create a ‘second Rome’ through their presence in the Orthodox countries.”


An intelligence specialist in NATO outlined the alliance’s approach towards developments in the fight against terrorism, first addressing the question of definition on which there is still no consensus. 

“The term terrorist has been understood in terms of the political violence that has prevailed in the world against the backdrop of civil wars, political strife or violence inflicted by governments against civilians generating feelings of persecution, marginalisation and injustice, which spurs some of the marginalised and underprivileged to rebel. We have formulated a number of points in this regard, but the definition is still too loose.”

The expert said that NATO had no particular strategy for fighting terrorism when the term began to gain currency decades ago. “However, the situation changed after the 9 September attacks in 2001, at which point the organisation began to design counter-terrorist strategies and mechanisms. In this framework, NATO furnished cover for the war in Afghanistan and initiated a drive in the Mediterranean region to prevent terrorist groups from obtaining weapons of mass destruction,” he said.

According to the source, NATO had no specific counter-terrorism administration before the end of the first decade of this century. It was introduced in 2012 “when the allies began to examine how to fight terrorism collectively, as until that point countries dealt with the problem individually at the national level. From then on, NATO also became involved,” he said.

According to the expert, NATO has developed facilities, the most recent of which is NATO’s Cyberspace Operations Centre in Mons in Belgium, to deter cyber-attacks. Other programmes and activities focus on countering Improvised Explosive Devices, dismantling terrorist support and funding networks, and halting illicit arms flows.

The intelligence expert was sceptical with regards to optimism in response to the defeat of the IS group in Iraq a year ago and in Syria in March this year.

The military operations had not stopped the ideology carried by foreign IS recruits returning to their countries of origin from the wars in Iraq and Syria, he said.

He felt the need for a comprehensive plan, suggesting that the phenomenon was too dangerous and complex to be treated in an ad hoc manner or exclusively at the national level by the governments of the countries to which the recruits will be returning.

The question of how and where to put the terrorist fighters on trial was only one aspect of this complex question, and while the expert did not necessarily see eye-to-eye with Trump on how this was handled, he felt that “perhaps each country should bear the responsibility for prosecuting those of its citizens who had left the country for the crimes they had committed.”

“The next few years will be difficult,” he said. “There is concern that even if the returnees are put in prison, they will incite others to commit terrorist acts or will influence others with the same ideology.” He stressed the need to address “what attracts recruits to the terrorist organisation to begin with” and the need “to look to the future in how we approach this ideology”.

“It has to be stooped at the roots so that it doesn’t grow again. This means studying what influences these young people. They need to have the appropriate educational and employment opportunities to keep them from wanting to enlist in these types of groups,” he said.

Turkey And Russia

NATO has been troubled by Turkey’s relationship with Russia to the extent that during last week’s anniversary celebration it was strongly intimated that Ankara would have to choose between its membership of the pact and Moscow. 

One of the NATO officials at the meetings said that it should be borne in mind that “the bilateral relationship between the US and Turkey is their own business.” However, the question of the Russian S-400 missile system that Ankara had agreed to purchase from Russia had aspects of concern to NATO.

“Whether or not to go ahead with the purchase is Turkey’s decision, since it is a sovereign country. However, for NATO the question is to determine whether or not the system can work with NATO or whether it will be detrimental to NATO.” He stressed that alternative offers had been put to Turkey. 

The  MENA Region

The situation in Libya was the entry point for discussion of matters concerning NATO and the MENA region in the light of the role that NATO played in the overthrow of the former Gaddafi regime, the repercussions of which continue to play out in the continued collapse of government in Libya and the mounting political crisis. 

A NATO operations official described the types of tasks his organisation had performed in countries where NATO has intervened, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia and Afghanistan.

However, when the subject of Libya came up, the speaker spoke as if he were conscious of some of the criticisms that have been levelled against NATO involvement there.

“In all the cases, it was necessary to invoke Article 5 [of the North Atlantic Treaty], which authorises the use of force. In taking this decision there was the question of whether the intervention would be valuable.

If a decision is taken to invoke Article 5, this means there is a consensus among NATO members. Without such a decision, any intervention is bilateral.

In the Libyan case, it had not occurred to us that we would actually have to intervene. If someone had told us before we invoked Article 5 that we would actually intervene we would not have believed him,” he said.

The source went on to explain that NATO’s intervention in Libya had come from a UN Security Council Resolution. “The Gaddafi regime did things that necessitated a response from the international community.

Therefore, we took measures to enforce a flight ban, impose a naval blockade, and to keep Gaddafi from threatening his own people. NATO worked to realise the desires of the international community with respect to the situation in Libya at the time.

It had not foreseen what would happen in the future. That was not one of its tasks. There was no planning for the future. This affected Libya’s neighbours, I believe. They could also have done more than they did.”

With respect to Afghanistan, the source said it was difficult to discern the future. “We don’t know exactly what will happen. Will there be a peace agreement? What will its terms be? How will it be implemented? Will it require a NATO presence? How will US troops adjust to developments,” he asked.

Iraq, by contrast, was clearer, as there was a NATO plan to train trainers in logistical operations. The organisation would also offer advice to civilian ministries and assist with medical services.

The source described NATO’s 300-person mission in Iraq as a “joint operations mission of a civilian and military nature”. Although relatively limited in size, the mission is important to NATO because of its value for Iraq.

NATO also conducts naval operations in the Mediterranean in the framework of its defence and deterrence strategies.

The NATO operations official said that “these operations are important because they contribute to solving a number of crises. The Mediterranean Coast Guards Operation is an awareness-raising and capacity-building operation designed to improve the ability of coast guards to meet the current challenges in the Mediterranean.”

The official did not respond to a question relating to the behaviour of certain NATO members towards some countries in the Middle East, such as Turkey’s support for the militias in Libya. 


NATO has taken steps to counter this relatively new and unconventional threat. A cyber-warfare specialist told the Al-Ahram delegation that NATO was currently focused on completing the Cyberspace Operations Centre in Mons due to be inaugurated next year, 13 years after this threat first surfaced in Estonia in 2007. 

The threat increased with the cyber-attack against Ukraine in 2008, and numerous attacks have occurred since then. However, the source felt that NATO had not risen to the challenge too late. The decision to build the centre was taken in 2017, and once it is completed it will offer excellent deterrent capacities.

A staff of some 200 experts will be engaged in repelling cyber-attacks against NATO members and protecting their communications networks and other infrastructure from attacks.

The expert stressed that the centre would only intercept hostile cyber-activity. It would not launch counter-attacks as it is difficult to identify precisely their origin.

“Most probably, certain governments are behind them, but they vary in intensity from one attack to another,” he said, adding that he foresaw the rise of this type of warfare in the future in view of advances in computer technology.

The civilian sector will contribute to the operations. “The companies that operate in this field are civilian firms, but they work together with security establishments,” he said, citing as an example the collaboration between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon in the US.

He noted that NATO was working to secure 60 networks in member countries and that there were commitments to fund and develop these capacities, promising to boost the capacities of NATO members’ land, sea and air forces.

One area of contention among NATO members in this rapidly developing field is emerging 5G technology, especially in view of the Chinese-US tech war and the crisis over the Chinese company Huawei. “The matter is currently under intensive discussion among NATO members,” the cyber-warfare expert said. “Some think that there are considerable benefits to be had from the less costly Chinese equipment that is being used everywhere in the world. On the other hand, there is also the security argument. Would Beijing use Huawei technology as a threat, for example?”

“There is no real gunpowder at issue, so it is not the use of the technology per se that poses the problem. At all events, we still believe that this is something that is better dealt with through legislation in the US and Europe because a total ban is unacceptable,” he said.

The source said that the security services offered by the Cyberspace Operations Centre in Mons would remain a NATO monopoly. “This is not a development agency,” he said, meaning that the know-how and technologies it uses will not be made available to countries outside NATO. Nevertheless, this did not obviate the possibility of cooperation with some countries to enhance their capacities to deter cyber-attacks and “extinguish cyber-fires”.

He added that there were not all that many cyber experts in the world and producing them required a special educational environment. Governments had to offer experts appropriate incentives or else the private sector would snap them up even after all the effort and money the public sector had put into their training, he concluded.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline:  NATO at 70

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