More than anyone else, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has set the agenda for NATO’s 65th summit meeting this week, which could be the most consequential since the Cold War ended.
Early this year, the alliance was deep into one of its periodic assessments about the future as its role in Afghanistan was winding down. Now Mr. Putin, who has long been eager to see the North Atlantic Treaty Organization weakened, has forced on it a new and urgent purpose by effectively invading Ukraine and demonstrating his utter disregard for the international system. He seems to delight in taunting the West, including reportedly telling a European official that he could “take Kiev in two weeks.”
The question is whether NATO is up to the challenge of pushing back against Mr. Putin’s expansionist tendencies. That starts with the need to reassure Eastern European countries that feel most threatened by Russia’s push into Ukraine.
Leaders of NATO’s 28 member states are expected to reaffirm the alliance’s core principle of common defense — an attack on one is an attack on all — when they meet in Wales. Yet they have serious differences that could undermine the initiatives intended to deal with Russia and other threats.
The summit’s centerpiece is a formal agreement on a new rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops. It would be capable of deploying on 48 hours’ notice to protect any NATO member from external aggression, which under the current circumstances means Europe’s periphery — the Baltic States and Poland.
Wisely, alliance members have decided to abide by the NATO-Russia Founding Act, a 1997 agreement under which NATO pledged not to base substantial forces in Eastern Europe permanently, which could harden the growing divide and make a diplomatic solution to Ukraine, if one is still possible, more difficult.
There are no plans for new permanent bases or deployments, but troops will be rotated to the region for three to four-month stints. The force will be supported with logistics and equipment, including weapons and fuel, pre-positioned in Eastern European countries closer to Russia. There will be more military exercises and air patrols.
This will take money, which has been a source of friction among NATO members. The United States bears about 75 percent of the alliance budget, while the contributions from most European countries have fallen. That’s partly because of the economic recession and because the United States has always filled any gaps.
They are also divided on the threats. While NATO opposes Russian moves against Ukraine, Eastern Europe feels more directly threatened and determined to act than, say, Italy, which has been more willing to appease Mr. Putin. Europe must do more, increasing defense budgets and imposing sanctions on Russia that could finally cause Mr. Putin to reverse his course in Ukraine.
Even as Russia preoccupies NATO’s attention today, the alliance should not revert to its Cold War role with Russia as its chief focus. The world also will be looking to NATO for leadership on dealing with the Sunni extremists, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Because of other crises, Afghanistan appears to be getting less attention. Thousands of American and allied troops remain on duty there. NATO has to use its clout to press the Afghan presidential rivals to settle their election dispute so a president can take office.
NATO is strongest when its members are united in common purpose. It will take leadership — not just talk — from the United States, Germany, and others to produce a meaningful consensus.