In the three months since Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian forces have profoundly altered the European security order and ushered in what is effectively a 21st century Iron Curtain over the continent. Defense officials from Estonia and Bulgaria joined the McCain Institute this month to discuss how today’s pressing economic, social and security challenges elevate the importance of the NATO alliance and the need for its member states to collectively respond to the common threat of a more aggressive Russia.
“The conversation couldn't come at a more relevant time,” said Pedro Pizano, McCain Institute program manager and moderator, in opening the recent forum for the Democracy and Human Rights Programs. “NATO must now reconsider both its strategic confrontation with the Kremlin, and how it would oppose the alliance's promise of collective security.”
Panelists Tiina Uudeberg, the Undersecretary for Defense Planning for the Estonian Ministry of Defense, and Yordan Bozhilov, the Deputy Minister of Defense for the Republic of Bulgaria, explained the renewed urgency around the question of how NATO member states can maintain a unified transatlantic response to Russian aggression.
For Estonia, Uudeberg said the recent invasion has reinforced the persistent fear among Estonians, and that Sen. John McCain had warned about for years of the threat of Russian aggression. After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, the two main priorities for the country were security and economic progress, which ultimately led to Estonia joining the alliance in 2004. However, the country’s threat assessment has remained the same ever since, as they are well aware of Russia’s military capabilities.
The Baltic states remain directly exposed to potential military threat from Russia, Uudeberg said. She also warned of the current window of opportunity for Russia to launch a preemptive attack given proximity of its troops to Estonia and other Eastern European nations.
“As the threat is so existential, our history and the ongoing war in Ukraine have proven that once again that the existence of a solid and national defense capability is extremely important,” she said. “So, this is clearly a part of collective defense model. Everyone must play their part in making collective defense work. And so, NATO will continue to be the strongest, most successful defense alliance in the world.”
The war in Ukraine has transformed the political climate in Bulgaria as well, accelerating a shift in perceptions of Bulgarians toward Russia and NATO, Bozhilov said. Historically, he said, Bulgarians have had a pretty positive perception of Russia, primarily due to successful propaganda and misinformation campaigns.
“The majority of Bulgarian’s population was against NATO membership,” he said in explaining Bulgaria’s yearslong effort to ultimately join NATO in 2004. “In many ways, the decision to join NATO was a result of, I would say, brave political decisions.”
Today, “Russian aggression in Ukraine is a kind of an awakening symbol, not just in Bulgaria, of what the regime of Putin’s is in reality.”
Both Bozhilov and Uudeberg discussed the increasingly positive perception of NATO among young people in their countries. Pizano shared McCain Institute survey findings of young people across 15 NATO countries before and after the invasion of Ukraine that confirm that changing view.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, “some of them felt that NATO was aggressive or that it was partisan,” Pizano said. “There was all this misinformation about NATO, and it took the war in Ukraine for people to understand.”
With the war in Ukraine raging, those same youths have greater appreciation for NATO’s role in protecting their countries from attack. In his previous work as president of a think tank, Bozhilov worked with Bulgarian youth to explain the importance of NATO.
“It was rather inspiring because Bulgarian youth … perceive themselves as European and they have this European identity,” he said.
Russia’s sophisticated misinformation campaigns continue to sway public opinion, however, and require ongoing intervention to ensure people in Eastern Europe understand Putin’s ambitions in the region, the panelists said.
“Russia will use all methods, all measures, to wage a hybrid war against us,” Bozhilov said. “This will include propaganda … this will include cyber attacks. So the main issue is how to resist and how to strengthen our resilience.”
Helping people understand NATO’s role in the region’s security and preservation of values are key to continuing public support, Uudeberg said.
“Once you understand NATO’s … ultimate goal is not to make war but to make peace possible,” she said. “NATO is the bearer of the values that hopefully matter to us all: freedom, democracy, human rights. It’s not so much about tanks, fighter aircrafts or military vessels. It’s about the world we want to live in.”
The McCain Institute at Arizona State University hosted the fourth open discussion on the future of NATO, funded in part by the U.S. NATO mission. Through programs that address security, economic opportunity, freedom and human dignity, the institute convenes thought leaders to discuss solutions, build capacity among local leaders and create advocacy to propel our values forward.
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