Putin’s plot to destroy Nato is reaching its devastating climax


All this week The Telegraph is running a series of exclusive essays from prominent international commentators imagining the consequences if Russia were successful in its war. The first, by former Ukrainian MP Aliona Hlivco, considers the devastating impact for the Nato alliance.

Ukraine’s fight isn’t merely for its existence as a nation – it’s a battle for the very fabric of the global order.

Yes, it’s about safeguarding European security – a rallying cry heard in countless statements from Western officials, often accompanied by assurances of limited air defence and ammunition – but as Ukraine continues to lose ground, towns, and lives, the West’s response is tepid, with its only firm stance drawn around Nato borders, where geopolitical interests overshadow humanitarian concerns.

But what if Putin dares to cross these lines, dismissing Western threats as mere bluster? What if Ukraine falls, emboldening Putin to pursue further expansion into the other former Soviet Union states that, in his view, belong in the Russian empire? Will Nato truly honour its pledge to collective security, or is that promise nothing but hollow rhetoric?

The fact is, Nato’s resilience is more fragile than we think. And a victory for Putin could see the world’s most successful alliance begin to crumble.

The strength of Nato lies not only in its military prowess but in its unwavering commitment to collective defence, enshrined in Article 5. Yet Article 5 merely compels members to contemplate a response. “The Parties agree that … if such an armed attack occurs, each of them … will take action as it deems necessary…” – that’s all that Article 5 says. That action could mean anything from sending a warship to patrol an incursion, to merely expressing deep concern.

Nato Eastern flank countries, such as Estonia and Poland, are on a war footing, shaming Nato up by doing much more than is formally required. Estonia is well ahead of its Nato allies in the 3% GDP defence spending, and Poland in particular is bracing itself for potential war with Russia. According to Polish military sources, there is no intention to wait for Russian boots to step onto Poland’s soil; the war could very well begin on Russian territory itself. Should Ukraine fall, and Russia’s aggression turn toward Nato allies like the Baltic states or Poland, expect to see Nato be fragmented, or even replaced, by those countries who cannot afford to be left exposed by the weaknesses of their so-called allies.

Recent statements from Poland’s defence counterintelligence chief, Jaroslaw Strozyk, underscore that Putin is fully prepared for a small-scale military operation in Eastern territories, targeting, for example, the Estonian municipality Narva or encroaching on one of the Swedish islands. It is noteworthy that the Swedish Navy recently accused Russian ‘shadow’ oil tankers navigating through the Baltic Sea of engaging in espionage, gathering information on operations in the port of the island of Gotland under the guise of ‘emergency docking’. Gotland holds strategic significance for the regional security of Northern Europe and is crucial for the defence of neighbouring Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Poland.

Poland’s intelligence concerns were echoed by those of Estonian, German and the UK officials. It is clear that Putin is only being held off in his intentions by the West’s strong resolve in supporting Ukraine.

If that resolve shatters, the likelihood of an imminent Russian attack on Nato would grow exponentially, and the implications would be profound. With existing divisions within Nato, particularly evident in disagreements over matters such as Sweden’s potential accession to the alliance, it’s likely that many member states would prioritise their own defence over that of their weaker allies.

The role of the United States in the event of a Russian victory would also need to be considered. Would it, plagued by pre-election hesitations and isolationist tendencies, step in to support its allies again? Would it resolutely send a frigate of aircraft carriers towards the area of incursion or, on the contrary, issue a strongly worded statement, condemning Russia yet again for its misbehaviour, while implying to the allies under attack that they should have paid more in their contributions to Nato? Would it urge the self-defending nation to not escalate by fighting back too hard and suggest seeking resolution at the negotiations table?

The tensions at play suddenly become clear if one actually imagines the scenario of Russia attacking a Nato country. Poland has around 10,000 American troops on its soil, but if its borders were breached, would the US decide to cut its losses and leave? The fact this is even contemplatable reveals the fragility at the heart of modern Nato.

Paratroopers jump from an aircraft during the military exercise Swift Response by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces at Campia Turzii, Romania, on Monday, May 13, 2024. NATO described the exercise as the largest airborne operation in Europe since World War II.
Paratroopers jump from an aircraft during the military exercise Swift Response by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces at Campia Turzii, Romania, on Monday, May 13, 2024. NATO described the exercise as the largest airborne operation in Europe since World War II.

Let’s imagine that it was Estonia that faced the Russia onslaught. The UK’s actions would be crucial given its role as an Enhanced Forward Presence partner to Estonia. If Estonia is the first Nato country to suffer the Russian attack, the UK with over a thousand of its troops there, would find itself at war. But would the UK under a Labour  follow through on its commitments to collective European and global defence?

If either Poland or Estonia were attacked, Germany would be on high alert, having c.4,000 troops stationed in Lithuania. Last week, at the Adenauer Conference, I had the chance to speak to several German Bundestag members, military leaders, Chancellery advisers and even Defence Minister Pistorius himself. To my question on whether Germany is ready for war if Russia attacks, all of them resolutely said ‘yes’ – but with fear in their eyes and hesitancy in their voices.

Germany is only coming around to the practical realisation of its pronounced ‘Zeitenwende’, whereas critics of the current government say that the critical momentum for the country’s remilitarisation has been lost. Tragically, therefore, in the worst case scenarios one can easily imagine the Germans resorting to its traditional diplomatic dialogue with Moscow, seeking back-channel communication with the Russians to avoid escalation, aiming for some trade-offs, jeopardising the continent’s unity even further.

Worse than all this would be the fact that some members of Nato would even try to capitalise on emerging chaos. Hungary, it is safe to presume, may be the first European nation to turn on its allies.Turkey, too, seeing no strength in unity, might pursue its own interests in the Black Sea, potentially not just discarding Ukraine’s successes in desecrating the Russian fleet, but undermining the security of fellow Nato members like Romania and Bulgaria.

As Nato in Europe cracked under the pressure, reverberations would be felt beyond the North-Atlantic. China could interpret Nato’s weakness as a green light to assert dominance in the Indo-Pacific and invade Taiwan. That has the potential to trigger DPRK to assault South Korea despite the existing QUAD arrangements and prospects for the enlargement of AUKUS. Australia and Japan would be left to their own devices, facing an incredibly dangerous situation in the region. The UK would not have the capacity to come to the aid of its Asia-Pacific partners with Russia’s aggressive expansion in Europe.

Suffice to say, as Russia makes strides in Europe, China would be likely to expand its influence in Asia. India, witnessing the expanding reach of China and maintaining its historical military alliance with Russia, would likely seek to bolster its position in the Global South, aiming to retain leverage in the UN General Assembly.

African nations, swayed by the accompanying chaos of Russian propaganda, promising long-awaited justice against the perceived hypocrisy and decay of the West, would be inclined to challenge the foundations of the post-World War II order established by the UN. Some countries of Latin America would follow a similar trajectory.

This hypothetical scenario may sound extreme, but it serves a purpose: if Ukraine were to fall, it would not just be the end of one nation, it would potentially bring about the unravelling of Nato and the established world order as we know it. The unleashed cascade of events would cause unthinkable and irreversible changes, pushing the world to the brink of chaos. Established democracies would find themselves marginalised and powerless, struggling to regain unity and authority amidst the turmoil. It would take decades to rebuild the rules-based order in the new fully reshaped world.

This is what is at stake in Ukraine. In a modern interconnected world, our collective future is leveraged on the fulcrum that is my home country. We cannot allow it to fall.

Aliona Hlivco is a former Ukrainian MP and Managing Director of the Henry Jackson Society, a trans-Atlantic foreign policy and national security think tank. 

She is a regular contributor to The Telegraph’s daily podcast ‘Ukraine: The Latest’. With over 85 million downloads, it is considered the most trusted daily source of war news on both sides of the Atlantic.