NATO Ministers of Defense and Ministers of Foreign Affairs meet at NATO headquarters in Brussels (Wikimedia Commons) The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has refocused the international spotlight on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as the alliance approaches a critical juncture. Depending on the degree of further escalation in the region, this crisis could lead to resurgence in NATO’s strength and global respect—or it could vastly undermine NATO’s credibility. Russian President Vladimir Putin has very cleverly positioned Russia to exploit the gaps in NATO’s prescribed role, carefully avoiding alliance tripwires while still subversively contributing to instability, unrest, and violence in Ukraine. Thus far, Putin’s tactics have confounded NATO leaders and military planners, whose paradigms and procedures anticipate a very different sort of “regular” war. The upcoming 2014 NATO summit, to be held in the first week of September, will prove crucial in shaping the fate of the alliance. NATO faces a watershed moment: the alliance can either choose to adapt to become a strong, twenty-first century institution, or it can allow itself to fade as an artifact of the twentieth.

To maintain its relevance in the future, NATO must focus on building military capabilities to face the kind of savvy, non-linear foe it confronts in Ukraine and adapt to this type of nontraditional adversary by redefining established notions of warfare. A commitment must be made not only to increase total defense spending but to ensure that money is spent in the right ways as well. That means more relevant capabilities and an emphasis on interoperability among member states and partner nations. Proper response to such threats will require building more Special Forces, enhancing intelligence sharing, development and implementation of urban war-fighting strategies, and a heightened emphasis on international cybersecurity.

The Ukraine episode has also illustrated the ability of leaders like Putin to leverage oil as a weapon and launch savvy information campaigns to incite violence or quell domestic dissent. Hence, NATO’s deterrence theory also needs to be reimagined to reflect the reality of multi-element conventional conflicts, in which the threat of military force is credible and acts as a complement to economic and diplomatic pressure. NATO should also reform its decision-making processes to make them more flexible, as the current requirement for unanimous consent risks inaction or too late a response to rapidly emergent crises.

As the normative backbone of the international system, NATO and the European Union will lose credibility and effectiveness without becoming better equipped to address evolving threats. While it is true that Article V—the collective defense principle built into NATO’s charter—applies only to NATO members, as the world’s most credible and capable military alliance there remains an implicit broader responsibility to uphold global norms. That states do not invade or annex other states is fundamental to the current international system, and preserving this order requires reinforcement from NATO. Barring strong action to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine, NATO’s future enemies will take note of the alliance’s significant strategic weaknesses in the face of nontraditional threats.

In the short term, NATO has the potential to both affect Russian behavior and bolster its own military capabilities for future missions. One opportunity for NATO to increase its capabilities is by purchasing the Mistral-class ships currently being sold by France to the Russian Navy. In addition to preventing Russia from further upgrading and expanding its military arsenal, such measures would help modernize NATO’s maritime forces and better equip them to respond effectively to future crises.

As a direct response to the situation in Ukraine itself, NATO should offer President Putin a balance of carrots and sticks to dial down tensions. To sustain deterrence and assurance of allies, NATO should continue to support U.S. President Barack Obama’s European Phased Adaptive Approach strategy for placing various elements of the ballistic missile defense systems in Europe, including sea-based systems in the Mediterranean, land-based radar in Turkey, and additional elements planned for Romania and Poland. Meanwhile, NATO can reduce some tensions with Russia by agreeing to halt the expansion of its member states, particularly the potential to include Ukraine, whose membership in NATO would trigger an immediate Article V crisis given the existing tensions with Russia. NATO can and should continue to support Ukraine and other countries threatened by aggression without formally inducting these nations into the alliance. For Ukraine to join NATO while factions within the country are actively engaged against Russia militarily, however, would be to invite escalation.

Regardless of the course taken by the conflict in Ukraine in the coming months, it will be essential for all parties involved in September’s impending NATO summit to fully recognize the necessity of the alliance’s ability to act as an effective military coalition. In the face of equally unorthodox, ambiguous, and unacceptable aggression from Russian forces, ensuring this effectiveness will require redefining old ideas about the nature of warfare. Now is the time for NATO to rethink its traditional and historical purpose and structure by reshaping itself to match the new face of international conflict.