Bernard Ingham: Nato must rediscover its steel in a new age of fear

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The threat of a terrorist atrocity is “severe”. The barbarians are at our eastern gates. Our defensive arm is meeting in the West wondering whether it will be blown up at any minute.

Can 9,500 policemen – not to mention all the security forces deployed in advance – thwart the evil intentions of a few Islamic militants?

Put more prosaically, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) is in solemn conclave in Newport in South Wales, under massive security because of threats from a host of mad Muslims, while Vladimir Putin separately threatens the peace of the world.

Let us have no doubt about our foes. Like the Muslim fanatics, Putin is drunk on power, obsessed with the past and driven by the expansion of his borders and influence.

He is as much in the business of restoring the boundaries of the old Soviet Union as that bunch of cut-throats called Isis are in establishing a medieval caliphate ruled by bloody terror.

Nato is confronted not just by poseurs – witness muscle man Putin and Isis’s extensive use of the internet to promote its violent creed – but real enemies who would smash us if they thought they could.

The issue is not therefore whether Nato has a future – it had better have one for all our sakes – but whether it will add up to anything worthwhile.

First, a bit of history. This is where Nato came in. It was the West’s collective military response in 1949 to the Cold War.

Now that Putin has annexed the Crimea and is nibbling away at Eastern Ukraine we are, as the Lithuanian president put it, practically at war – if not a shooting one – with Russia.

The old KGB thug himself has confirmed his irresponsibility by reminding the world that Russia is a nuclear power and boasting: “It’s best not to mess with us”.

Therein lies the problem with Putin. With his aggressive mindset he cannot understand the Nato concept of a defensive alliance.

Ukraine membership of Nato – which it says it wants – would carry no threat to Russia, though it might hurt its pride reaching deep into its backyard.

The threat from the Middle East is entirely different. It comes simply and directly from an intimidatory branch of Islam that seeks violent retribution from the West and its submission to a medieval dictatorship.

It is generally aided by a weak and possibly cowed moderate Islam that is rent by bloody sectarian rivalry.

It is a toss-up whether where we are more likely to find opposition to Putin’s totalitarianism than Muslim brakes on Islamic agents of terror.

All this adds up to a formidable challenge to the West, which craves only a quiet life.

Bound by treaty to mutual protection, Nato has to show that it is unequivocally on the side of national sovereignty and the integrity of national boundaries. This poses problems for many of its 28 member-states

Some are poor. Others are impoverished by the euro. France is quite simply a mess. Germany is running scared of losing Russian gas supplies. It is also reported that only eight of its 109 Eurofighters are operational.

Like the United States, the UK is weighed down with debt and war-weary. Moreover, we are not getting very far with recruiting 30,000 reservists to replace 20,000 regular troops. We have managed to enrol only 140 so far this year.

This is the hostile, problematical world that confronts Nato this week. Nobody expects a shooting war with Russia, as distinct from bombings by jihadis

But what matters is the texture of the alliance. How resolute is it in the face of Russian needling and Islamic threats? Does it really mean to defend its interests when defence spending has been cut to ribbons? Only four member-states, including the US and UK, meet the two per cent of GDP spending pledge.

However much Putin may brandish his atomic bomb now, nuclear weapons and Nato have kept the peace in Europe and the wider world for more than 55 years. We still have the bombs, though no one in their right mind wants to use them.

This week will show us whether we also have a Nato of steel or marzipan.

We need not just bombs but an unmistakeable resolution to ensure an uneasy peace.

Can Nato rise to the threats hanging over Newport? It must stand resolutely shoulder to shoulder in defence of freedom – the one thing tyrants fear. If not, life will become much more dangerous and uncertain. We need a tough, well-armed Nato that means business.