As Vladimir Putin’s wanton slaughter in Ukraine continues, each day validates anew the worth of NATO, weakens its detractors, and aligns European Union and NATO policy goals ever more closely. Putin expected to divide Europe and wrongfoot the United States.  Instead, he achieved the opposite—even convincing Sweden and Finland that they need to formally join the Atlantic alliance.

Yet, there is much else to the galvanization of an alliance and continent long mocked as moribund by politicos in search of an issue. One of the keys to strengthening NATO after February 2022 has been a moral rebalancing between member states, the revelation of military neglect and weakness in, above all, Germany, but also the forthright, courageous, and vital contributions of the “little guys,” the smaller, often poorer NATO members generally regarded by strategists (of the sort who predicted that Kyiv would fall to the Russians in a few days) as minor players—to the extent they were players at all.

Although the United States and Britain led, it was often the smallest states who made a vital supplementary difference, early on. The Baltic states, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and others moved promptly to give what material aid they could to Ukraine. Not least, Poland, the defender of Western civilization against barbarism for a millennium, became the de facto early leader of NATO’s response to Russian aggression: Although Poland is an increasingly robust military power and lynchpin European state, the traditional great powers within NATO regarded it as eternally consigned to a second tier. But when the bombs began to fall and millions of refugees began to flee, it was Poland that acted with alacrity, strength, and utility.

With Germany—paralyzed by the collapse of its beloved Ostpolitik fantasy—and France annoyed that Putin had spoiled the imagined coziness between Paris and Moscow, the eastern and central Europeans (except Hungary), their warnings about Russian ambitions vindicated, stepped into the political and economic, if not yet literal, line of fire. In the future, NATO’s smaller members will play a bigger role in decision-making, to the benefit of all. They have earned chairs closer to the head of the negotiating table.

Another noteworthy development is that, while President Biden has done a remarkable job of leading NATO and global supporters of Ukraine forward step by step, accurately judging which weapons and actions could be provided at a given time without rupturing alliances formal and informal, on the other side of the Atlantic, the fiercest defenders of Ukraine and freedom have been women. To note but a few:

Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, a product of the Green Party that long sympathized more with Russia than with NATO, took a tough stand against Putin and Germany’s willful blindness vis-à-vis Moscow’s strategic machinations even before Putin’s second invasion of Ukraine. As a new and bewildered chancellor, Olaf Schultz, dithered, Frau Ministerin Baerbock became the face of Germany’s return to reality.

Within the EU framework, Ursula von der Leyen—another clearsighted German woman and the president of the European Commission—immediately took and maintained the moral high ground, condemning Putin with purpose and precision. Yet another member of the EU’s leadership triumvirate, Maltese European Parliament president Roberta Metsola ignored Putin’s implicit threats to her country and its economy, visiting Kyiv and making it clear that, this time, the conscience of Europe would not be for sale.

Perhaps the most-reassuring (and most frustrating for Putin) belle dame sans merci has been Italian prime minister Georgia Meloni, who has emerged as an uncompromising Atlanticist and defender of Ukraine. The leader of a right-wing party derided by the Euro-intelligentsia for its (long since retired) Fascist roots, Signora Meloni has long been underestimated and misunderstood—a subject of misogyny masquerading as analysis—while those paying serious attention would have noted that she possessed vision, clarity, and above all, integrity.

Putin had invested heavily in Italian politics, making illicit contributions to both the far right and the far left. Months into the Second Ukraine War, then-prime minister Mario Draghi, a firm Atlanticist, saw his government pulled down by the withdrawal of support from right and left—apparently, Putin had called in the chips, expecting Draghi to be replaced by someone in his debt and biddable. Instead, he got Meloni, who, in less politically correct times, a Hollywood B-movie script writer would have described as “one tough broad.”

Even though her coalition partners were either known or alleged to have taken Russian funding, Meloni never had done so. Slapping her corrupt and clumsy coalition partners (the has-been Silvio Berlusconi and the never-to-be Matteo Salvini) into line, Meloni not only maintained Draghi’s hard line on Ukraine but made it harder still.

And one might fairly note that, if Meloni’s party, the Brothers of Italy, did have long-ago roots in the soil of Fascism, our own Democratic Party was, more recently, the party of Jim Crow, while, until an even more recent hour, our Republican Party stood for loyalty to the Constitution and rational policy-making. Political parties, here and abroad, are not immutable.

So…Putin, to his immeasurable frustration, has unified NATO and reinvigorated its purpose. His ill-starred campaign of butchery, rape, and ruin has robbed his own country of a better future, and, to be gleefully blunt, he is getting his ass kicked by European women.

It may be gallows humor, but the laugh’s on Putin.

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