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Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a press conference in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 7.POOL/The Associated Press

More than a dozen years ago, I paid a regular visit to the homely cluster of low buildings in suburban Brussels that forms the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and got an earful on the subject of tanks.

There were too many tanks. Member countries, especially the new Central European ones, kept buying them, NATO officials and Western-country generals complained in background briefings.

Those officials knew battle tanks had become irrelevant to modern warfare. None of the conflicts NATO forces had fought in (Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia, at that point) had involved tanks, and future conflicts would not require them. Members needed to be spending on things like information warfare and airlift.

Tank battalions were a relic of the days when NATO saw Moscow as its sole threat. But modern Russia, despite its already dark political turn, shared the West’s view that significant threats all came from irregular forces to the south and east. Vladimir Putin didn’t care about NATO; in fact, he actively co-operated with it, as head of an official NATO partner country.

There was a persistent sense inside the organization in those days, and until very recently, that NATO was adrift, lacking a real purpose.

I remembered those conversations this week, when that same Russian President, emerging from a meeting with his French counterpart, described to reporters what he would like us to believe is his reason for massing tanks on the border of Ukraine: “We are against the expansion of NATO ... this creates a threat as NATO is moving toward our borders. It’s not us who is moving toward NATO but vice-versa… The NATO military infrastructure is moving toward us.”

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Mr. Putin’s new obsession with NATO has had a number of effects. One is to make a lot of Western countries dust off their tanks. Another is to make the 30-country alliance believe it has a newfound sense of purpose.

“This is an amazing moment for the alliance,” Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, told the Financial Times, reflecting on the rare moment of unity between her country, Germany and France. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, was more effusive: “If Russia wants less NATO near its borders, it has achieved the opposite.”

But this is not the NATO moment it might seem to be – in good part because the alliance has little to do with the threat to Ukraine, or its likely response.

Mr. Putin’s claims are nonsensical, and he knows it. Ukraine is not in the process of joining NATO. NATO has not moved toward Russia. Neither NATO nor its members have offensive designs on Russia’s territory. Moscow invaded its neighbour and seized its territory eight years ago, and that continuing war is the sole threat in the region.

But the optimistic claims of the NATO elite are also misleading. The alliance has not suddenly reverted to being the Cold War organization formed in 1949 to defend against the Soviet Union’s expansion. It is not, beyond this specific moment of tension, very united. And it is neither the reason for, nor the likely solution to, the Russian threat to Ukraine.

NATO is built on the idea of collective defence. It allows non-superpower countries such as Canada to be defended without having to amass a world-class military.

There is a false belief that the core of this collective defence is Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which obligates any member to come to the defence of another if it is invaded. Mr. Putin claims this is why Ukrainian membership would be a threat.

But NATO has never worked this way. None of the countries and territories it has ever defended militarily – Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya – have been NATO members. It’s pretty certain that if a member invoked it for unpopular reasons – as Turkey threatened to do in support of its military repression of its Kurdish population – other members would not respond. It’s also pretty certain that Russia’s 2014 invasion would have gone ahead just the same if Ukraine had been a member. Likewise, Ukraine’s non-member status has not hindered NATO’s members’ willingness to come to its defence this year.

In June, NATO countries will gather in Madrid to update its “strategic concept” for the first time since 2010. Spain and other Mediterranean countries will push it to shift its main focus to threats to the south (with fewer tanks). Baltic states will, as always, want more emphasis on Russia and more tanks. Turkey will push for a Mideastern focus.

A conflict with Russia over Ukraine may still be looming then – or it may have happened. What will be clear to most members in Madrid, but won’t be polite to mention, is that it was never really about NATO.

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