STORY: Hours after Russia’s attack on Ukraine began, five German warships set sail for Latvia to help protect the most vulnerable part of NATO’s eastern flank.Russia’s invasion has propelled the alliance into what Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has called a “new normal”.It looks a lot like the past. NATO was founded in 1949 to defend against the Soviet threat. Now, a new Iron Curtain could fall across Europe. NATO needs to ensure its members are not behind it if it does.NATO has expanded eastwards since the 1990s, bringing in former Soviet states such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – where these French troops disembarked last week. A single overland corridor connects them to the rest of NATO territory, and it is squeezed between the heavily armed Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and Moscow ally Belarus.An emboldened Russia could encircle them and cut them off from the alliance. That’s where the Latvian mission comes in – a regular mine-clearing exercise that was brought forward by Russia’s invasion. One goal is to keep the waterway open, the other is a show of strength. This was German naval commander Terje Schmitt-Eliassen, on board the ‘Elbe’ in Riga’s harbor: “We will be 12 units from six countries, and we are essentially showing our presence in the eastern Baltic.”Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia could touch off a global conflict. One retired NATO commander told Reuters the alliance is considering whether deterrence is enough.Not according to Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis last week. “We are convinced in the Baltic states that we need to move from deterrence to a standing defence and it has to come from NATO planning leadership, that they will start looking into the region differently than they had throughout the last two decades.”Since the invasion, NATO allies have also moved five aircraft carriers into European waters, increased the number of warplanes in NATO airspace and more than doubled the size of combat units in the Baltics and Poland.NATO also faces a return to mechanized warfare and a huge increase in defense spending.