One year before NATO meets at its next summit in Warsaw is a good moment to take stock of the Alliance’s adaptation to a dramatically altered security environment. Last September in Wales, NATO leaders agreed a number of concrete measures aimed at strengthening collective defence and deterrence.
In reality, however, as time passes, NATO seems to be getting back to its old routines and the Wales commitments are slowly being pushed to the backburner. This is shocking, given that Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine continues unabated. Most Western European forecasters still consider President Putin’s behaviour as a temporary spell of bad weather rather than climate change.
A unifying threat?
Western unity on Russia, trumpeted around the Wales Summit, has in fact never existed. While it is true that the Wales initiatives continue to command broad support among Allies, and that a handful of nations have indeed acted on the gravity of the Russian threat, a substantial number of others continue to preoccupy themselves with different issues.
The recent decision to start planning for a new EU naval mission in the Mediterranean to stem the ongoing refugee crisis, coupled with existing engagements in the anti-ISIS coalition, is likely to result in South European NATO members focusing almost solely on this dimension. These and other new security commitments are likely to further decrease the credibility of NATO’s measures.
A Rather Adequate Posture?
While solidarity persists on maintaining sanctions against Russia, serious questions remain as to whether the same principle also applies to the deployment and development of defence capabilities.
The backbone of the Alliance’s response is the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) which has been communicated as the most extensive transformation of the Alliance’s posture since the end of the Cold War. While NATO’s military advantage over Russia is clear in the aggregate, the RAP does not seem to sufficiently address the conventional military advantage Russia continues to enjoy over its smaller neighbours. The RAP-mandated persistent, or “rotating”, presence of NATO troops on the territory of its Eastern members, combined with the creation of a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and the setting up of NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs), have so far failed to reassure NATO’s Eastern members.
Taken together, the RAP does raise the political and military costs for any potential aggressor and does bring benefits in terms of flexible response in both strategic directions – South and East. But the question of an adequate posture, in particular relating to the rapidity of NATO’s response, remains unanswered. Indeed, Russian snap exercises in the Western region have shown that within 24 hours’ notice, Russia can muster anywhere between 65,000 and 155,000 troops, a capability that seriously impressed NATO commanders.
The current context puts additional pressure on countries such as Germany which have been wary of approving the permanent basing of NATO troops on the territory of its Eastern members, pointing towards pledges to this effect in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Therefore, the Warsaw summit will have first and foremost to tackle these intertwined issues. Have we come to the point where maintaining the moral high ground starts jeopardising our security?
Unfortunately, an interim assessment of budgetary trends suggests that the promises on defence spending made in Wales have slim chances of being honoured. Only Estonia, among European Allies, will meet the 2% of GDP target in 2015, while the rest of the member states more or less gave up on this “benchmark”. Defence expenditure did increase in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway and Romania – the leading responders to the Russian threat. In contrast, Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy and – most importantly – Germany, significantly reduced their military budgets. The latter trend is also apparent in Central Europe, particularly in Hungary and Bulgaria, creating a negative balance overall within NATO and raising further doubts in the United States about Europe’s willingness to defend itself.
The authors of this paper believe that pulling the carpet from under NATO’s collective defense pledge is President Putin’s end-game. NATO’s planning must be attuned to the nature of the threat. President Putin knows that direct military confrontation with NATO could be suicidal. He also knows the particular vulnerability of NATO in the Baltics which is due to insufficient strategic depth but also to the large Russian minorities in the region.
After two decades of waging asymmetric “operations other than war” far from NATO territory, today’s motto may well be “in area or out of business”. Accordingly, NATO must plan and exercise for scenarios of hybrid war, starting with the most difficult bit – reaching political consensus. This must not remain a Brussels-based exercise, as it relies heavily on NATO nations. The conflict may go through several stages before reaching the threshold of military action and Article 5. Early warning and a political decision by national authorities that the nation is at war will be crucial. If the behaviour of some leaders in Central Europe vis-a-vis Russia provides any indication, this in itself may be a daunting task, especially when coupled with the public’s generalised obliviousness to security issues.
Partnerships and civ-mil synergies
The prospect of hybrid warfare, where internal vulnerabilities come to the fore, adds urgency to inter-agency collaboration at home and inter-institutional cooperation at the international level. In fact, it has warranted complete strategic reviews in several NATO nations of the concept of security as such. NATO has included civilian input into long-term capability development, but has limited tools as regards police, intelligence and other civilian agencies’ operational cooperation.
NATO will have to draw up new strategies in Warsaw, which should include a bolder approach to partnership, outreach and enlargement. Covering these issues is beyond the remit of this paper. However, it is clear that NATO’s productive relations with countries ranging from Scandinavia to the Balkans, including their deeper integration into NATO’s plans and operations, will condition not only these nations’ security, but also the Alliance’s ability to provide for the security of its members and the entire Euro-Atlantic area.
« Start fulfilling pledges on increased defence investment and modernisation.
« Implement the Readiness Action Plan, including by better communicating these measures to publics and parliaments. Facilitate regional cooperation and Smart Defence to support the measures.
« Approve the permanent basing of multinational NATO forces on the territory of NATO’s Eastern members, e.g. by creating a “trip-wire” force in the region. Based on the concept that the current security situation was not foreseeable in 1997 and therefore this does not constitute a violation of the Founding Act.
« Consider increasing the size of the Spearhead Force and the number of NFIUs, including the option of setting up force integration elements in every frontline state.
« Ensure that NATO nations have the full range of defensive capabilities in the collective inventory they can draw on for the entire spectrum of conflict, in particular for all-out war if such a conflict is initiated by Russia.
« Boost capacity to identify and counter Russia-instigated hybrid warfare in NATO’s most exposed areas, focusing on the Baltics, especially through targeted exercises involving the North Atlantic Council. Set up a Centre of Excellence for Hybrid Warfare based in Germany.
« NATO members of the EU should spearhead the Union’s adaptation to hybrid warfare and promote NATO-EU synergies in this field.
« Invest substantially in strategic communications; develop and confidently communicate narratives for the European project and the transatlantic community based on truth, values, achievement and vision.
« Ramp up bilateral and multilateral defence cooperation with Ukraine, including the provision of lethal weaponry as needed.
« Deepen integration of nations such as Finland and Sweden in all aspects of NATO planning. Initiate discussions on their potential membership as soon as these nations express an interest in doing so.
« Invite Montenegro for membership by the Warsaw summit and reconfirm the Euro-Atlantic perspective for Ukraine and Georgia.
The Alliance has to speed up its adaptation to the new strategic environment. NATO must, above all, be seen as having started implementing all commitments from Wales well before the Warsaw summit. Only then should the presidents and prime ministers bring fresh impulses and task further measures to complete NATO’s transformation to a new age of confrontation; an age in which fast action and public impact will be decisive.
Two years of slow discussions and incremental implementation between Wales and Warsaw will have contributed little to NATO’s deterrence. Losing time is losing credibility. A weak Russia could still deal a fatal blow to a strong NATO.
Dániel Bartha is the Executive Director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy, Budapest; Jakub Kufčák is a Research Fellow of the Association for International Affairs, Prague;Marian Majer is a Senior Fellow for Security and Defence at the Central European Policy Institute, Bratislava; Mário Nicolini is an Advisor at the Central European Strategy Council, Bratislava.
This policy brief was published as part of GLOBSEC 2015 Policy Papers series.