This July in Warsaw, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) held one of the most important heads-of-government summits in its history. The meeting showed how much progress the Alliance had made in the past few years as well as how much further it needs to go in key areas.
In terms of achievements, NATO has boosted Baltic security, extended a major mission in Afghanistan, expanded its counterterrorism and cyber-defence capabilities, achieved a breakthrough on paper in relations with the European Union (EU), and reaffirmed its core missions of collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security. Yet the Alliance has still not resolved various challenges, such as how to secure non-members, sustain adequate levels of defence spending, or push Russian policy in more benign directions. Moreover, NATO faces possible new trials due to the British decision to leave the EU, rising nationalism and isolationism in Europe and North America, and political instability in key member states. How this mix of general progress, persistent problems and worrying puzzles develops in coming months and years will go far towards determining Europe’s future.
The summit communiqué, as well as other documents and speeches released by the Alliance collectively or by its member governments separately, took a hard line regarding Russia. They accused Moscow of breaching the “values, principles and commitments” that would underpin a productive NATO-Russian relationship. The Allies castigated Moscow’s annexation of Crimea; its provision of arms, men and intelligence to Ukrainian separatists; military support for the Syrian government; aggressive nuclear rhetoric and posture; violations of NATO airspace and submarine incursions; and provocative military stance in the Baltic Sea, Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. In the Allies’ view, Moscow’s actions violated the NATO-Russia Founding Act and caused the suspension of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) and other defence cooperation. Yet the communiqué says NATO will remain open to political dialogue to avert military incidents and, as some NATO leaders still hope, to drive Russia’s behaviour in more favourable directions.
Alliance leaders have taken steps to address their concerns about Moscow. NATO has implemented the Readiness Action Plan adopted at the 2014 Wales summit and enlarged the NATO Response Force (NRF) to over 40,000 soldiers—with air, sea, ground and special forces contingents tasked from the members’ national forces. The Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), the NRF’s “spearhead” unit consisting of up to 13,000 troops, is capable of commencing deployment in less than 48 hours from receiving orders to do so. Since 2014, the Alliance has also kept a more extensive defence exercise programme than previously, improved infrastructure for rapid force movements, augmented NATO’s maritime and combat air patrols, modernised NATO’s Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (AWACS), trained more Russia area experts, and established multinational headquarters and NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUS) in East-Central European countries to assist with training and reinforcements. The Alliance has formally sustained its Open Door Policy by starting the process of admitting Montenegro as its 29th full member; reaffirmed its commitments to missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Middle East; and—importantly, given limited Alliance resources—ended its Operation Ocean Shield mission, since the threat of maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden has significantly diminished.
Ten members now meet NATO’s guidelines to spend at least one-fifth of their defence budgets on major equipment and related research and development (R&D). The United States has stood out for its European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), which amounts to a $3.4-billion budget allocation for the 2017 fiscal year. The ERI has increased the US permanent and rotational defence presence in Europe (including through exercises), improved responsiveness by positioning more US Army equipment and supplies for US soldiers sent to Europe on training rotations or as rapid reinforcements, and funded capacity-building of NATO allies and partners.
In Warsaw, NATO leaders committed to rotate four battalion-sized multinational battlegroups on an indefinite, continuous basis into Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Canada will serve as the initial lead “framework” nation for the battalion in Latvia, Germany for Lithuania, the UK for Estonia and the US in Poland, securing periodic force contributions from other NATO members when rotations begin in 2017. These battlegroups, each with some 600 to 1,000 soldiers, will augment the national forces of these four front-line countries. They will boost NATO’s collective force capability, raising Moscow’s requirements should Russia aim for a Crimea-style landgrab in a NATO country. They also symbolise transatlantic solidarity and reassurance; the US itself pledged 1,000 troops for the new rotations, with over 500 soldiers going to the multinational unit in Estonia and some 400 personnel of a new US armoured brigade in Europe to Poland.
As for non-traditional capabilities, NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) architecture has attained Initial Operational Capability, with NATO able to exercise command and control of the forward-deployed radar in Turkey, the recently deployed BMD interceptors in Deveselu (Romania) and the four US BMD ships in Rota, Spain. Moreover, in the Warsaw Summit Cyber Defence Pledge and other texts, the Allies recognised cyberspace as a domain of NATO operations like air, land and sea. They further agreed to expand their national cyber-defence infrastructure, share more cyber information and best practices, fund more cyber education and training, and undertake a comprehensive assessment at the next NATO summit. The recently established NATO Centre of Excellence for Cooperative Cyber Defence in Estonia has published insightful studies on Russian cyber capabilities and tactics. Also critical, the Allies seem to have reached a better understanding of what might constitute a cyber-attack serious enough to warrant a collective NATO response.
The Alliance is still struggling with some persistent problems. For example, NATO must persevere with a schizophrenic policy towards Moscow, cooperating on some issues while conflicting on others. Before the Warsaw summit, a senior NATO military leader observed that, at any time, Russia may be NATO’s competitor, adversary, peer or partner—and currently plays several of these roles. Still, the partner role is proving hardest to sustain. NATO governments want to pursue military transparency and risk-reduction with Russia—through modernising the Vienna Document, for instance—but many in the Kremlin value opaqueness and uncertainty for deterrence and potential destabilisation. A rare session of the NATO-Russia Council on 13 July discussed air safety in the Baltic Sea region but failed to agree on concrete confidence- and security-building measures.
According to NATO leaders and analysts, the Alliance now has a strategy and actionable implementation plans to counter Russia’s hybrid tactics. However, the British vote to leave the EU (“Brexit”) suggests that Moscow has great potential to exploit upcoming Western national elections to promote its anti-EU and anti-NATO views and parties. Furthermore, the alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic Party in the US underscores that, even in cases where Moscow has clear capabilities and evident motives, establishing attribution for a cyber operation to any particular Russian actor—let alone the Kremlin—is extremely complex and contested. Despite notable improvements in NATO cyber defences in the last few years, discussion of whether to establish a dedicated NATO cyber command analogous to the Alliance’s planning and operational units in other domains should continue.
NATO has overall strong conventional defensive capabilities against Russia, but has persistent vulnerabilities in the north-east. Geographic proximity means Russian-based forces couldoverrun these countries in a matter of days. The Baltic States wanted larger force deployments—ideally 5,000-strong brigades rather than battalions. However, the problem lies less in the size of the rotations than in their transient nature. NATO has improved its ability to reinforce a region in a crisis through its pre-positioning of stocks, additional exercises, and streamlined transit procedures. However, the new multinational rotational units in the Baltics must still enter the region through the narrow Suwałki Gap, a 100-km-long land bridge between Russia and Belarus that connects Poland to Lithuania, which is dangerously near Kaliningrad’s robust anti-access area denial systems and therefore vulnerable to seizure by Russian ground forces. The most troubling scenario would be if Russian forces occupied Baltic territory and asserted that Moscow’s nuclear umbrella now covered the occupied region, thereby implying that those Russian units had nuclear weapons. NATO leaders would then face risking inadvertent or deliberate nuclear escalation if they attempted to recover the territory.
Another problem is the otherwise admirable democratic nature of the Alliance. Within each member state, democratic leaders are wary of taking actions without the support of their electorates. Moreover, at the level of intra-Alliance decision-making, a consensus is required for major decisions. Both factors can delay the collective mobilisation and application of NATO capabilities. The Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) lacks the authority to deploy, or even exercise, the NRF or VJTF without the approval of member governments. An aggressor would presumably strive to make the origins and nature of any conflict ambiguous to delay or avert NATO military intervention, counting on some member governments to demand more time to analyse events, pursue diplomacy or apply other non-military tools. But time is a luxury if an ally is under threat. For example, NATO defenders would have only a few minutes to shoot down an incoming missile.
To minimise critical delays, NATO might pre-delegate authority for some defensive decisions to SACEUR military commanders, allowing them to intercept missiles or reinforce an allied state under attack. However, support for such pre-delegation is limited, with national leaders demanding the right of final approval before their country goes to war. For now, NATO is expanding and improving early warning by drawing on social media and other novel intelligence sources, as well as expanding the use of war-gaming and role-playing to at least expose political leaders to the kind of decisions they would have to make rapidly should NATO ever have to engage in a rapid defence scenario.
In addition to known problems, the Alliance faces major uncertainties. Like other international organisations, NATO must struggle to balance collective and individual commitments. For example, the Alliance affirmed in Warsaw that developing means to counter hybrid and cyber threats was mainly a national responsibility, even though NATO was prepared to assist a member state under cyber assault or at any point during a hybrid campaign and regardless of whether the Alliance invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.
In line with the Defence Investment Pledge made at the 2014 Wales summit, this year’s collective allied spending has increased for the first time since 2009. NATO claims to have “turned a corner” in respect of defence spending, since the member states’ collective spending is projected to increase further this year. Still, only five NATO states have met the guideline to spend a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defence. The other governments pledged to reach this level by 2020, but their commitment is non-binding and they have regularly circumvented similar political (as opposed to legal) pledges in the past. The decision to focus future expenditure on cyber defences, special forces and unmanned systems is understandable given that NATO’s cyber defences remain vulnerable, special forces have critical counterterrorism and counter-hybrid roles, and the Alliance Ground Surveillance programme using remotely piloted Global Hawk aircraft has new missions in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Even so, NATO has prioritised purchases of major equipment and related R&D as the most urgent need in sustaining improvements in readiness. The Russian armed forces have not greatly modernised their equipment or increased their numbers in recent years, but they have become a much more effective and useful instrument due to their improved readiness, as seen in the numerous snap drills and massive exercises that have occurred in the last few years.
Due to its covert nature, how much the new Joint Intelligence and Security Division (headed by a dedicated Assistant Secretary General) will enhance the Alliance’s intelligence capabilities will remain unknown. It may simply reinforce the sharing of external intelligence among NATO members and their non-Alliance partners, which helps counterterrorism but not counter-hybrid campaigns. To counter hybrid threats, NATO members must look inwards and exchange information about their domestic vulnerabilities, such as corruption and foreign proxies, which thus far intelligence and law enforcement agencies have proved reluctant to share.
Another uncertainty is how close towards NATO Sweden and Finland will move. Their accession would bring net security gains to the Alliance and Europe since they could provide critical support in the event of a contingency in the Baltic Sea region. However, popular backing for neutrality, and concern over Moscow’s reaction, has excluded application for formal membership. The Russians have warned both countries about the dangers of pursuing membership of NATO or in the past the EU. Russian air and submarine incursions against Sweden continue, but remain something Stockholm can manage. The Russian authorities highlighted the porous nature of the country’s 1,340-km long border with Finland to infiltration by abruptly allowing some 2,000 asylum seekers from third countries to turn up at the Finnish frontier in 2015. Meanwhile, in south-east Europe, plans for NATO augmentation in the Black Sea region so far consist mostly of pledges and possibilities, such as a potential NATO air and maritime presence in the region.
The expanding partnership between NATO and the EU builds on past institutional collaboration over Afghanistan and migration, and has been reinforced by EU-US cooperation on sanctions against Iran and Russia. Furthermore, the new “Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy” reaffirms NATO’s commitment to promoting EU members’ security through enhanced partnerships and other initiatives. The EU can provide critical capabilities and authorities for addressing non-military vulnerabilities in its member states, such as poor governance, corruption and trans-national criminal penetration. It can also strengthen the non-military resilience of common European members and partners and enhance civil–military cooperation in out-of-area missions. The NATO-EU partnership ties the Balkan states of Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Albania closer to NATO even in the absence of formal Alliance membership. However, while NATO and the EU have made progress in overcoming long-standing obstacles to partnership, there are new uncertainties due to Brexit and its possible replication in other EU members where Eurosceptic movements, especially on the right, are powerful and supported by foreign partisans. In about two years’ time, London’s loud voice in favour of EU sanctions against Moscow for its hybrid threats and other actions will be gone.
Although the UK could well make a greater contribution within NATO after it loses its EU ties, divisions regarding Russia and related issues are already weakening Alliance cohesion. Some West European politicians perceive Moscow as a possible partner in dealing with regional terrorism and migration, while others see economic advantage in limiting sanctions, or at least not baiting the bear by expanding NATO’s military presence in the former Soviet bloc. French leaders pushed for a NATO-Russia meeting after the summit, collective control over European missile defences, and limiting NATO deployments in the Baltics. President François Hollande was quoted as saying “NATO has no role at all to be saying what Europe’s relations with Russia should be. For France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat.” The German government, like the German public, is divided over Russia. At the same time that the German defence ministry was assuming a leading role in the new multinational battlegroup in Lithuania, foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was describing NATO’s recent Operation Anakonda exercises in Poland as “sabre-rattling”, even though Russian defence drills near Poland are more frequent, abrupt and threatening. The Bulgarian president and prime minister have also made comments that suggest an internal split in Sofia over NATO’s presence in the Black Sea, where the Russian Navy has established a dominant position after discarding the basing limits that previously prevailed in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Moreover, NATO’s southern members are less concerned with Russia and more alarmed by migration and terrorism.
A related puzzle is how actively Turkey and the US will support NATO missions in the future. The failed coup attempt is just the latest source of tension between Turkey and the West, following differences over Syria and other regional issues and setbacks in Turkey’s domestic political situation. The Turkish government has chosen to accuse fellow NATO members of abetting the coup, while Western leaders worry about further suppression of civil society in Turkey. Ankara’s ability to serve as a valuable front-line partner for promoting liberal democratic and pro-Western values in the Middle East is dubious. For NATO, the most immediate problem is that Turkey’s national security establishment will naturally have an inward focus due to Turkey’s troubles, decreasing the country’s support for managing international security challenges. However, over the long term, Turkey’s alienation from the West, combined with Russia’s role in Syria and energy supplies, offers Moscow the opportunity to pull Ankara out of the Western orbit—a geopolitical gain that Russian leaders are now more effectively pursuing through kind words rather than inflammatory rhetoric and exaggerated threats. At the Warsaw summit, NATO leaders reaffirmed the Alliance’s nuclear dimension. However, the coup in Turkey has stoked unease about US atom bombs remaining in that country. If the Allies withdraw nuclear weapons from Turkey, the few other countries that still host US bombs might demand their withdrawal. Although Britain’s nuclear forces are independent of NATO, a Scottish withdrawal from the UK—which is potentially more likely now that the UK will leave the EU—would require Britain to find alternative and probably costlier means of sustaining a nuclear deterrent.
In the end, it might be the US presidential election that will have the greatest near-term impact on the Alliance’s cohesion and effectiveness. Hillary Clinton is strongly committed to NATO and sees the Alliance as a collective asset for promoting US liberal democratic values, balancing Russian power in Europe, countering terrorism and projecting stability to Europe and other regions. In contrast, Donald Trump criticises NATO members for accepting European free-riding on American defence guarantees. At the time of the Republican National Convention in July, Trump told the media that he would consider NATO security guarantees as being only conditional. Of course, Trump may have been playing to the crowd for electoral gain or to enhance his negotiating leverage with allied governments if elected. He has recently begun to moderate his anti-Alliance stance, such as in his foreign-policy speech on 15 August. However, at a time when transatlantic ties are already under serious strain, the electoral rhetoric in the US is an additional political problem.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.