The NATO’s Summit in Warsaw has been widely labelled as a historic event in shaping NATO’s policies and strategically adapting in response to the revisionist actions of Russia.
The decision to establish an enhanced forward presence in the territories of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and the specific commitments various Allied nations have made concerning their troop presence in the eastern parts of the Alliance reflect the establishment of a new reality. Thereby, the Alliance sends specifically to the Russian regime an unequivocal message about the indivisibility of allied security. The wording of the summit communique text clearly reflects that the NATO alliance has moved on from simply assuring the most exposed allies to deterring Russia from undertaking aggressive actions against member states.1
The Warsaw decisions also reflect the essential transatlantic character of the Alliance. The announcement of the stationing in Poland of the headquarters of an armoured brigade, which the Obama administration will be sending back to Europe, reflects the US commitment to the security of the eastern flank. As American units will not be a part of NATO’s forward presence north of the Suwalki Gap, it will be important that parts of this brigade also rotate continuously through the Baltic counties. This American effort will be complemented by the re-establishment of the Canadian military presence on the European continent.
As regards the European framework nations of the battalions, the contribution announced by the United Kingdom will help to alleviate concerns about the effects of the Brexit referendum on wider UK commitments to European security. Likewise the substantial role to be performed by Germany is of key importance, not only because of Berlin´s increasing role as the centre of Europe´s political power, but also due to recent mixed messages concerning NATO’s Russia policy delivered by one part of the governing coalition.
But while political decisions have been made, their implementation still requires clarifications concerning important details of the configuration of the enhanced forward presence. Key features of the forward presence are its multinational character and military meaningfulness. While the multinationality of the battalions, demonstrating allied solidarity and performing the function of a tripwire in case of aggression, will be well established, the follow-up work on the details needs to ensure that the forces will also live up to the promise of being militarily “robust.” While the temptation may be to send light forces more suitable for hybrid-type of contingencies, the Baltic states themselves have sufficient capabilities within their armed forces and internal security structures for these kinds of scenarios. Instead, the focus of the enhanced forward presence deployments should be on augmenting the indigenous forces with key military capabilities which the Baltic countries do not already possess. Also, it is of utmost importance to ensure the coherence of command of various national contributions by delegating sufficient operational command authority to General Scaparotti who is both SACEUR and Commander of US forces in Europe.
Another issue derives from the timelines of the implementation of Warsaw decisions. The period between now and the planned establishment of the new forward presence force posture in 2017 could be seen in Moscow as a last window of opportunity to act. Kremlin may still speculate that with some brazen military action it might pull off an establishment of a fait accompli situation which NATO would find difficult to reverse. The Allies have to take this possibility into account and therefore consider ways for enhanced exercising and training in the Baltic region to bridge this gap, especially during the next months, when Russia’s own exercising activities are scheduled to peak.
Finally, it has been long overdue that NATO as a nuclear alliance adapts its relevant messaging to reflect the reality of Russia’s increasingly brazen nuclear rhetoric. After long years of downplaying the role of nuclear weapons as ultimate guarantees of Allied security, the language used in para 54 of the Warsaw communique2 sends an important signal to Russia that it cannot win a conflict with NATO by employing its ability to escalate to the nuclear level. This kind of messaging is an essential part of the new reality to ensure that everybody understands the North Atlantic Alliance’s resolve, thereby minimizing any chances of a conflict breaking out.
1 While the 2014 Wales summit declaration mentioned deterrence 8 times, the Warsaw text includes this word 28 times.
2 “Any employment of nuclear weapons against NATO would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict. The circumstances in which NATO might have to use nuclear weapons are extremely remote. If the fundamental security of any of its members were to be threatened however, NATO has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that an adversary could hope to achieve.”