by Andrew Rasiulis
The Hill Times
June 8, 2016
This July, a NATO summit is set to take place in Warsaw, Poland. Sixty-one years prior, in May 1955, this same city was the site of the inauguration of the Soviet-backed Warsaw Pact Organization (WPO).
It was a very different geopolitical world. In 1955, West Germany was being integrated into NATO. The intra/inner-German border was defined as NATO’s central front, with its northern and southern flanks reaching from Norway to Turkey. This was a zero-sum Cold War stand-off between the ideological rivals as embodied by the member states of NATO and the WPO.
In 2016, the NATO summit in Warsaw is expected to deal with a politically, economically, and militarily redefined Europe. The Cold War rivalry has been replaced by multi-dimensional interests between contemporary NATO and the Russian Federation.
Today, there is both a convergence of interest (witness Syria), and a divergence (witness Ukraine).
With a resurgent Russia presenting a challenge on what is now being called its eastern flank, NATO government leaders have the opportunity to meet this challenge constructively, whereby the eastern flank need not become a new eastern front.
A new challenge for NATO is Russia’s recent use of military force as an instrument of politics: the classic Clausewitzian definition of war. From Georgia to Ukraine and then to Syria, Russia has used military might to further its foreign policy interests. This was not a Soviet-style Cold War redux, but rather a Russian response to what it perceived as a post-Cold War loss of influence.
The NATO Wales summit in 2014 also grappled with the resurgence of Russian military power and set out to craft a NATO response, which became known as a reassurance package, for its more vulnerable members along the eastern and southeastern flanks. Essentially, this was characterized by a big boost in NATO multinational exercises and a limited pre-positioning of weapons, such as one U.S. brigade’s worth of tanks.
The Warsaw summit will need to take stock of the varied confluence of interests since 2014, such as the establishment of the Minsk 2 process in February 2015, which put in place a precarious ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and a still-unfulfilled roadmap for a political settlement.
In the Middle East, developments such as the nuclear deal with Iran and the limited ceasefire in Syria were achieved with active diplomatic co-operation between the United States and Russia. The picture is one of a mix of antagonism and co-operation.
Reading the tea leaves on the summit preparations underway in Brussels and NATO capitals, it seems the outcome will lead to a further strengthening of the Wales reassurance package with something akin to a deterrence and defence package.
Speculation is that NATO will deploy “on a permanent rotational basis” about four multinational battalions in Poland and the Baltic states.
The nuance on “permanent” and “rotational” is to conform to what is perceived to be the letter, if not the spirit, of the 1997 NATO-Russian Founding Act prohibiting the permanent stationing of non-indigenous NATO troops in NATO countries east of Germany. Some observers argue that the NATO pledge not to station permanent forces was, in fact, conditional on the security situation faced by the alliance, and that under the current circumstances there is no valid prohibition.
The Russians recently reacted to this by stating that three new Russian divisions will be deployed in its western and southern flanks by the end of 2016. The Russians are indicating they will respond to any NATO build-up with whatever means are deemed necessary to protect their perceived national interests.
So far, this is the deterrence/defence track being taken by NATO and Russia. Add to this the issue of the level and type of military aid for Ukraine in its stalemate with the Russian-supported rebel enclaves in the Donbass.
Underlying this track is the concern in NATO that should the Russians decide to use limited, non-nuclear, military force against NATO in an effort to undermine the alliance’s cohesion, the Baltic states, vulnerable to a Russian incursion, would require reinforcement. How much is enough?
A Rand Corporation study from earlier this year suggests an answer in the context of a limited conventional Russian attack: seven brigades, three of which would need to be heavy-armoured. NATO leaders are unlikely to agree to such numbers, ergo the four-battalion option.
While the threat of a limited attack against the Baltic states is a challenge to be addressed by the Warsaw summit, there is also the opportunity to seek a corroborating detente/dialogue. To avoid having NATO’s eastern flank turn into its eastern front, the second track of detente and dialogue must build on areas of political convergence between NATO and Russia.
M. Andrew Rasiulis is retired from the public service and is now a freelance consultant with Andrew Rasiulis Associates Inc. He is also a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Image: U.S. Navy