NATO Readiness
MARK WILLIS
© 2015 FrontLine Defence (Vol 12, No 5)

For an institution widely considered to be Cold War-era anachronism that was rendered insignificant by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has re-emerged as the focal point of Western defence strategy during an 18-month period of geopolitical upheaval.


October-November 2015 – Italy is one of the 30 nations participating in Operation Trident Juncture locations in Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Originally established in 1949 to provide collective security, deter Soviet expansionism, block nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent and encourage European political integration, the alliance of now 28-member states has rediscovered its raison d’être in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in March 2015.

This forced-realignment of European national borders has developed into Europe’s most significant political and military crisis in almost a generation.

It has also served to underline the continued relevance of NATO in protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its members in Central and East Europe (CEE) against the increasingly re-assertive and Irredentist administration of Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

More recently, the stoking of geopolitical tensions has been accelerated by the rise of Islamist extremism in North Africa and the Middle East, and the decision by President Putin to station Russian military in Syria in an effort to prop up the crumbling regime of its authoritarian ruler, Bashar al-Assad.

Deterioration in the security environment over the last year and half has come at a particularly inopportune for NATO, highlighting substantial structural and strategic deficiencies in the alliance, and calling into question its capacity and willingness to provide a collective security guarantee.

Defense spending by member governments, most notably in Europe, have been falling for more than a decade, while opinion polls suggest that the protracted period of peace within the region has substantially reduced public appetite to engage in foreign military conflict.

The atmosphere of heightened tensions was encapsulated recently by Poland’s foreign minister, Tomasz Siemoniak, at a June 2015 NATO training exercise in Zagan, Poland. “After tens of years of peace, that peaceful period after the Second World War is now over. We cannot defend our European way of life if we don’t do more for our defence”, he said.

Edward Lucas, Senior Vice President at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a think tank, recognized this early and warned of post Cold War complacency. His prescient 2008 publication, The New Cold War, forecast the confrontation with Putin’s Russia.

While there was a creeping realization of the threat posed by the Moscow administration in the late 2000s, Lucas outlined how the yet-to-happen 2014 invasion of Crimea would finally unmask the extent of Putin’s revanchist foreign policy, forcing a fundamental shift in NATO strategy.


F-16 prepares to take flight.

“NATO started before the Crimea annexation to gradually get its act together, and you can trace this back to 2007 when it first began allowing limited contingency planning and (military) exercises, and an increased awareness of the need to do territorial defense. But Crimea acted as an accelerant”, he says.

Russia’s advance into Ukraine was a less surprising development for the former communist CEE countries that have been admitted to NATO and the European Union (EU) in a 15 year period following the Soviet Union’s dissolution, than it was for political establishments in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Artur Kacprzyk, a defense analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), a Warsaw-based think tank, noted a consistent pattern of provocation by Moscow in the decade leading up to Crimea, including the 2008 invasion of Georgia, amassing troops and regular snap military exercises on NATO borders. One ‘war game’ in 2009 culminated with a simulated Russian nuclear attack on Warsaw, and there has been a marked increase in nationalistic and anti-Western rhetoric by government and military officials.

With government coffers boosted by soaring oil and gas export revenues over the last decade, and the country’s military budget more that doubling, President Putin has embarked on Russia’s largest post-Cold War rearmament program.

“For Poland, Romania and the Baltic states, which feel most threatened by Putin, the Russian behavior towards Ukraine and NATO is not something new, but rather part of a longer trend which has been going on for the last decade. And they expect that it will continue to take place in the future”, continued Kacprzyk.

At the Wales Summit in September 2014, political leaders of NATO’s 28 states moved to alleviate heightened concerns among many of its CEE members by announcing a new Readiness Action Plan, which included temporary and permanent strategic measures in response to the Ukrainian crisis and rise of the militant “Islamic State” (ISIL/ISIS) jihadists, in the Middle East and North Africa.

“In order to ensure that our Alliance is ready to respond swiftly and firmly to the new security challenges, today we have approved the NATO Readiness Action Plan (RAP). It provides a coherent and comprehensive package of necessary measures to respond to the changes in the security environment on NATO’s borders and further afield that are of concern to Allies”, was a post summit declaration.

“It responds to the challenges posed by Russia and their strategic implications. It also responds to the risks and threats emanating from our southern neighbourhood, the Middle East and North Africa”, continued the declaration. Measures enacted as part of the RAP reflect the vulnerability of NATO’s eastern flank, and heightened alarm among former Soviet Union-aligned Warsaw Pact countries, notably Poland, Romania and the three Baltic states.

Chief among changes agreed to last year has been an unprecedented increase in NATO military presence and exercises in Eastern Europe, including updated regional command structures and the establishment of rotational command and control posts in the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania.

The number of regional air-policing and surveillance missions by the Standing NATO Maritime and Mine Counter-Measures Groups have also risen exponentially, as have maritime patrols in the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean, and Black Sea.

Originally established in 2002 and comprised of land, maritime and air troops to respond quickly to military threats, the NATO Response Force (NRF) has seen a substantial increase in resources at its disposal over the last 18 months.

In October 2015, NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, announced an agreement of the alliance’s political leaders to more than double the size of the NRF to 40,000 troops to comprise a “stronger, faster, and more capable” force.

This rethinking of NATO strategy has also led to the creation of a new quick-reaction “Spearhead Force” (Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, or VJTF), comprising a 5,000 soldier strong, flexible, multi-national unit that can be deployed within 48 hours at first warning of potential threats, and act as a deterrent against escalation towards a full-blown military crisis.

Creation of the VJTF, which deployed in its first live fire exercise in Zagan, Poland, in June 2015, is representative of NATO efforts to adapt to the non-conventional forms of warfare, including cyber espionage, use of non-uniformed, irregular forces, and stoking of civil unrest successfully employed by Russian troops and Moscow-backed militias in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

In a further demonstration of its new resolve and firepower, the participation of 36,000 land, sea and air forces from 30 countries in ‘Operation Trident Juncture’ 2015 constituted the largest NATO military exercise in more than a decade.

While the first storage of heavy armour in CEE states is expected to take place during 2016, it has been arranged through bilateral agreements with the U.S. rather than through official NATO policy.

Despite this impressive response to aggressive Russian foreign policy, and the unprecedented build up of forces on NATO’s eastern flank, there remain lingering concerns among political leaders in CEE, as well as Russia analysts, over the adequacy of the measures so far enacted and the alliance’s capacity to respond to future escalation in regional tensions.

“The shift to collective territorial defense following the conflict in the Ukraine and Crimea has been unprecedented in its post Cold War history, and generally NATO’s response has been welcomed by the states in the region which feel most threatened by Russia’s actions”, said PISM’s Artur Kacprzyk.


U.S. and Portuguese Marines from the amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD-24), lands at Praia Da Raposa Beach in Portugal, to participate in ­Trident Juncture 2015.

“It represents a good step in the right direction but definitely not the final step. In fact, these countries (in CEE) would like NATO to agree on a wider set of measures at the upcoming Warsaw NATO Summit in summer 2016, so as to ensure a long-term adaptation of the alliance”, he added.

The principle concern relates to the still-temporary, rotational nature of NATO combat troop deployments in CEE, which many regional governments believe afford them effective second-class defense guarantees and membership status. It has arguably also been a driver of increased Russian willingness to foment instability within the region in recent years with no formal tripwire which, if crossed, would trigger a unified NATO response.

The issue of permanent troop stationing is complicated by an agreement struck between NATO and Russia in 1997, The “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security”, curtails the positioning of military hardware and personnel within the alliance’s new East European members.

According to this agreement, “in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defense and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces”.

Russian violation of the agreement with its more antagonistic foreign policy may present an opportunity for NATO to replicate the US decision to store permanent combat troops and heavy weaponry within its eastern border areas. But gaining universal agreement for such as move among the alliance’s political leadership is likely to prove highly contentious and illustrate divisions between member states.

CEPA’s Edward Lucas highlighted the convoluted nature of decision-making within the alliance, with the need for consensus among all 28-member states frequently proving a cumbersome and drawn-out process. “NATO makes decisions slowly and on the basis of a consensus, and the consensus and commitment is clearly not always there”, he said.

In the absence of NATO political preauthorization to respond to external aggression, President Putin will continue to hold ‘escalation dominance’ within the region, according to Lucas.

Even in the aftermath of Crimea, fundamental differences of opinion regarding the extent of the Russian threat also exist within NATO’s newer CEE members, with countries enjoying closer economic ties to Moscow, such as Hungary, resisting the implementation of more stringent deterrence measures.

With its turbulent historical relationship and strong current economic ties with Russia, and post World War Two-era reticence towards armed conflict, Germany has also proven reluctant to back a buildup of NATO presence in Eastern Europe.

The absence of closer cooperation with non-NATO countries in the region has also been highlighted by analysts as a fundamental impediment to effective defense of NATO’s eastern flank.

“NATO cannot adequately defend the most vulnerable parts of Eastern Europe without Sweden and Finland on board, and should be pushing ahead with further practical cooperation. European stability will be destroyed if there is a successful Russian destabilizing of the Baltics”, said Lucas.

Another pressing issue that is at odds with the rise in security threats and NATO’s capacity to provide collective defense, is the broad pattern of declining defense spending by parsimonious European governments. This is exacerbated by the region’s protracted economic downturn and rising public indebtedness.


HMCS Goose Bay and Summerside in the ­Mediterranean Sea.

NATO currently forecasts that just five of its members – the US, UK, Poland, Greece, and Estonia – are in 2015 expected to meet the benchmark 2% of GDP defense spending target which NATO countries agreed to meet within a decade at last year’s Wales Summit.

It is a development that sits particularly uncomfortably with recent efforts by the Obama administration to reorientate significant elements of its foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region, and understanding that the EU should play a greater role in regional collective defense. There is a growing likelihood that the deteriorating security situation in the Middle East may also stretch American resources in the coming years, limiting its capacity to engage in Europe.

According to Kacprzyk, “with the Russian challenge in the East and new instability in the South, NATO countries must invest more in defense and cannot rely so much on the U.S., the military spending of which stands for over 70% of total defense budgets of all members of the alliance.”

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Mark Willis is a FrontLine journalist based in Berlin.
© FrontLine Defence 2015

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