The security of the North Atlantic Alliance is under growing threat, as Vladimir Putin’s Russia is resurgent, instability is spreading along NATO’s southern and southeastern flanks, and the EU is suffering a prolonged crisis. To remain effective as the indispensable Alliance, NATO must identify and counter the core threats. In this context, the Warsaw Summit was a step forward but its results can only be assessed in their delivery.
To be effective NATO must perform four critical functions – identify adversaries, demonstrate unity, ensure adequate resources and provide sufficient deterrence. Warsaw underscored that Russia is an adversary threatening NATO’s eastern flank. According to the Summit Communique, “Russia’s aggressive actions, including provocative military activities in the periphery of NATO territory and its demonstrated willingness to attain political goals by the threat and use of force, are a source of regional instability, fundamentally challenge the Alliance, have damaged Euro-Atlantic security, and threaten our long-standing goal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.”
Although some NATO statements continue to offer rapprochement with Putin’s Russia, in practice an aggressive adversary cannot simultaneously be treated as a credible collaborator. A demonstration of unity is vital at a time when the Kremlin is trying to drive wedges between Europe and America. Consequently, NATO enlargement through Montenegro’s membership sends two important signals – Alliance decisions will not be blocked by Russia and any European state has the right to join.
In addition, as Sweden and Finland seek closer ties with NATO to deter Russia’s belligerence, the Alliance asserted that it would deepen its political and military links with both states. The Summit also offered Ukraine a Comprehensive Assistance Package although it falls short of providing the weapons Kyiv needs to forestall Moscow’s future offensives.
A key element of NATO effectiveness is adequate spending on defense. Burden sharing has bedeviled transatlantic relations for decades and has featured in the U.S. presidential elections. Washington’s impatience with the failure of European Allies to contribute more to their own defense creates friction, especially as pledges made at the Wales Summit in 2014 have not been fulfilled by each ally. Over the past decade only a handful of NATO members have consistently spent 2% of GDP on defense. Several eastern flank states are now committed to steadily increasing their defense budgets in the face of escalating threats from Russia, including Poland, Romania and the three Baltic countries.
Sufficient deterrence from attack is the core of NATO’s rationale. The Warsaw summit took several steps in that direction but the measures are yet to be tested. Over the coming year, it will be important to demonstrate progress in building the planned Very High Readiness Joint Task Force in order to reach the NATO Forces 2020 target set out in Summit declarations.
NATO will not build permanent bases in Central Eastern Europe (CEE) despite the appeals of frontline members. Instead, it intends to boost rapid reinforcement plans by dispatching four battalions to Poland and the Baltics, including forces from all four Visegrád states. Even if the battalions materialize, fears remain that they would be insufficient to deter the substantial military force Russia has amassed along NATO’s borders. The spearhead units are to be part of a larger NATO response force of some 30,000 troops, but this could take weeks to mobilize in a crisis.
The Summit underscored NATO’s responsibility to ensure the security of its members in the Black Sea. In order to defend its eastern flank, the Alliance must neutralize Russia’s threatening posture aimed at ensuring supremacy in the Black Sea and projecting power toward the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
The Summit declared that NATO would develop a tailored forward presence in the Black Sea region and include Romania’s initiative for a multinational brigade to improve training of Allied units under Headquarters Multinational Division Southeast. However, even an upgraded rotational maritime presence by the U.S. and other allies will be insufficient to deter further Kremlin aggression given the weakness of Romanian and Bulgarian naval capabilities and Turkey’s unwillingness to confront Moscow. Romania’s proposal for a more formidable Black Sea flotilla appears to be dead in the water.
Following the capture of Crimea, Russia’s control of ports and sea-lanes prevents NATO from projecting sufficient security for its Black Sea members or to intervene on behalf of vulnerable neighbors. Additionally, it threatens to choke the trade and energy routes of states not in compliance with Russia’s national ambitions.
The Warsaw Summit also responded to a wider assortment of unconventional threats by launching two new initiatives. The Cyber Defense Pledge identified cyberspace as an “operational domain” alongside air, land and sea and a new Intelligence Division within NATO will better position the Alliance to respond to evolving threats by sharing critical information.
Nonetheless, more potent tools are needed to confront the eclectic forms of contemporary warfare, including externally generated insurgencies, cyber-attacks, information warfare, and political and economic penetration that undermine state independence. As Russia applies its aggressive tools of subversion, NATO must develop commensurate counter-measures to protect all members and project its own power into strategically vital regions.