The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance – a political organization – and also in some ways like a religion. It is held together by a belief system with shared values and a hierarchy. And like religions, it suffers from heresies and mistaken dogmas with occasional church councils – summits – where it tries to adapt doctrine to changing circumstances.
Now NATO is ditching one of those mistakes: the idea that Russia is not a threat. From this erroneous belief, adopted 20 years ago, many other heresies have followed. Such as, you do not need to take precautions against a non-existent threat. And, those who protest that the threat does actually exist are dismissed as fantasists or paranoiacs. Dismissing the possibility of danger from Russia was convenient – a bit like a religion – deciding that sin has been abolished. There was no need for plans, or bases, or military forces in the new member states. Why bother? Russia is no more a threat than Switzerland is.
But just as religions have to come to terms with human imperfection, NATO has to deal with the fact that Russia is a revisionist power. The Kremlin under Vladimir Putin argues (and maybe even believes) that the post-1991 settlement in Europe is profoundly unfair and needs to be changed. It wants a veto over its neighbors' security arrangements. It wants the Americans out of Europe. And it wants the European Union (EU) to stop trying to bust Russia’s market-abusing business model in the gas industry.
Against this reality, mistaken NATO dogmas are toppling like dominoes. Russia is clearly and unmistakably a threat to its neighbors, to the point that even the most deluded foreign-policy analysts can hardly argue the opposite.
For NATO military types this is not new. The cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007 and the war in Georgia in 2008 were loud wake-up calls. Even more alarming were the Zapad-09/Ladoga exercises in 2009 where Russia rehearsed the invasion and occupation of the Baltic States and concluded with a dummy nuclear attack on Warsaw. The Zapad-13 exercises in 2013 were larger and still more troubling. A huge increase in Russian defense spending, with its focus on tactical nuclear weapons, drove the point home.
But NATO is a political organization as well as a military one. What is obvious to those in uniform has been puzzling and unwelcome to those in suits. The summit in Wales this week gives them a chance to catch up.
Rather too much attention has gone to the verbal gymnastics surrounding the outcome of the summit. It does not really matter if the NATO forces in Poland and the Baltic states are labeled ‘permanent’ or not. The point is that they should be there. It would be desirable for symbolic reasons, I think, to suspend or cancel the agreements NATO reached with Russia in 1997 and 2002, because Russia’s actions have rendered them null and void. But the real point is not so much what NATO says, but what it does.
The most important thing is to remove politics from the decision-making about the deployment of troops to the Baltic region and Poland in the event of a crisis. Imagine, for example, that a train carrying Russian military equipment crashes while transiting Lithuania in the middle of the night. Amid a blizzard of confusing news, Russia says that the train is being looted by Lithuanian ‘bandits’ and ‘extremists,’ that its military personnel on the train are wounded, and that it needs to intervene to protect them. Lithuanian intelligence reports say that Russian irregular forces – the ‘little green men’ seen in Ukraine – are already inside the country.
In such a case, NATO has to react instantly. It cannot wait for the North Atlantic Council to hear German pleas for calm, Italian wittering about how military intervention solves nothing, or French calls for an independent inquiry. If the NATO rapid-reaction force is not in Lithuania within hours, then the Russian stunt will have created ‘facts on the ground.’ In that case, NATO is over. We are left with a lot of filing cabinets in Belgium and the end of the European security order.
NATO also needs proper plans. At the Bucharest summit in 2008, Polish and Baltic representatives were boiling with frustration that the Alliance would not even consider drawing up formal contingency plans. That has changed – mainly thanks to the Obama administration. But we do not yet have a ‘standing defense plan’ – one based on the assumption that NATO troops may be deploying not to preclude war, but to fight one.
We must also take into account that Russia has a large number of tactical nuclear weapons and a military doctrine that involves their use at an early stage in a conflict. Discussing how NATO deals with that is still taboo – a dogma that has yet to be revised.
As well as tiptoeing around old issues, NATO is grappling with new ones. In particular, how to deal with Russia’s hybrid, next-generation warfare. This involves a pernicious mixture of propaganda, subversion, economic pressure, bribery of decision-makers, cyber-espionage and cyber-warfare, diplomatic stunts and energy sanctions, as well as irregular and regular military forces. As seen in Ukraine, Russia does this expertly. NATO is not configured to respond (nor for that matter are most Western governments and agencies).
So strong black coffee, not champagne, should be on the menu after Newport. NATO is back in business. But turning words into deeds will be a mighty task. And time is perilously short.