NATO’s Gathering Storm
October 13, 2015
NATO defense ministers met last week in Brussels, amid growing turmoil and uncertainty around NATO’s southern and eastern borders. Since Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the alliance has focused on its eastern flank and accelerating its shift to territorial defense and deterrence, after more than a decade of expeditionary operations, in what Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described today as its biggest reinforcement of collective defense since the end of the Cold War. We are reminded today of one of the Ukraine war’s deadliest outcomes, the loss of 298 lives when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over the skies of eastern Ukraine.
But beyond that transformation, NATO allies are confronted by the situation in Syria—including Russia’s military intervention, the flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants to Europe, and the threat of foreign fighters returning to Europe and North America—as well as deteriorating security in Afghanistan following the shockingly successful Taliban offensive in Kunduz last week. Although it appears the Taliban now have been forced out of Kunduz by Afghan government forces (with U.S. and international support), UN information indicates the Taliban have achieved their widest reach since their ouster in 2001.
Just as Russia has increased its military activism in the Middle East, the Kremlin is turning down the temperature in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, as the September 1 cease-fire is largely holding and larger caliber weaponry is being pulled back. The October 2 Paris meeting of the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia—the so-called Normandy Format—yielded a modest but positive result in postponing unsanctioned elections in the separatist areas. Yet the ultimate goal of returning Ukraine’s sovereignty over its eastern border still seems distant. Russia’s shadow therefore continues to loom over NATO’s eastern flank.
Against this geopolitical backdrop, 28 NATO defense ministers agreed on a plan to expand the NATO Response Force (NRF) to 40,000 troops, more than double its current size. This implements one of the principal elements of the program launched by NATO leaders at the September 2014 Wales Summit to upgrade NATO’s rapid-response capacity and to begin adapting the alliance to the challenges from Russia in the east. Among the other key elements in NATO’s adaptation are the creation of a high-readiness “spearhead” task force—Secretary General Stoltenberg announced October 8 that lead nations for the spearhead force have been identified through 2022 (France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom), demonstrating resolve by NATO members to put resources behind its top-priority initiative. Thus far, the United States has deferred a decision to become a lead nation for the spearhead force, but the Obama administration’s European Reassurance Initiative invested $1 billion in Fiscal Year 2015 in strengthening European defense, enabling U.S. force rotations, security assistance, and pre-positioning of equipment in Europe. Sustaining U.S. investments beyond FY15 will be essential to ensuring European—and transatlantic—security.
NATO’s force presence in the east is a central part of the alliance’s response to Russia. Since last year, rotational forces have been present in the eastern part of the alliance, and NATO has established new, relatively small (but expandable) headquarters in six member states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria). Importantly, NATO defense ministers agreed to add two new headquarters, in Slovakia and Hungary, which will underscore a growing NATO presence in the east. The alliance is also conducting its largest exercise in over a decade this month, Trident Juncture, involving about 36,000 troops from over 30 countries. Despite its size, this exercise is many times smaller than Russia’s military exercises in the last two years, including no-notice “snap” exercises of over 100,000 troops that have had a destabilizing effect.
Turning toward the growing threat from the south, security challenges to NATO members are no less significant but more diffuse—the Syrian civil war and mass migration from the Middle East and North Africa constitute not only a geopolitical but also a humanitarian challenge that increasingly is straining Europe’s political cohesion and its institutions. Defense Secretary Ash Carter traveled to Spain and Italy prior to arriving in Brussels and saw firsthand the challenges NATO countries face. Russia’s armed intervention in Syria will increase refugee flows to Europe, while raising the risks of military accidents and potential escalation with the United States, NATO, and the Arab states in the anti-ISIL coalition. Russia’s increased military presence in Syria also presents new potential challenges to NATO’s ability to operate in the eastern Mediterranean. The recent Russian incursions into Turkish airspace have increased NATO’s rhetorical support for Turkey, but ministers neither reached agreement to enhance NATO’s posture on its southeastern border nor to replace some of the NATO Patriot missile batteries that were scheduled to depart Turkey. Secretary General Stoltenberg suggested that NATO’s spearhead force and the NRF can be deployed to the south as well as to the east and that NATO would remain in dialogue with Turkey.
NATO is unlikely to take a lead role with respect to the migrant and refugee issues. Thus far, there have been no demand signals from the affected countries or from the European Union, which has the lead in dealing with that aspect of the crisis.
Afghanistan was also on the defense ministers’ agenda: What should the future of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan be following the capture by the Taliban of Kunduz? In his wrap-up press conference, the secretary general attempted to convey a sense of calm and confidence in the NATO training mission, Operation Resolute Support, underscoring that NATO would remain in Afghanistan as some allies call for flexibility. The alliance faces decisions before the end of this year on its 2016 force levels and is awaiting military recommendations.
This most recent gathering of defense ministers is an important step on the road to the Warsaw Summit in July 2016, the last NATO summit of the Obama presidency. The long-term adaptation of the alliance will be a centerpiece; while much has been done, the response needs to be elevated to a more comprehensive strategy in the east that will encompass capabilities, force presence, and exercise activities for deterrence and collective defense, as well as set the alliance’s direction for the coming decade. And in the south, NATO must deal with the changed regional security environment resulting from Syria’s civil war, Russia’s intervention and expanding presence, and the threats from extremism and migration. As always, U.S. leadership will be essential to ensure NATO finds and swiftly moves toward this new direction. It often has been difficult to find NATO on Washington’s foreign policy agenda. With the growing storm clouds in the transatlantic area, sustained Washington attention to NATO and U.S. strategy in Europe, and resources to back it up, is a must.
Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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