As a revitalized NATO alliance deals with a crisis that has major economic and humanitarian as well as military dimensions, the need for it to develop both a European and a global containment strategy grows ever more urgent.
Bolstering NATO’s defences so as to provide the capability to repel any form of Russian attack on land, at sea, in the air, or through space and cyberspace is a key aspect of this strategy as, in recent weeks, more combat forces able to defend territory have taken the form of additional troops, ships, and aircraft reinforcing the Baltic states and the Black Sea coastlines of Poland and Romania.
Ten allies have so far contributed to this effort, placing 40,000 troops under direct NATO command. Those sceptical about the future of the transatlantic security relationship have been confounded by the major role the US has played in this effort, sending parts of the 82nd Airborne Division and 3rd Armoured Division to Poland, and redeploying US Stryker brigades from Germany and Italy to the Baltic states and Romania.
Although many other allies have sent useful assets – such as French and UK aircraft to Romania or German and Netherlands Patriot batteries to Slovakia – the US contribution still surpasses all European efforts put together. The US now has 100,000 troops in Europe, the most it has deployed there since the mid-1990s.
Transitioning from temporary to permanent deployment
NATO has also mobilized its high-readiness Reaction Force for the first time and aims to establish four new multinational battalions in the Black Sea region – with France offering to lead the one in Romania, Italy in Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic in Slovakia. Most of these deployments are on a temporary basis, but the receiving allies would understandably like them to stay longer and for NATO to commit to permanent stationed forces.
Although this would oblige the alliance to break formally from the pledge it made to Moscow in 1997 not to station substantial combat forces or nuclear weapons or build military infrastructure on the territory of its new member states in eastern Europe, this was a political undertaking linked to circumstances prevailing at the time.
Given Russia’s behaviour, there is no reason why NATO should not now abandon it. There is also a question over whether NATO could also repeal the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the NATO-Russia Council, or simply leave them in suspension for a future, more cooperative, and less bellicose Russian regime.
Beyond showing the flag along its eastern flank, NATO does face longer-term issues which need to be clarified in its new Strategic Concept. First is whether to abandon its current strategy of reinforcement and military mobility across Europe – known as the Enhanced Forward Presence in the NATO jargon – in favour of the deployment of heavy armoured brigades or even divisions in fixed positions close to borders.
This will be expensive in the long-run and deprive allies of the flexibility they have enjoyed since the end of the Cold War to use their forces as and where they wish – from deployments in the Sahel or Afghanistan to fighting forest fires or building emergency hospitals for COVID-19 patients at home. The only exception is when they have put forces on rotation into the NATO high readiness forces or the European Union (EU) Battle Groups.
Germany’s commitment gives NATO more options
The decision of Germany to increase its defence spending to two per cent of GDP and to devote €100 billion to modernizing the Bundeswehr makes it technically possible for NATO to move to a Cold War-style forward, armoured defence. But it is unclear how quickly Berlin could raise its new divisions given its problems with procurement and government/industry relations in the defence sector.
It may make more sense for Germany not to launch new acquisition programmes but to buy existing off-the-shelf capabilities – as it has recently done with its decision to buy 35 US F35 aircraft – which other European countries are also acquiring, offering economies of scale and cheaper operating and maintenance costs.
But if Germany abandons ambitious defence projects with France – which prefers a ‘buy European’ approach – such as the Future European Air Combat System, the relationship with France will become strained and French plans for EU self-reliance in the military field put at risk.
As a country averse to war fighting and narrow military approaches to security, it is uncertain how much of the conventional defence burden in NATO Germany would be willing to take on, so this could be the opportunity to create more integrated European units with France, the Benelux, Poland, and Italy, even with the post-Brexit UK.
The UK has doubled the size of its forces in Estonia and sent 1,000 troops to Poland, as well as devoting a substantial portion of its army, navy, and airforce to regular NATO exercises in the Baltic region. London was also the first ally to grant Sweden and Finland a temporary security guarantee pending full integration into the alliance.
NATO will likely settle on a compromise, increasing the size of its battalions on its eastern flank – turning them into battle groups – but giving each one a larger reserve force which will remain in Germany or other European allied countries.
A NATO strategic plan is now needed
The other issue for NATO is to develop a single theatre-wide strategic plan managed by the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) and the NATO command structure. In reinforcing the alliance’s eastern flank, allies have sent forces to wherever they like and largely under national command, but this would not work in a real war.
NATO must revise its exercises to prepare and train for the new threat level, ensuring its forward deployed forces are fully integrated with local forces and the police and border guards to anticipate and respond to any Russian hybrid war tactics. It also needs to step up its joint planning and interoperability with Sweden and Finland and bring their territories into its standing defence plans.
One thing NATO has done well in this crisis is its political messaging. As Russia has become more threatening and reckless, it has been essential for NATO to be consistent and predictable. Re-affirming its core defensive purpose, calmly rejecting Putin’s nuclear posturing, and refusing to put NATO forces in Ukraine may be frustrating for some but it is vital not to play into Putin’s playbook regarding an ‘aggressive NATO’ or give him the sense he is being pushed into a corner. However, NATO strategic ambiguity can be useful when considering how to respond to a Russian escalation in Ukraine itself, such as using chemical weapons.
The key questions for NATO are:
- What should be the balance between permanently deployed and rotational forces in NATO’s new posture?
- What should be the balance of US/Canadian and European forces in this posture?
- How can the capability development programmes under EU Strategic Autonomy (such as PESCO and the European Defence Fund) be geared to support the European role and responsibility in the alliance? Air and missile defence would seem to be priorities given Russia’s reliance on long range strikes.
- How can the EU’s Strategic Compass, NATO’s next Strategic Concept and the third NATO-EU Joint Declaration be harmonized to bring the two institutions more closely together in responding to Russian hybrid operations and influence campaigns, and in assisting both Ukraine and others such as Georgia and Moldova?
- What should be the balance between forces for collective defence with heavy armour and directed artillery fire, and those for expeditionary missions beyond Europe such as counterterrorism, stabilization and peacekeeping?
NATO is revived and refocused
Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a catastrophe for Ukraine and Europe more generally, the multilateral system has discovered a new energy and sense of purpose as NATO has been revived and refocused on its core mission.
The EU and the US have pulled together with daily coordination of their policies and actions, and the EU is also facing up to its geo-political role, as recognizing the EU aspirations of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia as well as the countries of the western Balkans shows its responsibility for the security and economic integration of the whole of Europe.