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Repositioning NATO after the Warsaw Summit

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CDA Institute guest contributor Andrew Rasiulis, a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, examines the challenge posed by ISIL and a revanchist Russia in advance of the NATO Warsaw Summit.

The NATO Summit in Warsaw this July offers the Alliance the opportunity to reposition itself to address the security challenges on both its Eastern and Southern flanks. In the east, the war within Ukraine, while stagnant remains politically unresolved. In the south, the scourge of terrorism, most notably manifest through the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has wrecked violence within NATO itself as witnessed by the various terror attacks in Belgium, Canada, France, and Turkey. The impact of ISIL generated violence, and that of its allies in Africa and Asia, has been the creation of waves of refugee migration. This migration, in turn, is having a powerful impact on the politics of NATO member states.

The Alliance will therefore seek ways to reposition itself to enhance the defence of its member states along its borders with Russia, while at the same time examining ways and means of bringing forth a political resolution to the situation in Ukraine. To the south, the ongoing violence of terrorism will challenge NATO to take a long-​term view of the reasons for the phenomenon of ISIL and its corresponding reaction.

Russia has emerged once again as a key player on the international stage. NATO must therefore reassess its relationship with Russia, which at times has both divergent and convergent interests. In Ukraine we find the divergence of interests being predominant, as NATO expansion after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union is being rebuffed by a resurgent Russia not only in Ukraine, but in Georgia and Moldova as well. However, the ongoing terrorist actions of Muslim extremists threatens both Russia and NATO. In this latter threat context, NATO and Russia are both seen as the enemy by ISIL and its allies.

These security challenges are pushing NATO to strengthen its defence and deterrence posture along its Eastern flank with Russia. The NATO Wales Summit in 2014 also grappled with the resurgence of Russian military power and set out to craft a NATO response – a reassurance package, as it became known – for its more vulnerable members along the eastern and southeastern flanks. Essentially, this was characterized by a significant increase in NATO multinational exercises and a limited pre-​positioning of armaments, such as one US brigade’s worth of tanks.

The Warsaw Summit will need to take stock of the varied confluence of interests since 2014, such as the establishment of the Minsk 2 process in February of 2015 which put in place a precarious ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and, and as of yet, an unfulfilled roadmap for a political settlement. In the Middle East, developments such as the nuclear deal with Iran and the limited ceasefire in Syria were achieved with active diplomatic co-​operation between the United States and Russia. The picture reflects both the divergence and convergence of NATO and Russian interests.

In tracking Summit preparations currently underway in Brussels and NATO capitals, one is able to discern that the outcome will lead to a further strengthening of the Wales reassurance package, with something akin to a deterrence/​defence package. Speculation is that NATO will deploy “on a permanent rotational basis” approximately four multinational battalions within Poland and the Baltic states. The nuance on “permanent” and “rotational” is to conform to what is perceived to be the letter, if not the spirit, of the 1997 NATO-​Russian Founding Act that prohibits the permanent stationing of non-​indigenous NATO troops in NATO countries east of Germany. Some observers argue that the NATO pledge not to station permanent forces was, in fact, conditional on the security situation faced by the Alliance, and that under the current circumstances there is no valid prohibition.

The Russians recently reacted to this by stating that three new Russian divisions will be deployed in its Western and Southern Flanks by the end of 2016. The Russians are indicating they will respond to any NATO build-​up with whatever means are deemed necessary to protect their perceived national interests. Add to this the issue of the level and type of military assistance for Ukraine in its stalemate with the Russian-​supported rebel enclaves in the Donbass.

Within NATO, and particularly among its eastern member states, there is concern that should the Russians decide to use limited, non-​nuclear, military force against NATO in an effort to undermine the cohesion of the Alliance, the Baltic states – vulnerable to a Russian incursion – would require reinforcement. This scenario in turn begs the question raised by Alain Enthoven in his 1971 Rand study “How Much is Enough?

A 2016 RAND Corporation study by David A. Shlapak and Micheal W. Johnson postulates an answer to that question in the context of a limited conventional Russian attack. The answer is seven brigades, three of which would need to be heavy. The Summit is unlikely to agree to such numbers for its deterrence/​defence track, ergo the four battalion option.

While the threat of a limited attack against the Baltic states is a challenge that will be addressed by the Warsaw Summit, there is also the opportunity to seek a corroborating détente/​dialogue ‘second track.’ There is a mutual political benefit in re-​examining NATO’s 1967 Two-​Track Approach, which was based on the Harmel Report. To avoid having NATO’s Eastern Flank turn into its “Eastern or Russian Front,” the second track of détente and dialogue must build on areas of political convergence between NATO and Russia.

This balance should also be reflected in the manner in which NATO continues to provide capacity-​building training support to Ukraine in its standoff with the Russian backed rebel held Donbass. NATO will likely continue along the path of reform minded capacity-​building with the aim of strengthening Ukrainian defence capabilities, while at the same time strongly encouraging badly required reforms along the entire spectrum of governance within Ukraine.

The goal of NATO in the context of its Eastern Flank should be to secure a stable order building on convergence of geo-​political interests with Russia. The Southern Flank poses a more amorphous challenge for the respositioning of NATO. The nature of the threat from ISIL is multidimensional. It ranges from political to economic, social to military. Its geographic theatre of operations is virtually global. The Warsaw Summit should also recognize the opportunity for NATO and Russia to search for common ground in dealing with the ongoing threat of terrorism that seeks to undermine the political stability of both.

Andrew Rasiulis, retired from the public service, is now a freelance consultant with Andrew Rasiulis Associates Inc. He is also a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. (Image courtesy of AFP Petras Malukas.)

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Guest Sunday, 26 March 2017
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