The security pact between the US, UK and Australia did not cause a rift within NATO, but it is not helping, either.
NATO defence ministers have agreed upon a new master plan to defend against any potential Russian attack on multiple fronts, reaffirming the alliance’s core goal of deterring Moscow despite a growing focus on China.
The confidential strategy aims to prepare for any simultaneous attack in the Baltic and Black Sea regions that could include nuclear weapons, hacking of computer networks and assaults from space.
“We continue to strengthen our alliance with better and modernised plans,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after the meeting on Thursday, which also agreed a $1bn fund to provide seed financing to develop new digital technologies.
Officials stressed that they do not believe any Russian attack is imminent. Moscow has denied any aggressive intentions and said it is NATO that risks destabilising Europe with such preparations.
But diplomats have said the “Concept for Deterrence and Defence in the Euro-Atlantic Area” – and its strategic implementation plan – is needed as Russia develops advanced weapon systems and deploys troops and equipment closer to the allies’ borders.
“This is the way of deterrence,” German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said of the plan.
“And this is being adapted to the current behaviour of Russia – and we are seeing violations particularly of the airspace over the Baltic states, but also increasing incursions over the Black Sea,” she told German radio Deutschlandfunk.
Approval allows for more detailed regional plans by the end of 2022, a US official said, allowing NATO to decide what additional weapons it needs and how to position its forces.
In May, Russia amassed some 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, the highest number since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, Western officials said. In September, Russia used new combat robots in large military drills with its ex-Soviet ally Belarus that have alarmed Baltic allies.
Russia is upgrading or replacing Soviet military space systems to potentially attack satellites in orbit, developing artificial intelligence-based technologies to disrupt allied command systems, and also developing “super weapons”.
Unveiled in 2018, they include nuclear-capable hypersonic cruise missiles that could evade early-warning systems.
Retired US General Ben Hodges, who commanded US army forces in Europe from 2014 until 2017, said he hoped the plan would foster greater coherence in NATO’s collective defence, meaning more resources for the Black Sea region.
“To me, this is the more likely flashpoint than the Baltics,” Hodges told the Reuters news agency, noting fewer big allies such as the United Kingdom and France have a strong presence in the Black Sea, and Turkey is more focused on the conflict in Syria.
Jamie Shea, a former senior NATO official now at the Friends of Europe think-tank in Brussels, said the plan might also help to cement a focus on Russia at a time when major allies are seeking to boost their presence in the Indo-Pacific and counter China’s rising military power.
“The assumption up until now has been that Russia is a nuisance but not an imminent threat. But the Russians are doing some worrying things. They’re practising with robotics, and hypersonic cruise missiles could be very disruptive indeed,” Shea said.
‘Lessons learned’ from Afghanistan
Meanwhile, the alliance is conducting a review of “lessons learned” from its two-decade deployment in Afghanistan after criticism among some allies of the US handling of the decision to pull out.
“The crisis in Afghanistan does not change the need for Europe and North America to stand together in NATO,” Stoltenberg said.
“In the face of growing global challenges, our unity and strength is what keeps us secure.”
Stoltenberg said the alliance members would look to keep up pressure on the Taliban through diplomatic and financial “leverage” and had the capabilities to attack any emerging threats “from distance”.
The debacle in Afghanistan has fuelled calls for EU to develop its own military capabilities, with France leading the push for more “autonomy”.
But that has sparked concern among other European NATO allies wary of distancing themselves from the US, which they see as the major bulwark against Russia.