Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine have made many countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nervous – especially those in Eastern Europe with significant Russian minorities living inside their borders. Although it might seem inconceivable to many of those living in Washington DC, London, Paris, or Berlin, there are those in Eastern Europe that have legitimate concerns about Russia’s designs on the region.
One of NATO’s core values is that an attack on one is an attack against all. This commitment to collective security is explicit in Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty – the Alliance’s founding document. If this commitment to collective security is ever in doubt, the Alliance would lose all credibility. This is why NATO must take concrete steps, beyond endless and verbose rhetoric, to demonstrate that Article 5 applies unconditionally to NATO members in Eastern Europe.
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Lately, Russia has been upping the ante in Eastern Europe by testing NATO’s ability and resolve to react to aggression. This year, NATO has scrambled fighter jets more than 400 times to intercept Russian planes which fly close to – and on multiple occasions have illegally entered – NATO airspace.
Russia’s cavalier behaviour in the air is also a threat to civilian airliners because the Russian pilots often fly without their transponders turned on and fail to communicate with civilian air traffic control. Russia’s probing is not limited to the air. The Russian Navy has provocatively operated within just hundreds of metres outside the territorial waters of some NATO members. Russia has also held large scale training exercises in the region involving tens of thousands of troops. One exercise even simulated a nuclear strike on Warsaw.
Russia also poses non-traditional threats in Eastern Europe. One of the biggest non-traditional threats comes from Russian money, propaganda, and the establishment of NGOs to influence sizable Russian population living in the region to undermine the local government. NATO is wholly unprepared to deal with this sort of threat.
Even with all the rhetoric coming from Brussels, NATO has not been taking the Russian threat seriously enough. In many ways, the September 2014 NATO Summit in Wales was a missed opportunity for the Alliance. There were no concrete pledges made to increase defence spending in Europe, no serious proposal was offered on how to deal with Russian propaganda and non-traditional threats, and no commitment was made establishing permanent NATO bases in Eastern Europe.
The lack of defense spending in Europe is extremely worrying and noticed by Moscow. Since the end of the Cold War there has been what amounts to a unilateral self-disarmament within Europe.
The summit’s headline announcement was the creation – by 2016 – of a so-called NATO spearhead force of 4,000 soldiers able to respond within days to a crisis. Considering that European countries collectively have more than 2 million men and women in uniform this is a very modest goal. Sadly, it appears that NATO members are already having a difficult time finding troops and funding to create this force.
The lack of defence spending in Europe is extremely worrying and noticed by Moscow. Since the end of the Cold War there has been what amounts to a unilateral self-disarmament within Europe. The lack of defence spending is a concern.
As an intergovernmental security alliance, NATO is only as strong as its member states. In 2013, just four of the 28 NATO members – the United States, Britain, Estonia, and Greece – spent the required two percent of gross domestic product on defence. Defence spending across Europe is so low that New York City spends more on policing than 13 NATO members each spend on their national defence.
So what does NATO need to do? First, the Alliance needs to refocus on its raison d’etre: territorial defence and collective security. NATO does not have to be everywhere in the world doing everything, but it does have to be capable of defending its members’ territorial integrity. Europeans need to start investing more in defence capability. The US needs to show real commitment to transatlantic security and halt further planned US troop reductions in Europe.
Finally, NATO needs to establish a capable and permanently based military force in Eastern Europe. Temporarily rotating small numbers of troops into the region for training exercises might have a short term strategic impact but it has almost no tactical effect if a conflict breaks out. It does not make sense from a military and diplomatic point of view for NATO not to have robust military capability based in Eastern Europe. After all, it will be far easier deterring threats and defending the Baltics from Russia than it will be liberating them.
Since its creation in 1949, NATO has done more to promote democracy, peace, and security in Europe than any other multilateral organisation, including the European Union. With Russia’s recent aggression in Eastern Europe, it is now time to bring NATO back to the basics. The future stability of Europe might depend on it.
Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.