The NATO summit in Warsaw marked an important stage in the evolution of NATO countries’ military and political planning and in the evolution of the alliance as a whole. Officials from the NATO states and the Alliance itself compared the Warsaw Summit in its significance to the summits held when bipolar confrontation was coming to an end: to the 1990 London Summit and to the 1991 Rome Summit. Warsaw Summit documents and statements made on the summit’s sidelines sound, as never before, like harsh answers to a perceived threat. In this sense, NATO has come closer to Russia whose rhetoric had changed in this regard years ago.
The Conflict Strategy
The Summit Communiqué speaks, for instance, of “Russia’s aggressive actions,” its “provocative military activities in the periphery of NATO territory” including the “illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea,” and of Russia’s “demonstrated willingness to attain political goals by threats and use of force.” The alliance demands the complete “reintegration of the areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions” into Ukraine, holding elections there “in accordance with Ukrainian law and relevant OSCE standards,” “withdrawal of foreign forces,” and, ultimately, “restoration of Ukraine’s control over its side of the international border.”
Many of the measures the North Atlantic Alliance announced in Warsaw went beyond general political declarations and non-military sanctions and took on a specific shape with regard to NATO countries’ actions in regions around Russia. The Warsaw Summit Communiqué as well as other documents and statements speak about possible conflict escalation scenarios and even of the Alliance’s tactical goals in case of an armed conflict with Russia. For instance, NATO’s high-ranking officials and member countries speak of the need to protect the Suwalki Gap, a 65-kilometre-long stretch of the Polish–Lithuanian border which allows ground redeployment of reinforcements for NATO units in the Baltic states. Despite many international relations experts’ expectations in the late 1990s – early 2000s, the military security factor in the Baltic Sea region did not lose its value, and the regional states did not shift the emphasis of their security policies into the humanitarian area finally and irrevocably.
Feelings of vulnerability with regard to the European and Trans-Atlantic economic and security integration projects undoubtedly played an important role in forming the essence of the Warsaw Summit declarations. The need “to look strong” did not permit western states to mitigate their demands and to take a more flexible stance. The principal security issues which have been causing the Russia–NATO conflict for more than two and a half years remain unresolved (first of all, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict remains unresolved), and they do not allow the Alliance members to ignore extremely negative, even if highly improbable, scenarios for their military political planning. The number of leaks and hints intended to demonstrate NATO’s readiness to escalate its conflict with Russia exceeded previously noted limits. Russia also practices similar leaks and warnings in various forms.
The impetus for planning measures to counteract Russian policies NATO perceives as aggressive was given at the Alliance’s previous summit over two years ago. Since then, the NATO countries had been actively discussing and preparing measures which they announced in Warsaw. The inertia of military-political planning in a multilateral organization is huge. It allows us to presume that given the lack of progress in the east of Ukraine for a year, the next NATO summit of 2017 will announce more serious measures “to contain Russia” regardless of Moscow’s declaring its intentions to find a way to resolve the conflict NATO holds Russia responsible for.
NATO’s readiness to mobilize its material resources has grown somewhat: now, as the Warsaw Summit Communiqué states, five allies spend 2% of their GDP on defense. Additionally, the Alliance announces that the NATO Response Force is ready and it also announces the decision to create a “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.”
At the same time, the main problem of NATO mobilizing its resources is not the size of defense budgets or training troops with rapid redeployment capabilities, but the readiness of the member states’ leaders to approve the participation of their national armies in operations beyond the geographical responsibility limits set by the 1949 Washington Treaty. Thus, the Warsaw Summit failed to achieve unanimity on deploying NATO forces in the Black Sea: Bulgaria and Turkey spoke against it, as Turkey had changed its posture after partially normalizing its relations with Russia in June. Nonetheless, one should not ignore the fact that NATO countries’ readiness to act in faraway regions is on the rise after dropping sharply in the early 2010s: for instance, Germany’s Chancellor announced that her country would continue to provide financial support to the Afghan government, since a large number of refugees who had arrived in Germany from the Greater Middle East over the last few months are natives of Afghanistan. Some NATO countries, for instance, the US, could maintain the temporary presence of their large military vessels in the Black Sea.
Just before and during the summit, NATO officials and member states’ leaders made statements on being ready to negotiate with Russia for the sake of enhancing mutual security. Experts compare this approach to NATO’s “double-track decision” of the late 1970s, and tension-wise, they link the current situation to the “war scare” of 1983. Both then and now, the dialogue on preventing tragic incidents (conflicts on the ground and in the air) or an unintended start of armed hostilities is undoubtedly possible and necessary. However, the phrasing of the final communiqué and the description of NATO’s activities by Russia show that meaningful talks on mutual concerns are hardly possible in the nearest future.
While NATO demands a return to the status quo before the 2008 conflict with Georgia (stemming from Russia revoking its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states up to the return of Crimea to Ukraine), Moscow considers such a scenario unacceptable. Russia believes “freezing military deployment carried out by the NATO countries in the immediate proximity to Russia’s borders and decreasing military activities therein” should constitute the first step. Yet given the decisions that had been in the works for so long and were adopted in Warsaw, the Alliance will hardly agree to such a turnabout in its policy. The Russia–NATO Council meeting on July 13 demonstrated a clear difference between Moscow and Brussels in their assessments of the way out of the “Ukrainian crisis.”
Cooperation in the regions where Moscow believes Russia and NATO have insignificant disagreements is also unlikely. The Alliance’s reaction to Russia’s operation in Syria is reflected in the following phrase from the Warsaw Summit Communiqué: “Russia’s military intervention, significant military presence and support for the regime in Syria, and its use of its military presence in the Black Sea to project power into the Eastern Mediterranean have posed further risks and challenges for the security of Allies and others.” In their policy toward Afghanistan, the parties state the similarity of their goals, yet they encounter difficulties in setting up immediate interaction “on the ground,” mostly due to the lack of mutual trust.
To understand the prospects of lifting the sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union in 2014, the joint NATO–EU declaration issued during the Warsaw Summit is important. This document emphasized the desire to cooperate and coordinate the work of the two organizations in the international arena, including exchanging intelligence information and strategic assessments. It probably means that the bureaucracy and the countries of the EU (22 members of which are also NATO members) will not be able to ignore either the harsh assessments of Russian policies by NATO’s structures or NATO’s strategic opinions on how to respond to Russia’s actions. Another glance at the Warsaw Summit Communiqué’s phrasing raises doubts that the European Union, acting in accordance with the Communiqué, will easily make the decision to lift or substantially mitigate the anti-Russian sanctions.
Space for Compromise
Russia stated that it considers the deployment of NATO’s battalions in Poland and in the Baltic countries, and a brigade in Romania to be a breach of the Russia–NATO Founding Act signed by the President of Russia and the heads of state of the Alliance’s member countries in 1997. In accordance with that document, as of 1997, “in the current and foreseeable security environment,” “the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.” Such was NATO’s obligation under the Act. There is no precise definition of “substantial” forces in the official documents; however, in experts’ opinion, they meant a brigade of up to 3–5 thousand troops. In total, that number is achieved with the new battalions in Poland and in the Baltic countries, and in Romania, the national brigade is to be reinforced with troops from other NATO countries. However, they are all deployed on rotation, not on the permanent basis, which, NATO claims, decreases these troops’ readiness for offensives and indicates the purely defensive (if not symbolic) nature of the deployment.
Russia, in turn, refuses to accept this logic and speaks about serious changes in the balance of forces and in the tactical situation close to Russia’s western borders. In the case of Moscow’s sharp response, those in the North Atlantic Alliance who claim that there has been a serious alteration in the security environment compared to 1997 could take the upper hand. In fact, these politicians and experts believe that it gives NATO the right to renege on its obligations under the Founding Act. Even if the Alliance does not renege, it will significantly weaken the positions of those NATO member states which would prefer to refrain from such assessments, primarily of Germany and France. Berlin has already assumed command of NATO’s new battalion in Lithuania, and it will hardly be ready to acknowledge that deploying this battalion constitutes a breach of the Founding Act.
It is likely that by partially normalizing relations with Turkey and by stating its readiness to stop Russian flights over the Baltic Sea with transponders turned off (in exchange for the same step from NATO) in the few weeks before the summit Russia succeeded in decreasing the harshness of phrasing in NATO’s documents and in preventing NATO’s naval build-up in the Black Sea. After the Russia–NATO Council July meeting, NATO’s secretary general said the Alliance was ready to study Russia’s proposals for increasing flight safety in the Baltic region.
Such measures, both in the Baltic and Black Seas and in Syria, appear to be the best variant for defusing the risk of an unintended conflict, reducing the tension along the NATO–Russia contact line, and, in the future, preventing a costly arms race. In exchange, NATO could assuage Russia’s concern about the “true goals” of the missile defense being deployed in Europe. An appropriate signal could be sent to Russia if NATO, per some experts’ recommendations, abandons its plans to make European missile defense system capable of intercepting ICBMs by 2020, as neither Iran nor other Middle Eastern players seem capable of acquiring such arms. Nonetheless, a voluntary curbing of the scale of the project, which possesses significant political inertia, seems unlikely. And although both Russia and NATO clearly have enough self-control to avoid an armed conflict even in cases of unpleasant, but unintended incidents, given the current political situation, a lot of time should pass before the pendulum swings toward cooperation.