NATO’s Warsaw summit: no exits, but staying together

30 Jun 2016 - 15:23

NATO's political leaders will meet in Warsaw on 8 and 9 July. A few weeks ago, the Alliance's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the gathering as a 'landmark summit' against the backdrop of the security challenges stemming from the East and the South. After the British referendum outcome – to leave the European Union – there seems to be another reason to label the Warsaw Summit as 'historic'. The uncertainty of Europe's future is also a dark cloud hanging over the North Atlantic Alliance, no matter how much the Brexiteers deny any such consequence. A weak and divided Europe weakens NATO. Clarity about the EU's future is not only important in view of financial and economic stability but also for geopolitical reasons. Putin's nationalist Russia will not hesitate to exploit Europe's weaknesses. The annexation of the Crimea and Moscow's support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine leaves no doubt about the geostrategic intentions of the Kremlin. The Baltic States and Poland are worried about the Russian threat. Lithuania's airspace has been violated by Russian aircraft about 160 times in 2015. Moscow recently announced that two divisions will be relocated from bases east of the capital to the western borders. Modernisation of the Russian armed forces continues despite the country’s economic recession. All of this does not imply that the Russian Army is about to march into Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. But it does indicate that Russia will continue its policy of confrontation with the West and, when opportune, that it will use military pressure to strengthen its influence and power. The western reaction must be twofold: dialogue and military strength. The first will not work without the second. Putin will not show any mercy to weaker parties at the negotiating table.

At the same time, another part of Europe is more worried about migration and terrorist attacks. As you travel from the East to the South, Putin disappears from sight: Syria and Libya start to dominate security thinking. Border security is the issue in Greece, Italy and Spain – not to deter a military invasion, but to control migration and to stop related crime. In the post-Brexit era, the EU will also have to play a more prominent role in border security. The new European Border and Coast Guard, recently launched, will be a key element.

In this European chaos, the NATO summit provides an opportunity to reaffirm solidarity and cohesion. However, the efforts to improve the Alliance’s defence capacities are mainly focused eastwards, by improving rapid reaction forces, by the semi-permanent deployment of four battalions in the Baltic States and Poland, and by pre-positioning of equipment. In the South it is primarily about using already existing standing NATO naval taskforces. They assist in monitoring migration and in countering terrorism. Member states themselves set their own priorities. Central and Eastern European countries emphasise modernising their ground forces. This applies not only to Poland and the Baltic States but also to Germany. To a significant extent, the rising defence budget is being used by Berlin to reactivate tank battalions and procure additional armoured vehicles. This contrasts with Rome, which is investing primarily in naval assets; this is widely supported as Italian military ships are playing a major role in the detection of migrant boats and providing first aid to refugees. A navy investment plan of 5.4 billion euros will soon be tabled. Seven new patrol boats and a landing platform dock will be procured, amongst other assets.

NATO defines collective capability requirements, but member states are continuing to make their choices based solely on national interests. This works as long as the United States delivers key capabilities that Europe lacks, such as strategic intelligence, precision munitions and other high-tech, expensive assets. With either Trump or Clinton in the White House, Washington will increase the pressure on Europe to take more responsibility for its own security and increase its defence investments. European countries have no other choice than to get even more serious about strengthening their military capabilities. That also requires deepening the multinational defence cooperation. It is essential to keep the United Kingdom involved, as that country is crucial in terms of its contribution to deterrence and defence. There can be no Brexit in defence cooperation. Neither can there be a Frexit or Nexit, as this would endanger our existential security interests. On the contrary, Brexit is all the more reason to strengthen NATO and European defence cooperation.