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News Analysis: NATO Upgrades By Going Back To Basics

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen presided over the Wales summit. "Things have changed dramatically inside NATO," Lauri Lepik, Estonia's ambassador to the alliance, tells RFE/RL.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen presided over the Wales summit. "Things have changed dramatically inside NATO," Lauri Lepik, Estonia's ambassador to the alliance, tells RFE/RL.

NEWPORT, Wales -- Oh, what a difference six years and two wars make.

When NATO heads of state gathered in Bucharest back in April 2008, Vladimir Putin pretty much stole the show. The Kremlin leader strutted away triumphantly from that summit after persuading Western leaders not to offer Georgia and Ukraine road maps to eventually join the alliance.

Four months later, Russian troops rolled into Georgia, a move seen by many observers as a dress rehearsal for this year's intervention in Ukraine.

Puitn was, of course, persona non grata at this week's NATO summit in Wales, although he cast a long shadow over it. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Atlantic alliance is now treating Russia not as a potential partner with which it can do business but as a problem that needs to be addressed and a threat that must be confronted.

"Things have changed dramatically inside NATO," Lauri Lepik, Estonia's ambassador to the alliance, said in an interview. "People realize the seriousness of the situation."

The possibility that Moscow might attempt to exploit discontent in Estonia or other NATO members with large Russian minorities and provoke a conflict similar to that in Ukraine "is keeping everybody up at night" in the alliance, Lepik added.

"It's keeping people up in France, in Germany, and in America," he said.

Lepik's observation was underscored by U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Tallinn on the eve of the summit, where he pledged that "Estonia will never stand alone."

Restoring The Edifice

Diplomats described the decisions made in Wales -- setting up military facilities in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania, and establishing a new rapid-response force that could assist endangered members within two days -- as the alliance returning to its core mission.

"We are going back to basics and rediscovering ourselves," a senior NATO official said. "NATO has returned to doing the things it is supposed to do. Collective defense is its primary task."

Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on military and security issues, said the alliance is “restoring the edifice that has been allowed to get ramshackle and is crumbling in places."

Leaders from NATO countries watch a fly-past by the RAF Red Arrows aerobatic team during the NATO summit.
Leaders from NATO countries watch a fly-past by the RAF Red Arrows aerobatic team during the NATO summit.

But diplomats and analysts stress that going back to basics does not mean returning NATO to anything resembling the hair-trigger footing of the Cold War era, when tens of thousands of troops faced off across the Iron Curtain.

The size of NATO's new rapid deployment force, Galeotti said, “says something about the new nature of war,” adding that 4,000 immediately deployable troops is a sufficient deterrent should Russia decide to make trouble along the alliance’s eastern frontier.

The new force will be drawn from the existing 13,000-strong NATO Response Force, which can deploy anywhere in the world within five days. The new, smaller force will be deployable to any member state in trouble within two days.

“These are not forces who would be fighting a counterattack all the way to Moscow. That’s not what this is for,” Galeotti said, adding that a few thousand Russian troops in Ukraine were able to turn the tide on the battlefield.

“As soon as you see a potential problem, these are the guys who are going to be there on the ground and say: ‘If you want to get past us, you will have to start shooting NATO soldiers.’ Then there is time for the politicians to do their thing, the diplomats to talk, and mobilize greater forces,” he added.

Baiba Braze, a senior Latvian Foreign Ministry official, called the force and the new facilities a move "in the right direction in establishing a stronger NATO presence" on the alliance's "northeastern flank."

Permanent And Substantial

But despite NATO’s move toward confronting Russia and the alliance’s suspension of all formal cooperation with Moscow, there is still opposition among many members to burning the bridge entirely.

This manifested itself in Wales in a behind-the-scenes struggle over the fate of the Founding Act, the agreement the alliance made with Russia in 1997 to assuage Moscow’s fears about former Warsaw Pact members Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joining NATO.

In the Founding Act, which alliance officials say is a "political" and not a "legal" document, NATO pledged that it would not station “permanent” or “substantial” forces on the territory of its new eastern members.

Diplomats from the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania fear that this pledge could limit NATO deployments in their countries. They argue that Moscow has breached its obligations under the Founding Act and have sought to deemphasize -- and possibly revoke -- the pledge.

Such a move was staunchly opposed by Germany, and there was little enthusiasm for it elsewhere.

"There is an unhealthy parallel with 2008,” one senior NATO diplomat said in reference to the alliance’s Bucharest summit, when Berlin led the opposition to Georgia and Ukraine receiving Membership Action Plans.

[Russia] violated our trust to the extent that we can't offer any more. They stepped over all the red lines."
-- NATO diplomat

There are fears among some eastern members, the diplomat added, that “Germany may put Russia first again."

Another diplomat from an eastern NATO member stressed that the alliance’s “commitments to its members” should take priority over “pledges to third parties.”

The diplomat added that NATO “pretended” that Russia could be a partner, that this “was a noble goal,” but that “we can’t pretend anymore.”

"They violated our trust to the extent that we can't offer any more. They stepped over all the red lines," the diplomat said.

In the end, a compromise was reached that kept the Founding Act intact, with NATO explicitly stating that Russia had “breached” it with its actions in Ukraine.

The Hybrid Challenge

Even as NATO moves to beef up its defenses in the east, diplomats and officials admit that the alliance is struggling to find ways to counter the type of stealth and hybrid tactics Russia is using in Ukraine.

“We really need to examine this new doctrine,” said Lepik, the Estonian ambassador to NATO. The first step is to admit that “this is warfare,” he said.

By relying on local proxies and unmarked Russian irregular forces, Moscow has been able to claim a degree of plausible -- or somewhat plausible -- deniability that it is involved in the Ukraine conflict.

It has also very effectively utilized well-organized subterfuge, diversion, and deception, a highly disciplined disinformation campaign, and coordinated economic warfare, analysts say.

Such “blended political, military, intelligence, and business-led operations” present a particularly “thorny challenge” for the alliance, Galeotti said.

Primary among these is when to invoke Article 5, NATO’s gold standard, which requires all alliance members to come to the defense of a member who is under attack.

“It becomes a political question of where NATO decides to set the bar and how NATO decides to define aggression and invasion in a world where tanks rolling across the border is no longer the crucial point,” Galeotti said.

NATO officials say they have studied Russia's annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, have beefed up the alliance's surveillance to detect such threats in the future, and are developing countermeasures.

"We're just now starting to understand how this hybrid warfare manifests itself," one NATO official said.

But diplomats and analysts say military means are not the most effective way to counter tactics like those Russia is employing in Ukraine.

Such tactics flourish where there are weak civil societies and disenfranchised minorities who can easily be manipulated.

And that, says one NATO diplomat, is a challenge not just for the alliance but for Western societies in general.

“For some time in Europe, we were living in a comfortable situation. We thought things like Munich, world wars, and aggression cannot happen anymore,” the diplomat said.

“In post-Cold War Europe, we learned to live comfortably. Particularly in the east, it happened very quickly. Freedom and security were a given. We got lazy and started taking things for granted."

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