The NATO September 4-5 summit in Wales attended by heads of government, another 180 VIPs, and 4,000 delegates and officials leaders and senior ministers from around 60 other countries is over as the Alliance draws down from its longest ever mission in Afghanistan and against a backdrop of instability in Ukraine. Initially convened as a largely ceremonial event to mark the end of international involvement in Afghanistan, the forum addressed a host of security issues with key topics including the relations with Russia and the situation in Ukraine, the escalating Islamic State crisis across Iraq and Syria, the threat posed by foreign fighters returning from the Middle East conflicts.
A string of military exercises created the background the summit took place against.
U.S. Exercise Saber Junction in transition phase to a large-scale, multinational NATO military exercise called Steadfast Javelin II, kicked off on Tuesday September 2 to last till September 8. This portion of the exercise involves hundreds of vehicles, aircraft and soldiers from 9 different nations. The training event takes place across 5 NATO countries: Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
The Steadfast Javelin II phase will be led by NATO’s Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) and will facilitate the training of more than more than 2,000 multinational soldiers in unified land operations and interoperability. Multinational participants in the over-arching Saber Junctioninclude the following NATO allies: Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, United Kingdom, and the United States; and the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) nations: Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.
With about 600 Czech and 300 foreign soldiers NATO launched Ample Strike 2014 military exercise on September 3. The participants are using about 30 helicopters and aircraft at the bases in central and south Bohemia. The drill includes soldiers from 10 other NATO members: Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the United States. It will last till September 15.
One more training event is to take place in Latvia by the end of this month, bringing the host country’s military together with a thousand strong force made up by US, UK and Estonia military.
Rapid Trident, a multinational force training event (formally not a NATO only drill) is planned for mid-September as an anti-Russia muscle flexing demonstration to take place near the Polish border with participation of 1000 military (200 from the US) from Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldavia, Latvia, Lithuania, the UK, Canada, Germany, Poland, Romania and Spain.
At least four NATO ships patrol Black Sea waters.
Visiting Estonia before flying to Wales President Obama announced plans to send Air Force units and aircraft to the Baltic republics as part of an effort to reassure the countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania of their security as NATO members in the wake of the ongoing unrest in Ukraine. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Estonia’s president, Obama called Estonia’s Amari Air Base an ideal location to base those additional forces, which come as NATO nations prepare to bolster a rapid-response force for the region.
The rising tensions accompanied the summit taking decisions to pour even more fuel on fire.
Russia is not watching the events idly. Its strategic nuclear forces will conduct major exercises this month involving more than 4,000 soldiers, the Defense Ministry said on September 3. The drill will take place take place in Altai in south-central Russia to include around 400 technical units and extensive use of air power. The troops will practice countering irregular units and high-precision weapons, and “conducting combat missions in conditions of active radio-electronic jamming and intensive enemy actions in areas of troop deployment.”
One more element of the event’s background were hundreds of campaigners who descended on Newport, South Wales, to protest against the top level meeting. A coalition of protest groups, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, No to NATO, Stop the War and South Wales Anti-Nuclear, demanded nuclear disarmament and an end to imperialist Western foreign policy.
With truce achieved in Minsk on Sept.5, the leaders of states with NATO-EU membership approved the idea of imposing further sanctions against Russia if hostilities continue in Ukraine; no matter Russia is not a party to the conflict. Secretary General Anders Rasmussen said weapons supplies to Ukraine are a decision to be taken individually by the members.
NATO is expected to set up new trust funds to help Ukraine better defend itself. The assistance is expected to come in the form of logistics, from fuel to spare parts; defense against cyberwarfare; improving intelligence, command and control; and importantly, help for veterans’ payments. At that the Alliance has made it clear that it does not intend to become involved militarily in Ukraine and scheduled a symbolic meeting at the summit with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Besides looking for new ways to punish Russia, the organization also tackled the problem of forces repositioning and pledging more money for military spending and recommitting to collective defense. In 2006 all member countries pledged to spend 2% of their GDP on defence. In Europe only Britain, France, Greece and Estonia met that benchmark last year (although Poland is getting there).
There was no definite decision of Afghanistan as the impasse over the runoff vote has prevented the inauguration of a new head of state. Outgoing President Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that would set the terms for nearly 10,000 American troops to remain in Afghanistan into next year, mostly as advisers and trainers.
A similar agreement with NATO has been held up because of its dependence on the American presence. If there isn’t a legal basis for NATO’s continued presence in Afghanistan, it will have to withdraw everything by the end of the year.
This time the agenda included one of the most contentious and thorny issues of whether to place troops permanently in Eastern Europe. The summit backed a «Readiness Action Plan» aimed at strengthening the offensive capability. The plan aims to reduce the time for NATO forces to launch attack on short notice. It will come with increased air policing and other visible signs of alliance protection.
To top the list are the plans to set up a «spearhead» to the NATO rapid force, led under a six-month country rotation and consisting of several thousand troops, with air, sea and special forces support. The UK is willing to contribute 3,500 troops to the unit. The plan would establish reception facilities, prepositioned equipment and supplies, command and control, and logistics facilities.
The new high-readiness brigade will be deployable in Eastern Europe within two days. The unit would have a permanent command centre staffed by rotating alliance members as well as supply depots located in various regions so troops would not have to fly in all their equipment. Heavy weapons will be pre-positioned in Poland to be used later by «follow-on» forces and a new command-centre will be established on Polish soil too.
There will be an upgraded schedule of military exercises and deployments that are intended to make NATO’s strike potential more credible. There is insufficient detail on who exactly might pay the bills or contribute troops except the UK and what the rules of engagement would be.
A Polish request for 10,000 troops, including a sizeable American contingent, to be permanently based in that country was rejected, because it was provocatively too close to Russia’s borders and would contravene the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Member countries such as Germany rejected the idea.
NATO insists it still abstains from putting permanent bases in Eastern and Central Europe. Indeed, at first glance the new plan does not seem to technically breach that agreement, but the difference is rather semantic offering «persistent», presence instead of «permanent».
There is another force to bolster NATO’s power. The UK and six other states agreed to create a new very high readiness joint expeditionary force (JOF) of at least 10,000 personnel to act as spearhead for the NATO response force (NRF). The aim is to create a fully functioning, division-sized force for rapid deployment and regular, frequent exercises.
Officials involved in the planning say it will have the capacity to increase significantly in size. The force will incorporate air and naval units as well as ground troops and will be led by British commanders with other participating nations contributing a range of specialist troops and units. Countries involved at present include Denmark, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Norway and the Netherlands. Canada has also expressed an interest in taking part.
The model for the new JEF will be Britain’s expeditionary force with France, which has been years in the making and is due to be fully operational by 2016. Coordinating a force across seven nations is likely to be an even bigger endeavor. Britain will undertake much of the initial legwork in organizing the structure and logistics. The British plan runs in parallel to a German framework nation initiative, in which Berlin will work with some 10 East European partner nations to boost their capabilities.
Australia, Sweden, Finland, Jordan and Georgia were officially named enhanced partners of the organization recognizing their contribution to NATO operations over the past decade. Sweden and Finland also signed a pact that allows assistance from alliance troops in the Nordic countries in emergency situations – a «Host Nation Support memorandum of understanding» which would see NATO help the country to prepare for training exercises and ease military support in the event of a crisis or conflict.
Australia already has a partnership agreement with NATO signed by the previous government, which covers the sharing of technology and intelligence, and joint training and personnel swaps.
However the new enhanced partnership agreement – which Australia signed along with Finland, Georgia, Jordan and Sweden – is expected to mean a seat at the table for more of NATO’s key deliberations and give these countries permanent access to the organization’s planning at the earliest stages of future operations and ensure their presence in its governing councils.
No bones about it– taking part in planning and deliberations actually makes enhanced partners of NATO, especially Sweden and Finland, members of the alliance. Informally they have joined. The both countries want NATO troops on their soil making themselves targets in case of conflict. Opinion polls in Finland and Sweden show majority opposition to NATO membership.
Both countries were officially neutral during the Cold War. Nobody asked common people if they want to be NATO members and become targets in case of war. No referendums, no votes as their respective governments avoid the term membership by calling it enhanced partnership instead. What a difference a word makes!
Meanwhile, NATO is facing a growing challenge on its southern flank – the summit generated a collective call to meet the challenge, but nothing in concrete terms. President Obama failed to corral leaders to work toward a strategy to defeat the rapidly rising Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria. The Americans have announced they are forming a «core coalition» to fight Islamic State. 10 countries involved are: the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Turkey, Poland, Canada and Australia.
No strategy» for defeating the extremists is agreed on. With fighters from the IS holding large swaths of territory across Syria and Iraq, allies fear fighters with European and American passports could carry out attacks at home. Turkey, a longtime NATO member, has served as a prime transit route for many of those fighters. With an estimated 15,000 fighters, including up to 7,000 members who carry European passports, the Islamic State has been described by some as more dangerous than al-Qaida. Several hundred fighters also are believed to be American.
* * *
One can find free cheese only in a mousetrap. It goes for rotational, and even more permanent, presence in Eastern Europe. The Europe’s share in the global GDP is 26% in comparison with 23% for the USA. At that America accounts for 70% of NATO’s defense expenditure (used to be 50% in the days of Cold War). On average Europeans spend 1, 6% of GDP on military needs against 4, 5% allocated for defense related purposes by the United States. There is a wide gap here. The summit failed to solve the problem. These are rough times for Europe and it’s hard to imagine taxpayers being happy to pay for greater military effort.
Another Cold War is not what common people of NATO European members need now. The alliance is not that unanimous as it may seem at first glance. The «one for all and all for one» principle doesn’t work here. For instance, the Hungarian Prime Minister says the days of liberal democracy are over. He wants Kiev to grant autonomy to Hungarians living in Transcarpathia.
The issue of permanent NATO bases in East Europe is divisive. The French, Italians and Spanish are opposed while the Americans and British are supportive of the eastern European demands. The Germans are sitting on the fence wary of provoking inevitable Russian response. Robert Fico, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, supported Russia in in the war with Georgia in 2008 and refused to condemn the Crimea referendum. He doesn’t approve the deployment of missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. Asked about his attitude towards hypothetical NATO forces deployment of Slovakian soil, he compared it with the Soviet Union bringing in troops in 1968.
The US is burdened with the heavy load of public debt. Europe is actually in recession with immense economic difficulties to face. The Alliance is not unanimous on key issues. The Islamic State is at the door. This is a real, not an imaginary threat. These are not the best times for confronting Russia which has not done anything to threaten the organization and has been adhering to the Founding Act provisions. Overstretching will hardly help NATO become more efficient addressing real security challenges, but it will certainly reduce living standards of grassroots and make them less secure.
Andrei AKULOV | SCF