The dramatic crisis of confidence between Russia and the West that has peaked with the Ukraine crisis has led to both sides testing each other’s defence capabilities, seemingly ready to coexist in a paradigm of deterrence, discussing whether the current state of affairs represents a new configuration of the Cold War and the chances of it turning “hot”.
Russia’s actions in Crimea and the development of the situation in south-eastern Ukraine have had an immense impact on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s agenda. The argument in Russian political circles and part of the expert community that the United States and NATO were planning to capture Sevastopol and turn it into a naval base is not taken serious by NATO member-states, and is rejected outright by the majority of the elite. The dramatic crisis of confidence between Russia and the West that has peaked with the Ukraine crisis has led to both sides testing each other’s defence capabilities, seemingly ready to coexist in a paradigm of deterrence, discussing whether the current state of affairs represents a new configuration of the Cold War and the chances of it turning “hot”.
As a result of these developments, the decisions adopted at the September 2014 NATO Summit in Wales served as a response of sorts to the so-called “Russian challenge”, although the original agenda had been dominated by the issue of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
The Readiness Action Plan and the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force initiative adopted at the NATO Summit in Wales indicate that in its strategic planning the organization has shifted emphasis from the creation of a so-called “expeditionary force” that would operate outside the Euro-Atlantic space to responding to challenges emanating from Europe, a return to the concept of collective defence. The final declaration of the Wales Summit clearly states that the Euro-Atlantic system defence system has reached a turning point, as “Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine have fundamentally challenged our vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace”.
There is no doubt that three decisions – the two NATO decisions mentioned above and the U.S. initiative to strengthen the European Reassurance Initiative put forward on the eve of the Wales Summit – were aimed at containing Russia. By updating its military doctrine and strengthening and modernizing its armed forces, Russia is also willing to engage in similar tactics. So, 25 years after the end of the Cold War, both sides are once again testing each other’s defence capabilities by carrying out numerous, and often large-scale, military exercises. What we are thus witnessing is a return to the paradigm of mutual deterrence, with no side seeming prepared to resume the work of the NATO–Russia Council.
In spit of the above, we cannot ignore the fact that the NATO Readiness Action Plan without a doubt takes the challenges and risks emanating from the south into account. However, the main focus upon which the structures and mechanisms of containment will be formed – through the permanent presence of air, naval and ground forces on a rotating basis – will be concentrated in the east. Given their proximity to Russia, NATO member countries from Central and Eastern Europe are interested in NATO’s efforts to contain that country. Past experience and Russia’s actions in the post-Soviet space have shaped their position as part of NATO to develop potential means of containment at the expense of expeditionary forces that could be utilized in regions far removed from Central and Eastern Europe.
So what will the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force – or the “Spearhead Force”, as NATO likes to call it – look like?
The Very High Readiness Joint Task Force will involve the creation of five manoeuvrable battalions on the ground supported by air, maritime and Special Operations Forces that can be deployed to a conflict zone within two to three days. In addition to this, a multinational command and control group is expected to be established in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. The new structure will be permanent and its personnel will be formed on a rotating basis. There are also plans to establish permanent naval connections, increase the capacity of the Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin, set up storage facilities for military equipment and materials, improve the national infrastructure (ports, aerodromes) of NATO-member countries in Eastern Europe, and increase the number of military exercises for collective defence and crisis resolution scenarios.
Alarmists in Russia may argue that NATO is creating a powerful military arm that presents a real threat to Russia. A detailed analysis, however, reveals that the Alliance’s actions constitute little more than the establishment of a defensive force whose primary intention is to demonstrate its capacity to prevent attacks on its own territory. We should point out immediately here that perception, in as much as it is an intangible factor, has a profound influence on international relations. Russia has no intentions of invading a NATO member state, although a number of them do perceive a very real military threat. Similarly, NATO presents no threat to Russia. However, according to the latest opinion polls, 42 per cent of respondents see NATO’s expansion as a threat to Russia’s security.
The military capabilities of the “Spearhead Force” are, in fact, extremely limited (on the ground), and have two objectives: 1) to prevent the conflict from spreading a help ensure its localization before the NATO Response Force becomes involved; and 2) to send a message to Moscow that Brussels has no intention of reneging on the 1997 Russia–NATO Founding Act, in which NATO member countries committed to not deploying “substantial military forces” in the Alliance’s Eastern European countries. The rotational aspect of the Joint Task Force also suggests that NATO has no desire to turn it into a powerful military arm; it is more likely a confirmation of the commitments of its member states and an attempt to ensure their security.
If we are to ease tensions between Russia and NATO, the following must be done:
- put an end to the information war and stop demonizing each other;
- open up discussions (on the basis of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) to objectively analyse the causes of crisis;
- resume the work of the NATO–Russia Council, or at least set up a working group to begin with to identify areas of joint action in countering new threats (ISIS, cybersecurity, terrorism, etc.);
- strictly enforce the Minsk Agreements.