Food for Thought: "NATO Back on Dual-Track?"
What should be key elements of NATO's future strategy towards Russia? "To send a signal of unity and resolve, supported across the Alliance, [...] NATO needs both deterrence and dialogue," argues Tobias Bunde, Head of Policy and Analysis at the Munich Security Conference, in our new Monthly Mind column.
About two months before the NATO Summit in Warsaw, many wonder what the new strategy of the alliance in relation to Russia will look like. Speaking at GLOBSEC 2016, a security conference in Bratislava held in mid-April, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski emphasized that Poland expected "presence, presence, presence" of NATO troops and bases on the Eastern flank. Other Allies, including the United States and Germany, do not deem it necessary to build new NATO infrastructure. As Jim Townsend, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy, put it, "we support an enhanced presence, but we can do it without bases, bases, bases." The current debate thus centers on the question how heavy the new NATO footprint on the Eastern flank should be.
Yet, while arguing about the differences between a persistent or permanent presence or what German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen called a "permanent rotational presence", the Allies risk losing sight of the bigger strategic picture. The best outcome of the Warsaw Summit would be a clearly articulated common position of the Alliance that is well understood both in Russia and at home. NATO can build on its previous efforts here. After all, reports on the disagreements among the Allies obscure the fact that NATO has been remarkably united in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and Russia's continued interference in Ukraine.
On the one hand, the Alliance has embarked on the "biggest strengthening of our collective defense in decades", as Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underlined at the Munich Security Conference in 2016. In addition to the creation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and an increase in exercises as decided at the Wales Summit in 2014, the Allies have agreed to strengthen NATO's forward presence on NATO's Eastern flank. Even member states such as Germany, often criticized as overly reluctant, have demonstrated their clear commitment to a renewed emphasis on collective defense. On the other hand, NATO members have recently tried to reinvigorate the NATO-Russia Council and underlined that they are open to dialogue with Moscow. All members, including those long accused of blocking engagement with Russia, have finally supported this decision. NATO member states should strengthen both aspects of this renewed dual-track policy — responding to the security needs of its most exposed members, while at the same time advocating dialogue and heightened transparency to diffuse tension in their relations with Russia.
The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, only a more visible presence will make a renewed emphasis on dialogue meaningful, signaling to Russia that NATO will not be intimidated by Moscow. And only a clear commitment to dialogue will allow all Allies to back a stronger defensive posture.
First, demonstrating that attacking one of NATO's frontline states literally means an assault on all of NATO requires a multinational presence that goes significantly beyond the decisions taken at the Wales Summit. The Russian government needs to understand that it will not reach its goals by threatening its neighbors and testing NATO's resolve. Although U.S. efforts to support the Eastern flank are crucial, it would be advisable to integrate as much as possible under a NATO umbrella. This would not only signal the united stance of NATO, but would also be seen as less threatening by Moscow. Moreover, the respective host countries should be supported in strengthening their own armed forces. While it makes sense that other Allies police the Baltic air space, they can expect the member states that feel particularly threatened to invest more in their own defensive capabilities, including necessary infrastructure such as airfields that multinational reinforcements would require. Among the Allies on the Eastern flank, only Estonia and Poland fulfill the NATO commitment to spend two percent of their GDP on defense.
Second, a more visible NATO presence necessitates new diplomatic efforts. Although the Alliance sees its moves as entirely defensive, Moscow will still read them as offensive and use them as a pretext for its own "counter measures" that in reality have often been long in the making. NATO should continue to propose new transparency mechanisms. It should also avoid being seen as the party rejecting dialogue, thus serving as an easy target for Russian propaganda. Even if it will not bring immediate results, the reinvigoration of the NATO-Russia Council was thus an important message in itself.
NATO must also get better at getting its message across. Above all, this means that national leaders have to be more vocal and stress the differences between Russian and NATO policies. All information fact-sheets published by the NATO bureaucracy will not suffice if national politicians do not actively make the case for the new posture. In some member states, governments try to avoid a public debate on the revamped efforts, portraying them as minor adaptations. This allows for misinformation and misinterpretations. Media reports sometimes claim that the NATO-Russia Founding Act generally rules out the stationing of troops in NATO's "new" member states although the wording tells a different story. Few even mention that NATO publishes all its exercises on its website and invites Russian observers. Russia, in contrast, regularly surprises NATO with snap exercises and ignores proposals to heighten transparency although numerous close encounters between the Russian military and Western military units or even civilian airliners have highlighted the danger of escalation. And while NATO members discuss the deployment of a few battalions, Russia has already announced that three new divisions will be created in its Western military district. For every NATO soldier on the Eastern flank, there will be roughly five to ten new Russian troops. This is hardly an escalation by NATO.
By avoiding public debate to explain and defend NATO's new posture, national leaders endanger the long-term stability of the Alliance. Some opinion polls already show that the public support for the collective defense commitment is fragile. This is dangerous because deterrence only works if it is credible. But domestic support for deterrence will only be secured if the Alliance convincingly demonstrates that it is not interested in confrontation. It thus needs to offer dialogue, propose additional arms control steps, and think about a long-term perspective for NATO-Russia relations.
In the end, the question of what exactly the enhanced presence of NATO on the Eastern flank will look like is of secondary importance. What will matter most is whether the outcome will send a signal of unity and resolve, supported across the Alliance. In order to achieve this NATO needs both deterrence and dialogue. Both pillars of the renewed dual-track approach should be strengthened in Warsaw.
Tobias Bunde is Head of Policy and Analysis at the Munich Security Conference and Research Associate with the Center for International Security Policy at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. This article was first published on 19 May 2016 on the EastWest Institute's Policy Innovation Blog.