At the end of this week, leaders from the United States and Europe will convene in Warsaw, Poland, for a NATO summit. The meeting – only the second summit since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine – will include high level strategic discussions, and will likely see the announcement of an increased NATO troop presence in the Baltic States to counter potential Russian aggression there.
The biggest question leaders intend to address in Warsaw is how to deter Russian aggression towards NATO members in Eastern Europe following its seizure of Crimea and involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. In effect, leaders will try to find a compromise solution which reassures NATO’s eastern members, provides additional deterrence, but does not provoke further military buildup and distrust from Russia. They will almost certainly fail in this endeavor.
In fact, the expected announcement of the deployment of 4 battalions of additional troops to the Baltics has already produced heated rhetoric from Russia. These deployments will likely lead to a Russian response, ratcheting up tensions and increasing the risk for inadvertent conflict in the region. In other words, they will contribute to a classic security spiral of mistrust and overreaction. The irony is that such deployments are largely symbolic, not strategic. Even four battalions will not change the fact that Russia could likely conquer the Baltics quickly if it so chose. And even though some would argue that their deterrent value is largely as a ‘tripwire,’ it isn’t clear why the existing Article V guarantee is insufficient for that purpose.
To be frank, in the focus on how to defend the Baltics, leaders have largely overlooked the low likelihood of a conflict in that region. For one thing, there is a qualitative difference between attacking Ukraine and attacking a NATO treaty member; Vladimir Putin certainly knows this. For another, Russia’s force posture simply doesn’t indicate that it has any intentions on the Baltics.
But while leaders at the Warsaw summit focus on these issues, they continue to ignore larger strategic questions about the alliance’s mission and future. My colleague Brad Stapleton raises one of these questions today in an article at War on the Rocks. He questions why NATO – faced with a Russian threat in Europe - is still so committed to building its capacity for ‘out-of-area’ missions, such as the NATO contribution to Afghanistan. Unlike the 1990s, he notes, NATO “does not need that mission to justify its continued existence.” The Warsaw summit would be an ideal place to raise this discussion.
A bigger question is the issue of NATO expansion, which will probably take a back burner at the summit. Nonetheless, various officials have called for NATO to demonstrate that the alliance’s door remains open to countries like Bosnia, Ukraine and Georgia. But as I argued in an article several weeks ago, such arguments only serve to highlight the alliance’s fundamental identity crisis. NATO cannot simultaneously act as a defensive alliance and a tool for spreading western values; the two missions have become contradictory. As NATO’s open door policy ratchets up tensions with Russia, it serves to undermine existing members’ security. Yet there is little expectation that leaders will address this challenging question at the Warsaw Summit.
The full articles on NATO’s ‘out-of-area’ follies and on NATO’s identity crisis can be found here and here. Sadly, leaders in Warsaw are likely only to address the unimportant questions, while leaving key ones like these unanswered, kicking the can on decisions about NATO’s future down the road again.