Tuesday, 22 May 2012

NATO summit displays serious scaling back of influence

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) leaders gathered in Chicago for a summit to discuss security decisions of the future. The summit is one of the largest in history with over 60 nations participating, including non-NATO countries. Leaders will examine how to maintain and improve security in an age of austerity and serious economic challenges, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the press ahead of the meeting, GlobalSecurity.org reported May 20.

Although the summit was broad, the exclusion of certain countries makes it also one of the most interesting. Vladimir Putin, the recently re-elected president of Russia, declined an offer to attend the meeting citing civil responsibilities at home.

Mr Putin won last month’s Russian election convincingly, securing his hold on the Kremlin for his third and final ruling term. His control was arguably never lost, even as he rescinded direct management over the Russian government to Dmitri Medvedev, his current prime minister, in the previous presidential term. It is widely believed that Mr Putin was directing Russian policy from behind the stage the whole time.

Russia is less worried about NATO development than it is about dealing with its own internal economic problems. Therefore Mr Putin’s decision to remain at home this weekend was not entirely a smokescreen.

Indeed, his decision is partly the result of stalemated diplomacy between NATO and Russia over the positioning of a ballistic missile defence (BMD) shield in Turkey, Poland, and Romania. Russia is not convinced the planned shield is for deterring rising Middle Eastern powers such as Iran. It fears the shield plan will not only protect Eastern Europe and change balance of Central European defence, but also interfere with Russia’s own ballistic missile emplacements and early-warning radar (EW).

In fact, Russia is so concerned about BMD that Kremlin officials recently stated that Russia considers “pre-emptive strikes” as possible if they are to go ahead. Such specific threats indicate Russia believes they are a direct military provocation to Russia from NATO.

It is quite likely however that Russia need not worry about any NATO threat. NATO countries are not only facing a prolonged period of funding cuts for their militaries, but the institution itself has decayed significantly over the past decade. NATO, at initial formation, was expected to function as a team with the US doing the heavy lifting. European countries were encouraged to maintain their militaries with a semblance of personal responsibility against the threat of Russian tanks rolling across the North European Plain.

NATO’s problem today, as the Libya campaign demonstrated, is its creeping irrelevancy and incapability. The intervention in Libya showed that NATO struggle to agree to commit forces, with France and Germany very publicly disagreeing on direction.

America assisted in the intervention in Libya in a logistical and support capacity, and true to its role, did much of the work to enforce the no-fly zone over the North African country. Many NATO countries could not get permission to use their missiles in battle and were on station flying patrols as more of a representative presence instead of a direct strike role. European aircraft flew the bulk of the 26,500 sorties, but only a handful of countries allowed their pilots to use their weapons.

Indeed, the bureaucratic morass in many NATO governments considerably slows any timely military interventions. The US now accounts for over 80 percent of NATO defence spending, up from 60 percent in 1980. This is a huge increase which is starting to expose vulnerabilities in current NATO expeditions.

Most International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan are mainly deployed to peaceful regions of the South Asian country and away from restive areas like Kandahar and Helmand. Their limited equipment and hesitant political decision-making severely limits how those troops can be deployed. Indeed, when United States General Stanley McCrystal recommended a surge of troops into the country in 2009, he specifically requested that it should be US troops who consist of the surge, not ISAF.

NATO as an institution was created to limit Russian westward advance into Europe during the Cold War. Russia is unprotected by any significant natural geographical barriers on its western flank and therefore must push west until it reaches some. This geopolitical imperative has resulted in heavy Russian influence in Eastern European affairs for over 50 years, especially in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania and the Baltic states.

In response to this, NATO unified Western Europe against the encroaching Russian influence. In fact, during the weekend’s summit the Baltic States requested a more permanent NATO military presence over their nations to deter Russia as the Kremlin begins to grow in power and ambition. It was subsequently announced by NATO commanders that air patrols would be increased over Lithuania and Estonia.

Today the Soviet Union is a relic of history but Russian geopolitical imperatives remain real. As Russia stirs up support in Eastern Europe to maintain its strategic buffer, the very existence of NATO and all that it entails encourages those states to look favourably towards the defence organisation.

Being part of NATO theoretically ensures protection and inclusion into a strong EU economic system which continues to perform despite serious fiscal issues. However, the NATO ability to conduct war is becoming limited as budgetary constraints begin to take effect.

What is most striking about the NATO dissipation, especially the two factors of lowered capability and a growing European distaste for all things military, is that some countries in Central Europe are creating their own non-NATO defence alliances as a replacement. For instance, the Visegrad group (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) is a battlegroup independently preparing to address the return of Russian influence.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen
visits ISAF troops in Afghanistan
Stuck between two aggressive historical enemies, Germany and Russia, and realising that NATO support may not be reliable in the long term, Poland has to find a way to protect its interests. NATO leadership does not appear to be betting on any serious future geopolitical horrors, perhaps because of the relative calm it has experienced since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Poland is less sure of this future and, given its history, it makes a great deal of sense to arrange a back-up plan.

NATO may be a shell of its former self, but it is still useful as an organisation. Not only does it keep a restless Europe passive, especially an increasingly fidgety Germany, it is a natural extension of the growing US empire.

Washington encourages NATO involvement in US foreign policy, thereby supplying a convincing veneer of legitimacy to its actions. It is clear in hindsight for instance, that if NATO had been afforded a greater role in the initial stages of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, those campaigns may have been prosecuted differently. It is always good to have conflicting opinions around the table when organising military strategies. Certainly, a less unilateral approach to those wars would have smoothed the reconstruction progress and perhaps weakened the sectarian violence.

Ultimately it is the Eastern Europeans who are worried about the steady Russian return to their affairs, not the Central Europeans. In fact, Germany is quite positive towards greater Russian political and economic influence.

The eastern European states have already begun to take matters into their own hands to deal with a returning Russia while Central Europe is distracted by a deep economic hole and general ambivalence towards Russia. NATO is still useful, but the question is: for how long will it remain a useful tool?

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