GIS Dossier: NATO’s strategic dilemmas

A group of soldiers about to board a Danish Air Force transport plane
Danish troops about to deploy to Estonia on January 10, 2018, as part of NATO’s “tripwire” force dedicated to preventing Russian aggression against the Baltic states (source: dpa)

GIS Dossiers aim to give our subscribers a quick overview of key topics, regions or conflicts based on a selection of our experts’ reports since 2011. This survey is devoted to the challenges faced by NATO in the shifting, increasingly unstable and bellicose world of the millennium’s second decade.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, was born in 1949 when several Western European countries, the United States and Canada signed the North Atlantic Treaty. The aim was to counter expansionist designs of the Soviet Union. The U.S. wanted to contain communism in Europe, Asia, and Africa and was terrified that Soviet forces could one day reach the eastern shore of the Atlantic.

The confrontation of the two civilizations, known as the Cold War, lasted for nearly half a century. The alliance served its purpose: the West prevailed.

Following the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union, NATO had a choice to wind down or to reach out to Eastern Europe. It opted for the latter, although it was in no rush to accept new members. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the alliance became involved in expeditionary operations in the Balkans, the Middle East and eventually in Afghanistan. The U.S. was the driver and remained indispensable in operations, but sought to reduce its role, “leading from behind.” NATO’s role appeared to fade, summarized GIS Expert Dr. Uwe Nerlich.

The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on European soil could not be excluded

The situation has changed in recent years again. To maintain its security, Europe must understand its precarious position in the fast-changing environment and address the challenges it entails. As GIS expert Dr. Therese Liechtenstein observed, Europe finds itself confronted “with a more assertive Russia, the Ukraine crisis, civil and proxy wars in the Middle East, migration from Africa and grave issues of cybersecurity and propaganda. It took U.S. President Donald Trump’s blunt rhetoric for Europe to realize its dependency on the U.S. in matters of defense and thus understand NATO’s role.”

Dr. Liechtenstein wrote:

If Europe is unable to clearly demonstrate its ability to deter enemies, it will become the battlefield in a war with Russia. This could happen in the event of a U.S.-China conflict: Russia could get involved, helping Beijing to consolidate its Eurasian position from Lisbon to Vladivostok. That would be an apocalyptic scenario, with Russian troops heading toward the Atlantic. The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on European soil by both the Russians and Americans could then not be excluded. Joint deterrence from the U.S. and Europe is needed and in the interest of both partners to assure Europe’s security. The framework is NATO.

Chilling relations

The West-Russia detente did not last long. GIS Expert Prof. Stefan Hedlund reported already in July 2012 that Russia was not taking kindly to NATO. The stance of Vladimir Putin, then newly reinstalled in the Kremlin, the expert wrote, “bears the chill winds of Cold-War thinking.”

Mr. Putin felt he had been deceived. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, he had offered a lot of support for the U.S., including continued cooperation on Afghanistan. “In return, he got the U.S. proposal to install an anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Although NATO insists the shield is to protect European allies against missiles from Iran, Russia claims it can be modified to intercept Russian missiles as well,” Mr. Hedlund explained.

A “red line” was drawn at the deployment of interceptor missiles. As NATO pressed ahead with the project, outright threats started to come from Russia. Its military drill Zapad 2009 concluded with simulated nuclear strikes against Poland.

Afghanistan exit

At the time, though, the planned withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan was still the main concern of Western leaders. By the end of 2014 all Western combat forces – personnel and equipment – were expected to have left. Savings from the Afghan withdrawal were a significant part of the $500 billion planned reductions in the U.S. defense budget. The allies did not, though, have a political exit strategy defining the future of Afghanistan and its volatile environment. Dr. Nerlich observed that this placed NATO “at a strategic crossroads where the very future of the alliance and its future role is debated at a time when defense spending is being cut.”

In terms of strategy and capabilities, very little is changing on either side of the Atlantic

Ahead of the December 2013 EU Summit, called to address Europe’s defense – the first in 10 years with such a focus – Mr. Nerlich remarked: “Defense in Europe ranks low and is meeting with political fatigue. But the key question over the next 15 to 20 years is what role Europe will play in an evolving and competitive global environment.”

Enter Ukraine

The 2014 Ukraine crisis has become the first continental crisis with military dimensions since the end of the Cold War. It has exposed, as Dr. Nerlich put it, “unfinished business in Europe.” He wrote prophetically in May of the fateful year:

Ukraine has never been a viable state throughout its 23 years of independence, but it may turn into a political quagmire which may overburden both the European Union and Russia. This may, given the current state of global competition, drive Russia in directions where it tends to become even more difficult for the United States – and even more so for Europe – to preserve Russia’s viability and competitiveness.

The U.S. administration of President Barack Obama hardly favored a greater military role in Europe, but it embraced the opportunity, Dr. Nerlich wrote, to “revive its NATO stance to reassure Poland and the Baltic countries. This reestablishes a kind of renewed European military dependence on the U.S. even though, in terms of strategy and capabilities, very little is changing on either side of the Atlantic in what is a low-risk and few-options game.”

Newport NATO summit

The Sept. 4-5, 2014 NATO Summit in Wales marked the first steps toward the alliance’s reinvigoration, following the ill-fated Afghanistan mission. Russia’s support for Ukrainian separatists fighting for independence in eastern Ukraine raised concerns about European defense to a high level. Participants agreed on several measures intended to reassure the members on its eastern flank, especially the Baltic states. Yet the summit’s real work, wrote Dr. Nerlich, “was achieved in a 30-minute side-meeting between key players.”

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, about to go to Belarus to sign the so-called Minsk Protocol (an attempt to halt the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region) had a briefing with U.S. President Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. “If there is a future for NATO it will flow from this kind of consensus-building side event,” concluded the GIS expert.

When it comes to devising a strategy to halt Russian aggression, it is clear that the alliance is simply at a loss

At the summit, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared that the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security had not been canceled, Mr. Nerlich emphasized. Formally at least, no state of enmity remained between NATO and Russia.

On the other hand, the military measures agreed to by NATO in Wales included a creation of a 4,000-strong “spearhead” force of high-readiness troops capable of speedily deploying in eastern Europe and the Baltic states. In his summary of the event, Mr. Hedlund remarked:

The alliance could bask in the glow of having rediscovered a purpose, and therefore legitimacy, for its existence. Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine has sent shivers across the European continent, causing many governments to turn their eyes to NATO for protection. … But when it comes to the task of devising a strategy to halt Russian aggression, it is becoming increasingly clear that the alliance is simply at a loss.

Buildup, builddown

During his first term in office, in 2000-2004, President Putin was amenable to closer relations with the West, including NATO, observed Professor Hedlund as the year 2014 was about to end. But the leader’s second term, the GIS expert wrote, “was marked by increasing distance, culminating in his ‘Cold War speech’ at a security conference in Munich in 2007.” In the following year, Russia launched its rearmament program. In this report, Mr. Hedlund analyzed Russia’s budget allocations for the military. He concluded that the increase in such spending for 2015 was close to a whopping 25 percent, bringing total defense expenditure to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

NATO is outgunned by the Russian military in the Baltic states
NATO is outgunned and almost surrounded in the Baltic states (source: macpixxel for GIS)

At the same time, the globally overstretched U.S. continued to reduce its military forces in Europe, wrote GIS Expert Luke Coffey. He pointed out in his August 2015 report:

Since the end of the Cold War, the American forces in Europe have been primarily viewed as a source of savings in the U.S. defense budget. From a peak of 400,000 troops in 1953, the number has dwindled to 65,000, from all services.

The number of U.S. military installations in Europe declined to approximately 350, from more than 850 for the Army alone in 1990. Another 15 sites were earmarked for closure in coming years, according to the European Infrastructure Consolidation Review announced by the Department of Defense in January 2015. It recommended leaving the U.S. with 17 main operating bases on the continent, primarily in Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Spain. This was down from 28 main operating bases in 2012.

The reduction in U.S. ground forces in Europe, Mr. Coffey continued, was matched by significant cutbacks in the air component, especially the removal of the 81st Fighter Squadron and the Air Control Squadron in 2013. The 81st, with its 20 A-10 ground attack aircraft, played a key role in many US-led operations in the wider region, the expert pointed out.

A map showing active and decommissioned U.S. military installations in Europe and North Africa
At a time of massive Russian military buildup and instability in North Africa and the Middle East, the US continued to scale back its military presence in Europe (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Since 2014, events have forced the U.S. into several policy U-turns to mitigate the impact of its force reductions in Europe, Mr. Coffey noted. Stationing a company in the Baltic states and Poland may send a useful message to Moscow, but it will not have any tactical effect in the case of a Russian invasion, he argued. Rotating one battalion from the U.S. for training in Europe will not replace the two brigade combat teams removed in 2013. And pre-positioning a few dozen tanks at storage sites scattered across the region is no substitute for the two armored brigades – with their full complement of personnel – withdrawn from Europe in 2013, the expert insisted.

A map showing NATO battlegroups in the Baltics
Even if President Trump agreed to pull back American troops, other NATO members would still have significant contingents defending the Baltics (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Prof. Hedlund reported on how a string of military drills such as Saber Strike 2015 and increased activity in Ukraine were supposed to underline NATO’s commitment to defending the Baltic states and Poland.

In tandem with its increased activity in support of Ukraine, the Western alliance has been conducting a string of exercises in a show of support for Poland and the Baltic states, wrote the expert. During June 1-19, it held Saber Strike 2015, an exercise involving 6,000 troops from 13 countries. The main purpose was to test NATO’s new rapid reaction force founded at the summit in Wales, in 2014.

Hybrid Cold War

The key question of how the alliance should respond to the fundamental changes in Europe’s security environment brought about by Russia kept returning, however. GIS Expert General Stanislaw Koziej warned, for example, of the need to develop NATO’s response to “below the threshold” attacks – a new type of limited military operation against a member state. He explained:

Such operations are covertly arranged, politically timed and shielded by a screen of disinformation and propaganda so that the allies of the country under attack may question whether what is happening actually constitutes an act of war. A lack of consensus on this critical matter would block the mechanism of collective defense enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

To counter such attacks, NATO has only relied on temporary fixes, such as rotating troops to the Baltic states, Poland and Romania, Gen. Koziej pointed out.

Graph of projected military spending
Long-term forecasts show European militaries dropping into the global third tier (source: macpixxel for GIS)

In September 2017, the author further expanded on the theme, showing how the Zapad (“West”) joint military exercises between the armed forces of the Russian Federation and Belarus served to fine-tune an important addition to Moscow’s new Cold War toolbox. The author proposed calling this contest “the Hybrid Cold War.” He also called for building a NATO-EU security tandem by improving the interoperability of their military organizations.

Escalation risk

GIS Expert Prof. Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen raised another key aspect of the situation in June 2016:

In terms of brute strength, Russia would not stand a chance in a protracted all-out war with NATO. ... This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the military equation because it shows that Russia can only hope to hold its own against Western forces by using tactical nuclear weapons. The risk of a direct confrontation in Eastern Europe escalating into a limited nuclear war is thus too close for comfort.

The alliance finds itself in a Catch-22 situation, Professor Rasmussen argued. Without strong forces in the Baltic, NATO has little option but to base deterrence on Russia’s fear of a global confrontation. But knowing that it will be next to impossible to keep such a confrontation conventional, this scenario may deter the West more than Russia. “Ever since the annexation of Crimea, NATO has struggled to get out of this fix,” concluded the author.


In another of his 2016 reports, Prof. Rasmussen warned that expanding its eastern presence is not the alliance’s only priority. “[P]aying attention to the east cannot mean dropping NATO’s guard in the south,” he wrote, as the alliance is also tasked with creating stability on a global scale. On the eve of its pivotal Warsaw summit, NATO also needed to bolster operations against Islamist extremists in Iraq and Syria, expand training missions in the region to friendly forces in antiterrorism operations. A naval force needed to be sent to the Mediterranean to help curb migrant crossings to Europe, he wrote.

NATO’s Warsaw summit

In purely military terms, NATO’s 27th two-day Warsaw summit meeting in July 2016 was a routine affair, wrote Dr. Nerlich in his analysis for GIS.

Driven by Baltic concerns and Polish ambitions, the U.S. stepped up direct support of these eastern NATO members, the expert observed. “This culminated in the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), which implied a dedicated budget increase for the defense of Eastern Europe along with preparations for redeployments to the region in the event of a crisis.” ERI kept within the confines of the 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia, as it stopped short of stationing forces permanently in the new member states.

The somewhat theatrical “arms race” NATO has entered could certainly serve Russia’s political purposes

The summit’s official busy agenda included some 120 items, presenting the full range of NATO’s ongoing and planned activities. Some were arguably more complex and pressing than the defense of Northeastern Europe, observed Dr. Nerlich, “but Poland did not miss its opportunity to prioritize Russia-related measures.” NATO will continue, though, he asserted, to follow a two-track approach, warning Russia without jeopardizing the scope for diplomacy. That fits the alliance’s operating mode since the end of the Cold War, “when its role has been mostly limited to crisis management,” wrote the expert. And he warned:

In years to come, the somewhat theatrical “arms race” NATO has entered could certainly serve Russia’s political purposes. It leads to the kind of political processes we have seen in Donbas and Syria, where the West is left with the choice of embarrassing indifference or entering negotiations on Russian terms.

The basics

GIS founder Prince Michael of Liechtenstein pointed out that the Kremlin’s strategic goal is “to control or at least to neutralize areas next to Russia’s borders, which it traditionally considers crucial to the country’s security. Not allowing a strong NATO influence there is a critical part of the scheme.”

In the past few years, he also noted, there has been practically no dialogue between the White House and the Kremlin, which is a reason for deep concern. “The main responsibility for European security, however, lies here in Europe, with the major European powers. It is their task to establish a system of coordinated foreign policy and a credible defense,” concluded the Prince.

Post Scriptum

Other notable GIS reports on NATO, include these: by Professor Dr. Blerim Reka on NATO’s renewed interest in the Western Balkans; Professor Hedlund on a fundamental shift in Swedish defense policy; and Professor Rasmussen on rising European defense budgets. And the nuances of NATO and EU defense strategies are discussed by Gen. Koziej here, here, here and also here.

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