Spring/Summer 2015
Number 28

Deterring Russia: Has NATO Succeeded

By
Leo Michel

At the much-publicized Wales Summit last September, the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) attempted to send two resolute messages to Moscow. The first—which, in truth, was also intended to reassure Russia’s worried neighbors—was that the Alliance remains “strong, ready, robust, and responsive” and able to fulfill its Article 5 treaty commitment of collective defense in the face of any aggression. To underscore the point, the twenty-eight leaders agreed to a number of near- and long-term measures to strengthen NATO’s military posture and capabilities.

The second message focused on reversing Russia’s “escalating and illegal military intervention” in Ukraine. To this end, NATO “demanded” that Moscow take “concrete action” to comply with its international obligations, “end its illegitimate occupation of Crimea,” and stop its support of pro-Russian separatists who had proclaimed “peoples’ republics” in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. As the Summit’s concluding communiqué noted, NATO “stands with Ukraine” in the face of Russian aggression. Still, this was a necessarily ambiguous formulation, since Ukraine is not an Ally—despite the promise of NATO leaders at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.”(1)

Plan of action

Overall, NATO’s near-term measures, known as the “Readiness Action Plan,” have had the desired effect of assuring Allies most directly concerned by Russia—thanks, in large part, to their visibility, scope, and multinational character. For example, NATO has increased (from four to sixteen) the number of fighter aircraft dedicated to the air-policing mission over Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It has started regular Airborne Warning and Control System reconnaissance flights over Poland and Romania. And it has stepped up regular maritime patrols in the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and Mediterranean. NATO’s Multinational Corps Northeast headquarters in Szczecin, Poland, meanwhile, is receiving more capabilities and upgrading its readiness to serve as a hub for regional cooperation.

In parallel with these activities, NATO has conducted several important land, air, and maritime exercises. The ALLIED SHIELD training series in June involved some 15,000 military personnel from nineteen alliance members and three partner nations. The series includes another test of NATO’s interim Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a “spearhead force” of around 5,000 troops (with air, maritime, and special forces “enablers”) able to begin moving within two to three days at the first warnings of a potential threat. NATO Force Integration Units composed of small multinational teams are being set up in the Baltic States, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria to assist those countries with their Host Nation Support activities, including the logistical networks and infrastructure required to receive the VJTF deployments.

NATO’s higher profile in the region has been welcomed by Partner countries Finland and Sweden, and for good reason. In recent months, both nations have had to scramble air and coastal defense forces to respond to provocative Russian military flights and naval activities (including, most probably, submarines) near or within their national airspace and territorial waters. Not surprisingly, both Helsinki and Stockholm are now seized with the potential for Russian hostility—and as a result are stepping up their militaries’ participation in NATO exercises in the region.

A few Allies have taken additional steps on a national basis that complement NATO’s moves. Over the past year, company-size U.S. units (approximately 160 soldiers each) with armored vehicles have been rotating through the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania, where they train with local forces. This “persistent presence,” which is expected to continue at least through 2016, draws upon the two U.S. Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) permanently stationed in Europe, as well as rotations of troops from a third U.S.-based BCT that is earmarked for Europe. In addition, the Obama Administration recently decided to pre-position a “European Activity Set” in the Baltic States, Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania.(2) This set of equipment would consist of over a thousand vehicles—including some 250 Abrams main battle tanks, plus hundreds of Bradley fighting vehicles and mobile Howitzer artillery—to be used by the rotating U.S. personnel or, if necessary, by a full U.S.-based BCT that could be airlifted to Europe in a crisis. Other Allies, too, have stepped up their game. France, for example, recently deployed 15 main battle tanks and 300 soldiers to Poland for a six-week exercise.

However, when it comes to the long-term measures pledged at Wales, the picture is mixed. NATO has struggled for more than a decade to find ways to reverse the trend of declining defense budgets, to use available funds more effectively, and to find a more equitable sharing of costs and responsibilities. The topic is one of vital significance to the Alliance. As then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned the Allies in a June 2011 speech: “(If) current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders—those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me—may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”(3)

The language agreed at Wales—notably, that Allied nations will “aim to move toward the 2 percent (of GDP) guideline (for defense expenditures) within a decade”—is, of course, far from a guarantee. And NATO’s less-than-brilliant record in generating quick capabilities improvements through increased multinational cooperation can leave one a bit skeptical. But there are signs, at least, that the proverbial NATO aircraft carrier has begun to change course.

Currently, only four Allies—the United States, United Kingdom, Estonia, and Greece—meet the 2 percent guideline.(4) Over the past year, France and Germany have announced modest defense budget increases. So, too, have Poland (which will come close to the 2 percent mark), Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Lithuania, and Latvia. (Sweden also has announced an increase, and its fellow Partner Finland is expected to do so in the near future.) Of course, some of these countries are starting from very low spending levels and, in the case of France and Spain, security concerns along NATO’s southern flank—not concerns about Russia—are the primary motivation for the increases.

True, the United Kingdom’s recently announced 1.5 percent cut in defense spending for 2015 is a disappointment—even if, as defense ministry officials have claimed, it does not bring Britain below 2 percent this year nor impact manpower numbers or current operations. Still, Britain’s longer-term trend in defense spending might not be clear until the new Conservative government completes its Strategic Defense and Security Review in late 2015 or early 2016. And Italy and Belgium also have announced cuts in their already low military spending since Wales.

On the capabilities front, the Wales summit endorsed a new “framework nations concept” intended to facilitate multinational cooperation. It will take some time to evaluate if, in practice, this initiative will generate more results than NATO’s “Smart Defense” and “Connected Forces Initiative” approaches. Nevertheless, NATO’s Allied Command Transformation can point to promising activities since Wales to improve Allied and Partner interoperability; these involve, for example, the more efficient management of air-to-ground precision guided munitions, better integration of new off-the-shelf technologies into military systems, and innovative ways to deliver professional military education and training to NATO and Partner forces. And at long last, the first of five Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft for the NATO-owned and -operated Alliance Ground Surveillance system rolled off the production line in June.

Regarding Ukraine, practical assistance from the Alliance seems modest relative to the situation on the ground. NATO has sent advisors to Kyiv to work with government officials in areas such as military organizational reform, defense education, cyber defense, command, control, and communications, logistics, and military career transition. NATO is also working to establish additional “trust funds” to finance such support.

More substantive—albeit still restrained—assistance to Ukraine has come through bilateral channels. So far, the United States has committed close to $200 million in security-related aid, including body armor, night and thermal vision devices, heavy engineering equipment, radios, patrol boats, rations, tents, medical supplies, counter-mortar radars, and other related items.(5) In addition, the first shipments of 230 Humvees promised to Ukraine have been delivered. And some 300 U.S. troops based in Italy deployed to western Ukraine in mid-April to begin a six-month mission of training Ukrainian National Guard forces. Some 75 British soldiers have provided similar training since March.

To date, however, the Allies have not acted on Ukrainian entreaties to provide lethal weapons. NATO as an organization does not provide weapons to anyone, leaving such important decisions to national authorities. And despite mounting calls in the U.S. Congress to do just that, President Obama has not moved beyond his statement last February that offering lethal arms was only one of the options under consideration “if, in fact, diplomacy fails.”(6)

Ends and means

So has NATO successfully deterred Russia? The answer is not so straightforward.

On the one hand, Moscow’s muscle-flexing of late has been reminiscent of Cold War days. For example, Russia recently conducted large military exercises in the Baltic and Arctic regions, and asserted its “right” to deploy nuclear weapons “anywhere on Russian territory, including on the Crimea Peninsula.”(7) Last March, the Russian ambassador to Denmark warned that “Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles” if the Danes contribute ship-borne radars to NATO’s missile defense system.(8) Meanwhile, Russia’s propaganda machine is churning away to convince its citizens that NATO is hell-bent on regime change within the Russian Federation. In a clear sign of the times, back in May, Rossiya 1, a leading television channel, broadcast a documentary alleging that the Red Army and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to “prevent NATO from overthrowing the legitimate government in Prague.”(9)

On the other hand, Russia so far has not crossed NATO’s “red line” that would lead an Ally to invoke Article 5.(10) Maybe, as some argue, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not that big a risk-taker, in which case NATO’s strengthened military posture and capabilities were not necessary to deter him. But given the many other surprises that Russia’s leader has delivered of late, it is hard to argue that NATO’s actions, underscored by declarations by U.S. President Barack Obama and other Allied heads of state and government, have not been prudent and useful.(11) At a minimum, the Alliance has given Moscow more reasons not to test its will when it comes to defending one of its members.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Ukraine. Since Wales, Russia has continued and, in some areas, increased its military, economic, and propaganda support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials and some outside analysts believe this is a prelude to an offensive aimed at establishing a land bridge between Russia and the illegally annexed peninsula of Crimea.(12)

At this juncture, the best available deterrent against Russia is the combination of European Union and American sanctions. President Obama sketched out the effects of these sanctions during the June 2015 meeting in Germany of the G-7, the West’s leading industrialized democracies. According to the President:

The Russian economy has been seriously weakened. The ruble and foreign investment are down; inflation is up. The Russian central bank has lost more than $150 billion in reserves. Russian banks and firms are virtually locked out of the international markets. Russian energy companies are struggling to import the services and technologies they need for complex energy projects. Russian defense firms have been cut off from key technologies. Russia is in deep recession. So Russia’s actions in Ukraine are hurting Russia and hurting the Russian people.(13)

True, Europe’s support for the sanctions regime showed signs of wavering over this past spring; in March, for example, Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni publicly favored a relaxation of sanctions against the Kremlin.(14) And one can expect, of course, that Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue his lobbying in various capitals on the Continent for a lifting of sanctions.(15) However, the G-7 seems to be holding the line, declaring: “We recall that the duration of sanctions should be clearly linked to Russia’s complete implementation of the Minsk agreements and respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty. They can be rolled back when Russia meets these commitments. However, we also stand ready to take further restrictive measures in order to increase cost on Russia should its actions so require.”(16)

Given the foregoing, it appears possible—indeed, likely—that Ukraine will take its place among the misnamed “frozen conflicts” that have descended upon Georgia and Moldova over the past two decades. Such a state of affairs would significantly increase the latent instability on Europe’s periphery.

Interconnected parts

NATO, meanwhile, faces yet another challenge: balancing competing priorities. The understandable focus at Wales on reaffirming the deterrence and collective defense aspects of the Alliance risks overshadowing its other “core tasks”—crisis management and cooperative security. Yet the continuing, complex, and violent conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and parts of northern Africa (especially Libya and the Sahel) will pose an array of dangers for, and demands upon, the Transatlantic Alliance for years, possibly decades, to come. And simmering tensions elsewhere—arising from the Israel-Palestinian impasse and unsolved Iranian nuclear dossier, to cite only two examples—could reach a boiling point with little advance warning.

But responding to those real and potential dangers is not unrelated to the problem of deterring Russia from potentially dangerous behavior. For if the Allies fail to follow through on their commitments to defend their interests and values outside Europe, Russian leaders might rationally conclude that at least some of those Allies would be willing to shrug off their responsibilities within Europe, as well.

“Our Alliance remains an essential source of stability in this unpredictable world,” the Wales declaration reminded us. Left unsaid—but just as true—is that the gap between acknowledging that fact and mobilizing our national and collective resources and political will to project “stability” is still alarmingly wide.

Leo Michel is Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. The opinions above represent the personal views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Defense Department or any other agency of the Federal Government.


1.   “Bucharest Summit Declaration,” nato.int, April 3, 2008, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_8443.htm.

2.   Eric Schmitt and Steven Lee Myers, “U.S. Poised to Put Heavy Weaponry in East Europe,” New York Times, June 14, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/14/world/europe/us-poised-to-put-heavy-we....

3.   Robert Gates, “The Future of NATO,” speech to the Security and Defense Agenda in Brussels, June 20, 2011, http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1581.

4.   “Financial and Economic Data Relating to NATO Defence,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization Communiqué, February 24, 2014, http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_topics/20140224_14.... Note that the latest NATO figures are based on 2013 budgets.

5.   Defense Security Cooperation Agency news release, March 25, 2015, http://www.dsca.mil/news-media/news-archive/first-us-armored-hmmwvs-arri....

6.   White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama and Chancellor Merkel in Joint Press Conference,” February 9, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/09/remarks-president....

7.   Zachary Keck, “Russia Threatens to Deploy Nuclear Weapons in Crimea,” The National Interest, June 1, 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/russia-threatens-deploy-nuclea....

8.   “Russia Threatens to Aim Nuclear Missiles at Denmark Ships if it Joins NATO Shield,” Reuters, March 22, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/22/us-denmark-russia-idUSKBN0MI0M....

9.   Martin Plichta, “Quand Moscou réécrit l’histoire du ‘printemps de Prague,’” Le Monde (Paris), June 5, 2015, http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2015/06/04/quand-moscou-reecrit-l-h....

10.  NATO’s Article 5 states, in part: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” To date, NATO has invoked Article 5 only once—in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

11.  See, for example, White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama to the People of Estonia,” September 3, 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/03/remarks-president....

12.  U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also raised this possibility in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2015. See “US Intelligence Chief Says He Backs Arming Ukraine,” VOA News, February 26, 2015, http://www.voanews.com/content/united-states-intelligence-chief-backs-ar....

13.  White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama in Press Conference after G7 Summit,” June 8, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/08/remarks-president....

14.  Conor Gaffey, “Italian Foreign Minister Calls for End to Russia Sanctions,” Newsweek, March 31, 2015, http://europe.newsweek.com/italian-foreign-minister-calls-end-russian-sa....

15.  See, for example, Don Melvin, “Putin: Sanctions Have Cost Italy Dearly,” CNN, June 10, 2015, http://www.click2houston.com/news/putin-sanctions-have-cost-italy-dearly....

16.  The G-7 includes the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The June 2015 G-7 statement is available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/08/g-7-leaders-decla....