The fall of Debaltseve to pro-Russian rebels backed by regular Russian forces marks the conclusion of Moscow’s second Donbass campaign, with the next military target likely to be Mariupol or Kharkiv, or both. As intermittent firing on the ceasefire line continues, Western diplomats continue to delude themselves that all is not lost and that the deal may still hold. Indeed, the Minsk II ceasefire may hold for a time, or it may unravel in a flash—but only at the whim of Vladimir Putin. The West is completely irrelevant here.
But how long Minsk II endures matters less than the impact of the irrevocable changes visited on the transatlantic security architecture by a war on its eastern periphery. It would be helpful if politicians, especially in Europe, began to take heed of what Philip Breedlove, the commander in charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, has been saying for quite some time: the situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate, and the potential consequences of this inconvenient fact must not be underestimated.
Most of all, they should realize that the EU as an institution is now effectively out of the game on Ukraine: it is largely a German and Russian show now. Today, EU chief diplomat Frederica Mogherini is nowhere near the negotiating table, having been reduced to issuing well-meaning but ultimately irrelevant admonitions and proposals. Nor is the EU’s newly chosen President Donald Tusk part of the equation beyond symbolic statements and solidarity marches.
This leaves only one institution that can contain the conflict and deter it from spreading: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And the discomforting reality is that NATO’s trumpeted effectiveness and unity is not necessarily as solid as a casual observer might think.
The urgent question raised by the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian war is to what extent NATO is prepared today, both militarily and politically, to respond should the continued Russian pressure along its northeastern flank mutate into a challenge inside NATO territory. If Russia employs its “hybrid warfare” methods in the Baltic States or elsewhere behind the NATO line, or worse still if a conventional threat develops, NATO may well not be ready to respond quickly and effectively, therefore putting its credibility on the line or risking a much more dangerous escalation and larger conflict if Article 5 is invoked.
Nobody disputes that on paper the West enjoys a considerable power advantage vis-à-vis Russia; however, a different picture emerges when one looks more closely at what is actually available now, for the alliance is only in the early stages of preparing for the resurgent threat of a possible conflict on its northeastern flank. The reassurance for the Baltics and Central Europe that was to be provided after the vaunted 2014 Wales summit remains a work in progress, with key stakeholders distracted by security challenges and local interests competing for their attention. The United States is being drawn ever deeper into an unraveling Middle East, while the shifting balance in Asia continues to pull it away from Europe, with the Obama administration providing support but relying on the Europeans, especially Germany, to manage the Ukraine crisis. At the same time, Germany and others in Europe continue to struggle between their desire to go back to doing business with Russia and a deepening suspicion that Vladimir Putin has fundamentally altered the East-West relationship which will remain fraught for the foreseeable future.
NATO only functions well when the United States firmly and unequivocally leads, with its full attention and commitment. The fundamental problem with America’s “leading from behind” on security in Europe is that it all but guarantees Europe will remain adrift, cleaved by competing interests and preferences, in the face of the Russian threat. Germany’s leadership from the “Mitte”, and its insistence that the conflict in Ukraine must be contained without the added risk of offering military aid to Kiev, are the key centrifugal variables preventing the emergence of a more stable European consensus on Russia. We constantly hear assurances from Berlin that NATO remains the dominant regional force, and that Russia wouldn’t dare cross any significant red lines—and that in any case should a red line be crossed, Russia’s armies would be defeated in short order. Perhaps it would play out just like that if Vladimir Putin was foolhardy enough to brazenly roll tanks towards Riga or Tallinn one fine morning. But given all that we have seen in Ukraine, this is not the likely scenario for anything Russia might venture in the Baltics. (Yet then again, how many predicted in the first place that Putin would take Crimea, or that he would continue on to slice off a chunk of eastern Ukraine—all in one year?)
And measuring NATO’s strength today in sheer numbers of forces available in Europe is not grounds for particular optimism either. On the military side of the ledger, there has been a steady decline of NATO’s European member-states’ military capabilities, with only the UK and to some extent France and Poland retaining some military muscle. As for the spending targets agreed to at the Wales NATO summit the situation is even more dire, with only the United States and France fulfilling their pledges on military budgets. According to a study just released by the European Leadership Network, although Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, the Netherlands and Romania will increase their military expenditure this year, they will not meet the 2% target. Poland just pledged to do so by 2016.
In fact, the military capabilities of several key NATO members today are but shadows of their Cold War selves, with Germany’s Bundeswehr ranking among the most severely degraded militaries in the alliance. All European NATO allies have significant deficiencies when it comes to lift, transport, logistics and most of all to sufficient numbers of trained soldiers to respond to emergencies. Add to this significantly reduced U.S. deployments in Europe and the alliance in fact lacks ready-made forces to respond quickly, despite the much advertised and discussed NATO rapid response force announced in Wales.
The modalities of the rapid response force debate are sobering: the several thousand NATO troops ready to be deployed in a potential crisis situation might be effective in a brewing crisis, but will quickly prove to be marginal at best in a rapidly escalating confrontation. Paradoxically, the same limited number of troops would have an incomparably greater deterrent value if permanently stationed at U.S. and NATO bases in countries along NATO’s northeastern flank—a proposition consistently blocked by Germany. But in any case, the prepositioning of equipment and supplies will not suffice unless deficiencies in air and missile defenses in countries along the periphery are addressed, and this will inevitably take time.
Unfortunately, there is a direct link between the lack of political will in Europe to respond to hard power emergencies and the stark decline in countries’ military capabilities and capacities. A number of smaller NATO members have degraded their militaries to the point where the routine training of personnel has become problematic. Some allied air forces today are so non-deployable that they are more reminiscent of glorified flight clubs, since they can only operate in their countries’ skies and not much beyond.
It is unacceptable that with the Russian threat looming ever larger in the east, NATO’s capabilities and military muscle rest on the United States, Canada, and to a much lesser extent the United Kingdom, France and Poland, with Germany both militarily marginal and politically obstructionist. And yet I suspect that unless the United States leads by example, both by articulating a new policy of permanent reinforcements and by increasing its deployments in Europe while at the same time demanding reciprocity from the largest European states, nothing much will change. It is high time to return to the old principles of deterrence through permanent presence. And since the threat is being posed by a nuclear power, if NATO allies are serious about their treaty commitments, it is also time to revisit flexible response in the event of escalation for lessons that would apply in the new situation should the threat of a wider war indeed arise.
The point is not to debate whether Russia would defeat a fully mobilized and united NATO in an all-out military clash scenario—it would not. But Putin may decide to try to beat NATO by instead moving ahead with another Donetsk-type scenario, either in the Baltic States or elsewhere along the periphery: fomenting a crisis and stopping to test the allied response, gambling that this would expose the internal political fissures in NATO and ultimately paralyze its decision-making process. Politically NATO’s consensus remains fragile, especially when it comes to moving from verbal assurances to actual physical reinforcements of it northeastern flank. The consensus will not gel unless the Obama administration leads with a clear commitment to reestablish a larger and more strategically rational military footprint in Europe. The Cold War-era U.S. base infrastructure in Europe should be re-imagined, and both U.S. and European NATO member-states’ physical assets augmented with permanent U.S. and NATO bases in the most exposed countries, specifically the Baltic States, Poland and Romania.
Otherwise, if the U.S. adheres to its “lead from behind Germany formula” while the latter is stuck in the “Mitte,” NATO will continue to drift, and we will continue to lose precious time to refurbish the only institution with the means to bring combined Western power to bear in a crisis. And yes, that means also in war, should it come to that in Europe again.