BRUSSELS — As NATO defense chiefs convene Thursday for a second day of talks on the Ukraine crisis, reaching agreement on specific steps to counter a more assertive Russia will likely prove elusive as national interests sometimes diverge.
For NATO, the heart of the challenge is bridging a gap between allies in the east, who seek a more muscular regional military posture to deal with Russia, and those in the west, notably Germany, who have urged a more cautious approach toward Moscow.
“It’s no secret where the differences are, and there have been tough discussions,” said one military official from eastern Europe, who asked not to be identified while describing the mood at the outset of talks in Brussels on Wednesday. “The outcome and final effect is what matters, but this is a marriage of 28 nations and consensus can be hard.”
NATO’s crisis response capabilities were a primary focus of the closed door discussions on Wednesday as defense chiefs examined how tensions with Russia will shape NATO in the future.
“One of the most pressing issues which the chiefs of defense will consider is the implications of Russia’s actions in and around Ukraine,” Gen. Knud Bartels, chairman of the NATO Military Committee, said in an opening statement Wednesday. “Russia’s annexation of territory in a sovereign nation on NATO’s borders has to cast a shadow of insecurity across the Alliance’s eastern flank and has potentially serious implications for the region and beyond.”
Defense chiefs also met on Wednesday with Ukrainian military officials, where closed-door discussions focused on NATO support for Ukrainian military reform efforts.
The turmoil in Ukraine comes as NATO is winding down its combat mission in Afghanistan, which will conclude at the end of the year. While planning continues for a small, post-2014 training mission in the country, the downsizing in Afghanistan means NATO can turn more attention to other regions, Bartels said.
“The end of NATO’s ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operation this year brings with it a potential strategic inflection point and the opportunity and capacity for the alliance to refocus its military capability towards a broader range of potential future threats,” Bartels said. “As we have seen in recent months, the global security situation remains fragile and unpredictable, and the alliance is increasingly surrounded by an arc of instability from Ukraine, to Syria to the Sahel.”
Meanwhile, questions have emerged over NATO’s readiness to respond should Russia seek to flex its muscle in other parts of the Continent.
If Russia were to launch a surprise attack on a country bordering a NATO nation, the alliance would struggle to generate an immediate respond, according to an internal alliance memo obtained by the German magazine Der Spiegel.
“Russia’s ability to undertake significant military action with little warning presents a wider threat to the maintenance of security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area,” according the memo, which Spiegel stated was prepared ahead of the defense ministers meeting. “Russia can pose a local or regional military threat at short notice at a place of its choosing. This is both destabilizing and threatening for those allies bordering or in close proximity to Russia.”
Most security experts consider a Russian incursion into the Baltics as highly unlikely. But its ability, at the least, potentially to stir unrest has those countries, which were annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II, nervous. Although as NATO members they are covered by Article Five of the NATO charter, which calls for alliance members to respond to an attack on a member state, that’s hardly reassuring with Russia’s forces so close and NATO’s so far.
NATO’s eastern members with proximity to Russia and Ukraine have been urging NATO to bulk up its presence in the region. In Poland, top government officials have called on NATO to permanently base troops in its country. Baltic allies also have been eager for more military support.
NATO has responded with increased air and sea patrols, led by the U.S., throughout the region as well as bolstering the presence of ground troops, on a rotational basis, who have been busy conducting war games and other training exercises.
Also on Wednesday, the White House confirmed that it would extend the military’s “augmented presence” in eastern Europe through at least 2014. Other measures also under consideration include bolstering the readiness of the Texas-based Army brigade that serves as the U.S. contribution to the NATO Response Force.
Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse and politically most assertive nation, has already indicated that it would oppose the permanent basing of troops in the region, arguing it would violate a 1997 agreement with Russia not to base troops in Russia’s former back yard. But others argue Russia already has violated that agreement by annexing Crimea from Ukraine.
As a whole, the Western alliance currently maintains an overwhelming superiority to Russia in terms of troop numbers, modern equipment and conventional firepower. Furthermore, in the more than two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s defense budget has always been a fraction of the combined military spending of NATO nations. However, recently Russia has been beefing up its military while most NATO countries have been looking to cut theirs.
NATO’s supreme allied commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, has stated NATO needs to examine how its forces are aligned in light of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The issue of NATO force posture is likely to be a major subject of debate leading up to a NATO summit in September in Wales.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is also attending the meeting.
Going forward, Bartels said, NATO must retain lessons learned during more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan while also investing to ensure readiness against new threats.
“Both collectively and individually, NATO nations will also need to invest in the capabilities and training necessary to develop [the] Alliance’s readiness and maintain its qualitative advantage, which are its greatest deterrence to potential adversaries,” Bartels said.