NATO Summit: Messaging to Moscow and Burden-Sharing

August 27, 2014

When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies convene in Wales on 4 September, much of the world will be anticipating some dramatic moves in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The meeting’s host, British Prime Minister David Cameron, has issued a call for a strong signal of the West’s resolve. And NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General Philip M. Breedlove have promised that the summit will “make NATO fitter, faster and more flexible to address future challenges, from wherever they come.”

The outcome in Wales may not meet maximum expectations. NATO is an alliance that honors the sovereignty of each member while at the same time promising defense of that sovereignty. For that reason alone, NATO decisions inevitably represent compromises between the most ambitious positions and the most cautious ones. At this summit, every decision will be seen in the context of relations with Russia as well as transatlantic and intra-European burdensharing issues. If the compromises made in September leave the alliance lacking credible conviction, Washington and its allies will have failed both in terms of deterring further Russian aggression and in terms of reassuring NATO’s most threatened allies — Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Allied leaders undoubtedly will try hard to avoid the appearance of such a failure, with both words and deeds.

NATO governments already have a wealth of recommendations to consider, some produced by intergovernmental discussions and others coming from private experts and observers. The suggestions floated fall into three broad categories: how to adapt NATO to its new and much reduced role in Afghanistan; how to react to Russia’s destabilizing aggression against Ukraine; and how to reaffirm NATO unity, at a time when there has been a lot of disunity on display both among European allies and across the Atlantic. And these three areas come together around the question of whether or not the alliance will remain the main geo-strategic expression of “the West.”

The traditional burden-sharing issue frames one of the more difficult challenges for the allies. The NATO guideline for allied defense spending is in the range of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). To be sure, it is a rough measure and does not tell the whole story of the contributions that countries are making to the security of the alliance. But with the Ukraine crisis, which unmasked Putin’s European objectives, the question of relative defense efforts has become more urgent.

A recent report by Young Atlanticists recommends that some teeth be put into the 2 percent goal, for example by giving NATO allies that cross that threshold priority consideration for senior NATO positions. On the other hand, we have to look at what that two percent is actually purchasing. American NATO expert John Deni has noted that the government of Greece spends more than two percent but produces little in deployable capabilities, while Denmark spends less than the goal but has a “highly capable, deployable military.” He concludes, “The two percent goal appears increasingly arbitrary and hence meaningless.” If so, the primary focus should be on usable capabilities rather than spending levels.

The biggest challenge for the summit may be establishing a firm and balanced alliance approach to relations with Russia. It is well known that the allies bordering Russia are strongly motivated to reinforce NATO’s collective defense capabilities, particularly at their borders. Poland would like a permanent NATO base hosting significant numbers of allied forces on its territory, and General Breedlove has proposed expanding a current NATO command in Szczecin, Poland into a “permanent and enhanced NATO base.” This command currently is staffed by Danish, German, and Polish troops, but it would send a much stronger signal if the United States took the lead and deployed forces there, either on a permanent or rotating basis.

Some allies will oppose steps that could be perceived by Moscow as particularly provocative. Some press reports have suggested that, prior to the M17 shoot-down, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed a deal to settle the current crisis. It reportedly would have included acceptance of Crimea’s incorporation into Russia plus a pledge from Ukraine not to join NATO in return for an end to Moscow’s support for Ukrainian separatists and a long term deal for Russian supplies of natural gas to Ukraine.

Whether or not Germany will continue to push for such a deal could be a critical determinant of unity on dealing with Russia at the NATO summit. A “soft” German line — one which explicitly accepts Moscow’s control of Crimea and denies Ukraine any chance of joining NATO — would surely push the summit outcome in many areas toward a “lowest common denominator” that would seriously disappoint Poland and the Baltic states — and therefore betray rifts in the alliance that Russia can continue to exploit. Rasmussen will try to raise that level, as he has a strong desire to complete his tenure as NATO Secretary General with a big success that would be dashed should Germany and or other allies water down the response to Putin’s adventurism. So far, Merkel appears to be holding the line against those in and outside her government who would soften her approach, but the Hungarian, Czech, and Slovak governments are weak links in this NATO and EU chain.

The bottom line is the NATO summit will be a “success” if Moscow believes that the allies have left Wales having achieved a sense of unity and demonstrated common purpose. The outcome will inevitably reflect compromises between those allies who want dramatic steps in response to Russia’s aggression and those who favor a more cautious approach. How much the “lowest common denominator” will be raised may depend in large part on whether the Obama administration effectively advocates a strong signal to Russia, including at the very least a commitment to rotate on a regular basis U.S. units to the NATO presence in Poland recommended by General Breedlove. A sign of weakness or division at the summit would only encourage Putin on his current aggressive path.


Stanley R. Sloan is a former Senior Specialist in International Security Policy at the Congressional Research Service. He currently teaches courses on American power and transatlantic relations at Middlebury College in Vermont and is an Associate Fellow at the Austrian Institute of European and Security Policy.


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