Nato deploys troops to counter Russian threat

Nato agrees to send four battalions of up to 4,000 troops to Poland and Baltic states

US secretary of state John Kerry   with Poland’s foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski at the Nato summit in Warsaw, Poland.  Mr Waszczykowski said Europe and the US need  “a more active, energetic Nato that takes practical steps to ensure the real safety of its citizens.” Photograph: Jerzy Dudek/Reuters

US secretary of state John Kerry with Poland’s foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski at the Nato summit in Warsaw, Poland. Mr Waszczykowski said Europe and the US need “a more active, energetic Nato that takes practical steps to ensure the real safety of its citizens.” Photograph: Jerzy Dudek/Reuters

 

Nato leaders gathered for dinner on Friday night in the historic surroundings of the Column Hall in Warsaw’s presidential palace. The room was the site for the signing of the Warsaw Pact in 1955, as well as talks that led to Poland’s transition from communism to democracy 34 years later.

For Poland, which hosted the two-day biennial Nato summit for the first time this weekend, there was a hope that the meeting could mark another new beginning, an opportunity for Nato to provide its willingness to defend its eastern flank against an increasingly expansionist Russia.

Speaking to The Irish Times ahead of the summit, Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski expressed hope that Nato would adapt to a new geopolitical reality. He said Europe is witnessing a dramatic deterioration of the security situation in Europe’s eastern and southern neighbourhoods, including directly on Poland’s doorstep.

“I am sure, that the Warsaw summit will be a turning point in Nato’s post-Cold War history,” Mr Waszczykowski said. “What Europe and the United States need is a more active, energetic Nato that takes practical steps to ensure the real safety of its citizens. And the place to start is the alliance’s eastern flank.”

As the 28th Nato summit draws to a close these hopes have largely been met. The agreement to send four battalions of up to 4,000 troops to Poland and the three Baltic states is Nato’s largest commitment yet to bolster its eastern presence on the ground.  

The decision to move new battalions in represents a significant stepping-up of activity in the region. This is especially true in light of recent military exercises in Poland, which saw more than 30,000 troops and thousands of vehicles from 24 countries engage in the biggest “war game” in the region since the end of the Cold War, and the recent strengthening of Nato’s high-readiness Response Force.

Nato accepts that the deployment does not present any credible threat to Russia, but it argues that it does provide a tripwire, which sends a strong message of Nato’s willingness and capacity to respond to any incursion, a strategy of deterrence reminiscent of the Cold War.

Nonetheless, despite this robust response by Nato, there are divisions within the alliance about the next step forward in terms of relations with Russia.

Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite said on Saturday that Germany’s decision to lead a battalion in Lithuania “shows a change of mindset” in Berlin. However, German chancellor Angela Merkel and US president Barack Obama are among those who have opened the door to more dialogue with Moscow.

Ironically the move to bolster troop presence in eastern Europe has been accompanied by calls for constructive engagement.

Speaking ahead of the summit, the German leader was careful to stress that while Nato was increasing its presence it was also keen for dialogue, noting that “long-lasting security can only be ensured in cooperation with, not in defiance of, Russia”.

A shift in policy towards Russia is also evident elsewhere. Despite the European Union’s decision last week to extend sanctions against Russia, a number of EU countries are calling for the punitive measures to be relaxed. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has also been sending more conciliatory signals about Russia.  

But while much of the focus of the two-day Warsaw summit was on the alliance’s activity in the east, its continuing presence in Afghanistan was also high on the agenda.

With more than 13,000 troops on the ground, Afghanistan “remains Nato’s top operational priority”, according to one senior Nato official.

Obama’s announcement last week that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would take longer than expected indicates the challenges involved in transitioning political and military control of the country to Afghan security forces and institutions.

Following meetings with Afghani president Ashraf Ghani in Warsaw, Nato confirmed that it would continue to station 12,000 Nato and US troops until 2017 and would commit $1 billion per year until 2020 in addition to US aid.

“Our aim remains that Afghanistan will never again become a safe haven for terrorists who can pose a threat to our security; and that it is able to sustain its own security, governance, and economic and social development, while respecting human rights for all of its citizens, notably those of women and children,” the declaration on Afghanistan stated.

For many, however, the commitment to stand by Afghanistan is less a signal of solidarity and more an indication of the fraught political and military realities that have emerged from the US-led invasion of the country in 2001.

Another border challenge under discussion was developments in southern Europe, both in terms of the refugee crisis and the threat from Islamic terrorism.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will launch an autumn naval mission in the Mediterranean to complement the existing naval mission operating in the waters between Greece and Turkey.

On Islamic State (also known as Isis), Nato is to provide special surveillance planes to assist the US-led coalition fighting the group. It will also launch a training mission for Iraqi forces fighting the jihadist group.

“Terrorism, particularly as perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [Isil]/Da’esh, has risen to an unprecedented level of intensity, reaches into all of Allied territory, and now represents an immediate and direct threat to our nations and the international community,” Nato said in its final communiqué.

Whether Nato will formulate a more comprehensive approach to tackling the threat of Islamic extremism seems unlikely. The organisation is wary of involving itself in matters of national security, domestic intelligence, and open borders that are the competence of national states.

So playing a more front-line role in the fight against terrorism is unlikely to be a Nato priority as it considers its relevance in the 21st century.