Nato: Assessing the Russian threat

Summit took place against a post-Ukraine background of increasingly bellicose exchanges

The guarantee of mutual assistance if a member is attacked – treaty Article Five – remains the cornerstone of Nato deterence and the key commitment which members make on joining. It is also the line in the sand defining non-neutrality for states such as Ireland.

Article Five allowed Nato leaders at their weekend meeting in Warsaw to deploy small, unthreatening battle groups of only 800 soldiers in Poland and the three Baltic states; Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Their role is not even to suggest aggressive intent or physically to prevent or defeat a Russian invasion, but to deter one. Russia knows that if its forces touch even a hair on the head of, say, a Norwegian battlegroup member it will bring down on itself the full might of the Nato alliance. The point, however, is never to have to fight.

The summit, which also saw the signing of a new accord enhancing co-operation between the EU and Nato, took place against a post-Ukraine background of increasingly bellicose exchanges between Russia and Nato. Although the relationship in the 1990s got to the point of some suggesting that post-cold war Russia, an “ally” might be a potential member, it has distinctly chilled again.

Poland and the Baltic republics, now full Nato members, believe Putin’s ambitions and form suggest invasions are a real possibility. Such are local level of alarm that volunteer militias have been formed in each country to fight invading forces and build a resistance movement post-invasion. The battlegroup deployments are a tangible expression of their fellow members’ understanding of such fears and commitment to their partners.


But whether such fears are real is another matter. Russia may have built up forces in eastern Europe and be engaged in some old-fashioned playground bullying – throwing shapes rather than punches – but its interests would not be served by an actual clash. A military confrontation would be hugely costly, achieve little in terms of territorial gains, and certainly result in a lasting, fundamental breach in important relationships, notably with Germany. It is a most unlikely scenario.

Could it be, however, that Nato might have an institutional bias against underestimating threats, however remote? Justifying its existence with dramatic shows of force like the recent 32,000-strong manoeuvres in eastern Europe – admittedly, smaller than equally provocative Russian manoeuvres involving up to 100,000 troops – may well be counterproductive, raising tensions and making confrontation more likely. German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has rightly described the Nato manoeuvres as “sabre-rattling and warmongering”.

As Theodore Roosevelt observed of the US, Nato should “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Deterrence by all means, but, as the EU should perhaps caution its Nato partner, “cut out the sabre-rattling”.