Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which is approaching its second grim anniversary, has focused the minds of both Nato members and traditionally neutral countries.
On the Nato side, members are worried that should a shooting war break out with Russia, the large and unwieldy alliance would not be able to defend Europe in a coherent manner, fears that have been exacerbated by the presence of pro-Moscow leaders in Hungary and Slovakia.
For neutrals like Ireland, the chief concern is so-called hybrid threats; offensive action which falls below military aggression and is often hard to detect, much less attribute.
Recent events have shown neutrality offers little defence to such threats. There have been examples of this all over the EU, from Russian warships posturing off the west coast of Ireland to Russian espionage operations in Helsinki.
These concerns were top of the agenda during the 2022 Nato summit in Madrid. Then taoiseach Micheál Martin attended a dinner on the margins of the event, generating a few days of controversy back home.
Much of the focus of the summit was on devising a new programme which would reinvigorate the Partnership for Peace (PFP) programme, an initiative devised after the end of the cold war partly as a kind of halfway house for former Soviet countries seeking Nato membership.
The solution was the Individual Tailored Partnership Programme or ITPP, a streamlined programme which would replace all the previous complex and overlapping partnership agreements and allow non-Nato countries to co-operate with the alliance on areas where they felt they were lacking.
This could be maritime security, special forces, air policing or any number of other areas. The underlying idea is that the programmes can be tailor-made to each individual partner nation while not requiring any of the common defence commitments expected by fully paid-up Nato members.
Ireland entered into its ITPP agreement with Nato at the start of 2024. Government officials see it as a continuation of previous Nato arrangements, but one which is more streamlined and efficient.
The agreement will give Ireland better access to Nato intelligence and allow it to set more focused goals. Many of these have been shaped by recent events, such as threats to undersea cables, the rising risk of election inference and the risk of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure.
In simple terms, Ireland will devise a goal – for example improving surveillance of undersea cables – and use Nato expertise and advice to achieve it. At the end, Nato assessors will decide if they’ve been successful.
The ITPP will also improve Ireland’s ability to work with Nato militaries overseas during peacekeeping missions. This is seen as critical as Ireland moves away from the triple-lock system of requiring UN approval for foreign deployments.
In future, the Defence Forces are more likely to be deployed in peacekeeping missions under an EU or Nato banner, meaning interoperability will be crucial.
The Government will be keen to point out the ITPP is not a step towards full Nato membership. “Participation in the ITPP does not signal an intent to join Nato but rather to enhance our engagement in areas of co-operation of clear interest to Ireland,” a Department of Defence spokesman said, pointing out that Europe’s other traditional neutrals, Switzerland, Malta and Austria, have already signed up to their own agreements.
Military sources also welcomed the move. Ireland has formally co-operated with Nato since joining PFP in 1999 but has, due to political considerations, never fully exploited the partnership.
Nato officials in Brussels will also be happy. The alliance benefits just as much from these arrangements as partner nations, as they offer valuable insights into non-members’ defence and security abilities, should they ever be required.