At a recent meeting of NATO defense ministers, it was announced that the allies are advancing with plans to deploy thousands of troops and military equipment in the Baltics and Poland. At the July 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States each committed to lead a multinational battalion in the eastern part of the alliance. NATO defense ministers, following talks in Brussels on October 26–27, have been firming up the details of contributions to be stationed in vulnerable member states. Several allied states confirmed contributions to the battalions led by the four leading states. Thus, Albania, Italy, Poland, and Slovenia will contribute troops and equipment to the Canadian-led battalion in Latvia. Belgium, Croatia, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Norway will join the German-led battalion in Lithuania. Denmark and France will contribute to the UK-led battalion in Estonia. Romania and the United Kingdom will join the US-led battalion in Poland.
This decision, seen as a key step in the implementation of the Warsaw Summit commitments, has been hailed by the NATO Secretary General as a transatlantic demonstration of rock-solid support for our allies. Though the actual number of troops involved is very small, the multinational composition of these troops is designed to send a clear message both to the allied publics and to Russia: NATO stands as one. An attack on any ally will be considered an attack on us all.
For Ottawa, this means that Canadian troops will benefit from the — symbolic, as much as material support — of several allies when they deploy in Latvia in 2017. As Canada takes a leadership role as a NATO framework nation, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan declared, “I look forward to working with our partners from Latvia, Albania, Italy, Poland, and Slovenia as we stand together to enhance our collective security.”
Stoltenberg’s statements come shortly after American Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the US will boost its presence in Europe with a brigade — involving some 1500–3000 troops — being deployed to Poland in February, among other contributions. The brigade will take part in military exercises there and send units from the force to Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic States.
The decision to move ahead with the implementation of the Warsaw plan comes as the alliance is increasingly concerned about what it regards as a belligerent and unpredictable Russia. Recently, Russia has moved battleships toward the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas, placed nuclear-capable missile-launchers into its Kaliningrad enclave neighbouring Poland, and continued flying bombers down the western European coast.
After a slow start, NATO is now keen to send a robust message of unity and strength. In particular, NATO is seeking to signal to Moscow that it is prepared to defend the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
This, however, is not to say that Europe is on the brink of an imminent East–West conflict. Contrary to apocalyptic statements by Donald Trump, the world is not gearing up for World War III. Despite the persisting animosities and Cold-War–like rhetoric, there is little prospect of Russian tanks rolling across the border into the Baltic states in the near future. It is hard to believe that Vladimir Putin would imagine that Russia — or his regime — would benefit from a direct attack on a NATO member state.
The danger now is not from an open, planned military conflict. Yet, the West cannot afford to be complacent. In a context of mutual suspicion, unprecedented levels of post-Cold War mistrust between Russia and the West, Russian troops engaging in snap exercises and jets routinely buzzing alliance planes and ships, the greater danger is from an accident or collision. It is for this reason that NATO allies must continue to work on improving communication with Moscow — no matter how frustrating that might be. The fact that there is still little dialogue between Moscow and NATO, within either the NATO–Russia Council (the main forum for airing disagreements) or elsewhere, is worrisome.
At the same time, the Allies will need to work hard to maintain their unity in dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the coming years. For all the statements of solidarity issued at the Warsaw Summit and the recent meeting of allied defense ministers, this is not going to be straightforward. Indeed, the allies often do not seem to share a common vision of what Russia is trying to achieve or how to respond to its actions. Revealingly, on October 26 Spain came under NATO pressure for offering to resupply a flotilla of three Russian warships suspected to be bound for the eastern Mediterranean to help ramp up Russian and Syrian regime airstrikes. Russia quickly withdrew its application to dock for refuelling when Spain’s partners in NATO urged Madrid to turn away the vessels. “We’d be extremely concerned that any NATO member should consider assisting a Russian carrier group that might end up bombing Syrian civilians,” Britain’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, told reporters.
The Spanish incident was rapidly resolved, but there is a significant risk that more disagreements among the allies may surface in the coming months. Electoral politics in both France and Germany in 2017, negotiations concerning Britain’s terms of withdrawal from the EU, and a growing focus on the risks posed by returning foreign fighters as the so-called Islamic State collapses are all likely to consume much energy and attention in Europe. These challenges will probably also distract from efforts to formulate and maintain a European consensus on Russia, not to mention a transatlantic one. Furthermore, in the unlikely — but not entirely impossible — event of a Trump Presidency in the US, transatlantic solidarity could be severely undermined.
In recent years, Moscow’s unambiguous assertiveness and its bellicose statements have motivated the allies to overcome (or at least work around) their differences, and maintain a reasonably united front vis-à-vis Russia. Yet, that front is likely to become more difficult to sustain from now on.