Fringe Friction

In Eastern Europe, NATO Sees New Borders, Old Adversary

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have forced NATO to rethink its approach and scrutinize the alliance’s mutual defense clause.

  • Facts


    • Under the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, NATO pledged not to deploy troops to Eastern Europe.
    • The 13,000-member NATO Response Force is designed for deployment to Eastern Europe in a worst-case scenario.
    • A 2009 Russian military exercise along the border with NATO ended with a simulated nuclear attack on Warsaw.
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ukraine2 ap
A Ukrainian army soldier atop a tank in the port city of Mariupol, southeastern Ukraine. NATO members in eastern Europe are worried about a potential Russian attack. Source: AP/Sergei Grits


Diplomats had initially hoped that last week’s NATO summit in Wales would be one of the most boring meetings in the 65-year history of the defense alliance. They envisioned spending two days at the Celtic Manor golf resort, where they would mark the end of combat operations in Afghanistan and have a chance to relax.

But now, in light of Russian aggression, the leaders of the 28 NATO member states are forced to embark on a sea change. What makes every action taken by NATO so risky at the moment is that the organization hasn’t developed a feeling for the Kremlin’s new ethnic ideology yet, known as “Novorossiyanism.” It has to learn to understand the ideology, while simultaneously reacting to it, both politically and militarily.

The German government is particularly worried that the hardliners surrounding President Vladimir Putin, or even Mr. Putin himself, are merely waiting for an overreaction. Moscow could use any chest-thumping by NATO as an excuse to “protect” ethnic Russians throughout Eastern Europe – including the Baltic states, the three former Soviet republics that only joined NATO in 2004.

The Eastern Europeans are appeasing without provoking the Kremlin, a complex goal for which an elaborate, last-minute proposal was conceived at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Under the plan, NATO would not permanently shift troops to Eastern Europe. In other words, it would not violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, which is precisely what NATO promised Moscow.

Instead, structures are being created so that troops can be quickly deployed eastward. Under the alliance’s Readiness Action Plan, new multinational NATO bases would be opened in Poland, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, some in existing barracks. Some 300 to 600 soldiers, working in logistics, operations planning and reconnaissance, would be stationed at each base.

In a worst-case scenario, the alliance could deploy its NATO Response Force, which consists of 13,000 troops provided by various member states on a rotating basis. According to outgoing NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the intention beyond all of these efforts to let “any potential aggressor know that if they even started to think about attacking a NATO ally, they would meet not only national troops from that specific NATO ally – but they would meet NATO troops.”

What the Danish politician and the Americans are advertising is based, at least from Germany’s perspective, on an unpleasantly harsh interpretation of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, the alliance’s underlying mutual assistance clause. Contrary to the general assumption, the obligation to intervene militarily does not automatically follow from this clause.

The article reads, verbatim, that each contracting party will take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” In other words, each government has some latitude to decide how it wishes to respond. In theory, such responses can range from a comforting phone call to the use of nuclear weapons.


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