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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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.


U.S. soldiers leave a C-17 aircraft during a NATO exercise at a Latvian air base last weekend. NATO approved wide-ranging plans on Friday to boost its defenses in eastern Europe. Source: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins


This explains why not all members of the German cabinet agree with Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who warned in Die Zeit that NATO would be “dead” if it didn’t support the Baltic states militarily in the event of an attack. German Chancellor Angela Merkel promises that Germany will “do its part to fulfill the understandable and justified need for protection of the population in the Baltic States.”

But running an actual tripwire along the NATO-Russian border, which would rule out diplomacy and trigger immediate tank movements, would probably be going too far for Ms. Merkel. And at what point would the infiltration of “men in green,” that is, soldiers without insignia on the uniforms, as occurred in Crimea and is now occurring in eastern Ukraine, constitute an armed attack within the meaning of Article 5?

Germany is still hesitant in the way it describes the situation in eastern Ukraine, cautiously calling it an “intervention.” But other NATO governments have used more drastic language and have been calling it a “war” for weeks.

Have the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine merely offered NATO a taste of Russian neo-expansionism? Or will Putin the Conqueror be satisfied with what he has achieved so far?

Its experiences in the Cold War taught the alliance how to deter an attack on its territory. And in faraway Afghanistan, its military leaders learned how to cope with irregular combatants as adversaries. But an irregular attack on neighboring territory is a completely new phenomenon for NATO, and it is uncertain over how it should respond.

It was once considered self-evident that Germany would defend security in the Hindu Kush region. But the notion that the same argument could apply to Europe’s security and the Dnieper region – which perhaps poses an even greater threat – is far from becoming doctrine.

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NATO leaders at a recent summit in Wales view a military air demonstration. Whether they are prepared to use such planes against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces in eastern Europe is unclear. Source: AFP


NATO must “shake off the blinders of the old world,” wrote U.S. Admiral James

Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe until a year ago. According to Mr. Stavridis, a partnership with Russia no longer exists, and NATO is obligated to oppose an aggressor in Europe, not just by aiding the Ukrainian army but also with “aggressive” military exercises.

Two of the most vocal European advocates for what they call a new realism concerning Russia are Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and his wife, Anne Applebaum. In her column in the Washington Post last weekend, Ms. Applebaum, an influential journalist, reminded readers that no one in Poland had anticipated a “total war” in the summer of 1939, shortly before the German invasion.

Perhaps, she wrote, it is equally naïve to rule the same possibility today. What is needed, Ms. Applebaum continued, is a clear message to all those NATO countries that spend less than one percent of their GDP on the military.

There are also growing voices in the West to remind us of the value of the tactical nuclear weapons that are still stockpiled in Europe. But while the debate seems eerie, it began in Russia.

In 2009, one of the Russian army’s regular Zapad, or western exercises along the border with NATO ended with a simulated nuclear attack on Warsaw. A few weeks ago, eccentric nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky appeared on Russian television and said ominously that Poland and the Baltic states are “condemned,” that they would be “extinguished” in the event of a war with Russia, and that “nothing would be left” of these “dwarf countries.”

In commenting on the diatribe, Mr. Putin said that while Zhirinovsky does not speak on behalf of the government, he is good at “keeping a party going.”

The fact is that Russia is putting a lot of money and effort into modernizing its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. According to the U.S. government, the roughly 180 B61 nuclear bombs still that are still based in five European countries, including Germany, have also needed updating for some time.

The German government traditionally takes a duplicitous approach to its so-called nuclear sharing. Depending on the situation, its foreign minister, be it Guido Westerwelle or Frank-Walter Steinmeier, calls for a withdrawal of the weapons from German soil – or they agree with NATO communiqués stating that nuclear weapons remain “a core component of the NATO deterrence and defense capability.”

Mr. Steinmeier and Ms. Merkel will probably continue with this approach. In times of crisis, some things are better left unsaid.

This also applies to the second mutual defense clause, Article 42 of the EU Treaty, which would apply in the event of an attack on the Baltic countries. It states that E.U. countries “owe” a country that has been attacked “all the assistance and support in their power.” In other words, the European Union, unlike NATO, is not stopping at mere statements of solidarity.

This article first appeared in Die Zeit. It was translated by Christopher Sultan.

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