Flawed Containment: NATO’s Strategy to Contain Russia

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is one of the bedrocks of peace and security throughout the world, bringing together some of the most powerful countries to provide collective security against outside threats. NATO in the post-Cold War world provides peacekeeping missions across the world in conflict zones, and has played prominent roles in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya.  In 2014, faced with the invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia, NATO leaders met in Wales to adopt a major strategic plan called the Readiness Action Plan (RAP), a broad and sweeping reassurance measure in the face of Russian aggression. The Wales declaration is the modern day equivalent of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech in 1946, as Europe responds to Russian aggression in its Eurasian sphere of influence. The strategic plan reflects a NATO attempting to move into the 21st century, ready to face an aggressive and resurgent Russia. Instead, it represents a “torn curtain,” one built by a flawed consensus of regional and international security goals, based in expansionary policies from Washington, that leave us unprepared for today’s national security challenges.

The Readiness Action Plan (RAP) receives very little attention, despite the greatest redeployment of troops to Eastern Europe since the 1980s over the last two years. To the point, the RAP is NATO’s official policy of organizing collective security towards protection of its Member States in Eastern and Central Europe. Affirmed in its latest iteration at the Wales Summit in 2014, its series of reassurance and security adaptation measures are meant to inspire confidence in members who feel threatened by Russian aggression, and lay the groundwork for robust crisis response. It deployed ground and maritime forces to the Baltic region and Poland, expanding the NATO Reaction Force (NRF), and promulgated the largest airborne training exercises in Europe since the Cold War. While creating broad objectives for the alliance, the RAP also lays out a strategic framework to build out the alliance’s military capabilities in the region. In expanding the NRF, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VRJTF), was created to respond quickly and effectively to the unrest and destabilizing conflict in alliance member states in advance of the NRF or larger member forces. The NRF and VRJTF are coordinated through six regional offices, spread throughout Eastern and Central Europe, and report directly to a join command center in Poland, under The Supreme Commander of NATO Forces (SAUCER).

The RAP’s goals and objectives are built to address the Eastern Flank, the stretch of territory that Russia and its former Soviet republic’s border with NATO states, such as the Estonia and Poland. While tensions in Eastern Europe simmer, the alliance’s strategic plan is overly focusedd on conventional warfare on one flank of the continent, rather than attempting to fight broad, non-conventional challenges to the continent’s security. Looking at the strategic landscape, the ISIS-inspired terrorist campaign, and growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are more dangerous to international security than corruption in Kiev. While not discounting the Russian challenge to the diplomatic principles behind state sovereignty, Washington’s leadership over NATO has left it hyperfocused on Russia at a time when it should be increasingly concerned with Europe’s Southern Flank in the Eastern Mediterranean. Finally, the document does not address the need for stronger strategic partnerships with the European Union, or the funding problems involved in carrying it out.

Russia’s Expanding Footprint

The 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, and subsequent destabilization of eastern Ukraine shifted Russo-Western relations back to pre-1991.  Drawing from lessons in the Kosovo and South Ossetia interventions, Putin acted to counter the collapse of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine by destabilizing the forming pro-EU government, through funding local pro-Russian groups in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine and Crimea.  The subsequent annexation of Crimea has helped inspire Russian-backed separatists to vie for independence from Kiev in favor of a closer relationship with Moscow, if not out-right union. However, Russia’s ability to influence world affairs is limited to Eurasia, and its economic influence is still limited, if not still in decline. The reality though is Russia commands autonomy within its sphere, and the limits of NATO expansion and military containment, reaching its height under George W. Bush, was evident in Georgia, and made futile in Ukraine.

While many US policymakers see Russian intervention in Syria and the Middle East as a second Afghanistan, doing so is to misunderstand Vladimir Putin. In Steven Lee Myer’s biography of the Russian leader, Putin is known to respond to violent crisis with swift and overwhelming power, similar to the US Powell Doctrine practices in the First Gulf War. The Second Chechen War is a prime example where Putin used his full military resources to destroy and police the region for nearly a decade, restoring relative peace with only a low level insurgency left behind in 2010. If Chechnya is the model for Syria, then we should continue to expect Russia’s Syrian venture to use the full force of the Kremlin’s arsenal. Since the October Intervention, Russia has bolstered the morale of Bashir Al-Assad’s regime by striking at those rebel groups most directly threatening the regime’s strongholds and Russian facilities along the coast.  Russian intervention complicates a crisis where NATO action would threaten a proxy war should it arm the rebels groups looking to overthrow Assad.

Why The Hole Gets Bigger

NATO’s strategy to focusing on its vulnerable Eastern Flank is the product of NATO expansion policies peddled by policymakers since 1991, which itself has provoked limited, but flexible Russian aggression. Rather than limit his ability to act, sanctions and Western condemnation have not deterred Putin from flexing political and military muscle in his backyard, and opening a front in the Middle East. The situation on the Southern Flank of Europe is complicated by the messy politics of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, the Syrian civil war, and Russia’s intervention, hardly reflective of the kind of conflict expected by the alliance’s strategic planners. While a maritime presence has been contributed by Great Britain, the report focuses nearly all of its resources in regional command posts across Eastern Europe. While the US attention has split focus to the Far East and Middle East, NATO leaders are forced to rely on France to focus attention in the region. While France is a reliable partner in the region, Washington should be calling to close the hole, and rethink its leadership of NATO on an expanding Russian footprint.

What does this mean for a US policy towards NATO’s Eastern Flank? Embroiling the alliance in the shifting sands of post-Arab Spring politics would insert Europe into a political conflict affirming the very propaganda campaign of Islamists and ISIS. With Russia grabbing the Iranians into their orbit, even just on tacit geopolitical interest, then Putin would break what Washington has attempted to achieve: integration of Eurasia into the broader European-Atlantic security complex. That policy has failed, and to continue it with sharp focus on Eastern Europe is to continue provoking Russian response on a core value of Putin’s foreign policy strategy: keep Ukraine pro-Russia or neutralized and avoid NATO encirclement at all costs (the recent accession negotiations with Montenegro into NATO was a minor sting to Moscow, which has always seen itself as a protector of Slav majority states). The alliance would have to significantly increase its military forces in the region. Current negotiations by France and Germany present a more positive direction for peace in the region than attempting further alliance expansion.

Furthermore, while RAP and member states promise to reinvent the alliance for the 21st century, they face a strong challenge to fund the initiatives and the forces needed to carry them out. Since the Cold War ended, the proclaimed democratic peace dividends that accompanied disarming the conventional forces to fund social programs has left the alliance unable to fight the Russian conventional forces in their own backyard. In his speech at Brussels, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized the Europeans for not contributing their fair share to the NATO defense budget. Funded instead by American taxpayers, it leaves a deadweight, not just in American deficit spending, but in the commitment of members to their own defense. According to the Congressional Research Service report, US taxpayers foot 25% of the bill ($755.7 million), though Gates points out this funding does not include personnel and logistics support provided in NATO missions.

Broadening the Strategy

At the next conference, President Obama should lead European leaders by emphasizing the RAP’s shared security mandate to the Mediterranean, where both emerging democracies, and more failing states threaten the delicate balance of peace and security. In the absence of strong leadership in the region, it becomes more susceptible to gravitate away from Europe towards Russia or Islamist groups waiting to take power, especially in Libya. NATO had an opportunity build on nearly two decades of policy leadership on Mediterranean policy when it intervened in Libya, but instead left the country to be divided by rebel groups after the Gaddafi regime was destroyed. NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue provides the foundation for stronger cooperation in the context of a broader RAP that would, but still does not, bring more emphasis to the Southern Flank. Europe needs to take responsibility for its maritime backyard, and Washington is not doing a good job about promoting that behavior. Only France shows interest in working in conflict zones abroad.
Ultimately, shifting back to default policy options is ceding ground to Russia to both 1) turn the Middle East into Moscow’s backyard, and 2) continue to allow Islamists free reign to destabilize North Africa. Not only should we be creating regional commands under NATO in Cyprus and Malta, just like Eastern Europe, we should be backing strong anti-terrorism and refugee language that expands NATO beyond conventional and semi-conventional actions to address non-conventional and socio-political challenges to Atlantic security. Russia is not the only major security challenge to Europe, and neither Washington nor Brussels can have their agenda dominated by the Baltic States and Poland. Finally, Washington needs to show leadership on the EU-NATO Security Treaty, working with Europe to update its Berlin-Plus Arrangement to incorporate stronger security cooperation on migration, especially on the Schengen Agreements.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. tonyreid1993 says:

    This article is very enlightening. I think you are right to point out that the RAP has pushed American-Russo relations back to the Cold War era. The Obama administration has shown its strength in standing off Putin after the annexation of Crimea, all the while, he increased the dangers of armed hostilities between two nuclear powers. You know its quite interesting, Ivan Berend, professor of economic history at Cambridge, wrote extensively about the post war era. He explained that in Potsdam that it was agreed that Stalin would be allowed to develop a Russian style Monroe doctrine. Stalin wanted to develop east and central Europe into a pro-russian “security zone.” Fast forward to the current era, the era of globalized terrorism, the US makes up 50% of global military spending, and it makes up 70% of global advance warfare technology spending, and the US has 800 military bases around the world. If we accept the theory of “security dilemma,’ then Russia and China truly are in midst of a serious security dilemma imposed by the USA. Furthermore, back in 2009, the Obama Administration made clear that extending the missile defense system to Poland and the Czech Republic was “not of the table.” To move missile defense systems to Poland and Czech would not be too dissimilar from placing missile systems in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a near catastrophe for mankind.


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