Opinion: In Wales, NATO will have to decide what it is

Antano Gedrimo nuotr.

NATO has found itself in an illusion of security, lacking any unifying ideas and challenges. However, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, the tedious agenda was transformed very quickly. The already forgotten fear of war in Europe has resurged once more. Moreover, it seemed that security problems had been solved, but they have reappeared again. The official sources of NATO say that several topics will dominate the summit’s agenda: strengthening collective defence, increasing military spending, relationship with Ukraine and Russia, NATO’s open door policy, and the role of NATO in Afghanistan. Diverging positions held by NATO members promise some heated debate. What are we to expect from the NATO summit in Wales?

The actions of Russia have completely changed the security landscape and it certainly demands a revision in NATO’s security and foreign policy. The Russian aggression has shown that NATO is not prepared or does not have political will to respond to similar threats and has revealed NATO’s vulnerabilities ignored by its members for far too long.

Moreover, the aggression of Russia has revealed that NATO lacks solidarity and positions of the member states regarding Russia’s actions are too diverging. NATO members do not meet their obligations on defence spending and it means that NATO troops in Western Europe may not ensure the safety of the eastern members. What is more, NATO does not have a plan of actions to respond to aggression against partner states, and there is no secure position of NATO expansion. Moreover, NATO’s strategy is too general to ensure that the Alliance functions effectively.

The meeting in Wales can become the starting point of discussions about revising and adjusting NATO’s strategic concept in view of current challenges. In 2010, NATO’s strategic concept, which had been intensively debated for a long time, was designed in the way to meet interests of all NATO members, which is why the role of NATO has become so difficult to define. It remained unclear what role NATO should play. To become a “global policeman” (what the mission against piracy in Libya would prove)? Maintaining the traditional function and act as a guarantor of security of North Atlantic countries (as it is certified in the Washington Treaty and what eastern NATO states support)? Or maybe NATO could have become a forum for discussions with some military obligations?

It is likely that, against the background of collective defence and military spending issues, an important topic to discuss will be the setting up of NATO military bases in the Baltic States or Poland. The Russian aggression has shown that it is necessary to strengthen the Alliance’s eastern wing, for there are no NATO military bases in the countries that joined after 1999 – and these states are likely to be the first victims of aggression. At this point there is a clear division between the positions of the Baltic States, Poland, and the United States on the one hand and Germany, France and the southern countries on the other. Germany and France are firmly against establishing permanent military east of Germany, arguing that it is necessary not to antagonize Russia. As foreign analysts have pointed out, NATO states can be divided into first-tier members (countries that are provided with an adequate level of security through NATO military bases) and second-tier members (countries without the bases).

The issue is politically sensitive, so intense discussions are expected, and it is difficult to predict the outcomes. However, there is high probability that the decision will be not to establish any permanent bases, but rather to intensify regular military training and in that way ensure long-term NATO military presence in the Baltic States and Poland. Whatever decision is made, however, it will lead to a revision of the defence plans and strengthening of the defensive forces.

The unavoidable question for NATO concerns the relationship with its associates, especially with Georgia. Georgia has been trying to join NATO for ten years now, has been consistently collaborating with the Alliance, participating in missions in hope of being given a membership action plan. Refusal to give this action plan during the NATO summit in April 2008, in order to avoid provoking Russia, created a pause and an opportunity that Russia seized readily. The Russian-Georgian war and annexation of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia prevented Georgia from ever becoming a NATO member. Membership action plan is now out of reach for Georgia, yet at the same time we need a new form of collaboration – that might doubtlessly be a matter to discuss in Wales. In this context, discussions concerning prospects of collaboration with Ukraine are also probable, however, it seems likely that the members of NATO will not be to eager to consider collaboration before military actions in Eastern Ukraine are over.

The Wales summit will also force NATO to reconsider its relationship with Russia. It is this question that divides NATO members most, issues like Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and possibilities of talks. One might perceive a fairly deep divide between those NATO members that advocate for stricter position regarding Russia and those preaching moderation. Even though collaboration between NATO and Russia has been suspended, Russia remains an important actor in solving problems like Iran’s nuclear programme, Syria and intensifying threat of terrorism in the Middle East, especially after the Islamic State has made sweeping advances in Iraq and Syria. Russia’s role in the battle against the terrorist organization would be significant, as a number of fighters come from Northern Caucasus. These problems make it complicated to adopt resolute decisions concerning the collaboration of NATO and Russia, as well as limit the possibility for stronger response to the Ukraine crisis.

The Wales summit will be particularly intense not only because of some many items on the agenda and their complexity, but also because of disparity of positions among NATO members that will be very difficult to coordinate. Internal conflicts in the alliance prevent us from expecting significant solutions in Wales. The situation is even more aggravated by rapidly changing circumstances in Ukraine and self-doubts that the United States is struggling with, unable to decide what its role in the world and in the Alliance should be. That is why the question “Quo vadis NATO?” will probably be left without an answer after the NATO Summit in Wales.

Dr. Gerda Jakštaitė and Dr. Giedrius Česnakas are lecturers at the Faculty of Political Science and Diplomacy of Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas.

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