Warsaw decisions: Is one battalion enough?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Warsaw

The Lithuanian president underscored that Lithuania got everything it hoped for at the Warsaw summit. The soothing tone is in sharp contrast to the apocalyptic moods that had prevailed for two years since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. So what exactly did we get?

Among other decisions, the Warsaw summit endorsed concrete commitments to secure NATO’s eastern flank. Although many of the decisions had been made at the Wales summit two years previously, the latest summit extended the Alliance’s commitments and endorsed tangible measures.

NATO countries have committed to deploy, on rotation, a battalion-sized combat group (about 1,000 soldiers) in each of the Baltic states and Poland. The core of the groups will be German soldiers in Lithuania, Canadians in Latvia, British troops in Estonia and Americans in Poland.

France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Norway will also contribute to the international battalion in Lithuania.

Moreover, the United States will deploy an additional brigade-sized force to Poland under a bilateral agreement. These decisions at the NATO summit should silence the sceptics who claim that NATO would not defend the Baltic states and would not send their forces to these countries. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said that these steps send a clear message: if any of its members is attacked, the Alliance will respond in a united fashion.

However, there are still lingering doubts in Lithuania whether NATO’s commitments are sufficient. Some fear that the Baltic states cannot be defended in case of an attack. Indeed, there remains a huge gap between Russian and NATO forces in the region.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been seeing a potential partner in Russia, not an enemy, therefore it put little effort into military measures to strengthen its eastern borders.

Meanwhile Russian forces that were recalled from the Warsaw Pact countries ended up at Russia’s western regions. In 2009, Russia started reforming its massive but hitherto weak military and has further widened the gap. The Western Military District, set up in 2010, has been strengthened. Last spring, Russian officials said that two new divisions will be deployed to beef up the western flank. Russia regularly organizes snap war games directed against NATO countries near its western borders, deploying significantly more troops and military equipment than NATO’s exercises in the region.

Let’s recall that the Kavkaz-2008 exercise in 2008 concluded with military action in Georgia. The defensibility of the Baltic states is further complicated by the current A2AD “bubble” – the Baltic air space is covered by Russia’s defence systems. US Army Europe commander Lieutenant General Ben Hodges claims that, currently, Russia can reach some 90% of targets in the Baltic and Black Seas. With this in mind, four NATO battalions and a US brigade do not sound like much. A report by three generals published by an Estonian think tank insists that each of the Baltic states should have at least one NATO brigade (3,000-5,000 soldiers).

On the other hand, the Baltic states and Poland have relatively modern militaries of their own that would back NATO forces in the event of an attack. Other instruments will, too, support the forces endorsed by the Warsaw summit, like the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (of up to 5,000 soldiers) created after the Wales Summit. Therefore a battalion could be considerable force and the Baltic defensibility would depend very much on particular scenarios on the ground.

One of the most dangerous potential scenarios discussed by security experts involves Russia’s attempts to de-escalate the stand-off with a nuclear threat. In this scenario, deterrence and dialogue with Russia are crucial. Deterrence is a psychological strategy aimed at influencing the opponent’s behaviour. Therefore the final result of deterrence measures depends on argumentation behind the opponent’s decision-making.

Would Vladimir Putin think military measures endorsed in Warsaw sufficient or not? In Warsaw, the most consequential were political decisions, in the context of which a battalion for each of the Baltic states and Poland is a considerable measure. For the first time since joining NATO, the Baltic states have received reassurance (in terms of size and duration) of this extent.

Political challenges, diverging assessments of threats and outlooks over Russia notwithstanding, NATO projected unity in Warsaw. The Kremlin was unambiguously told that NATO borders were untouchable. Unity is the essential weapon that the West holds against the Kremlin and Putin has so far failed to fracture the North Atlantic Alliance.

However, this unity remains fragile, therefore among the key objectives of the Baltic states and Poland should be preserving it as an essential guarantee of their security.

In this sense, Germany’s commitments in Warsaw are of particular importance. Germans will make up the core of the NATO battalion to be deployed in Lithuania. The commitment is a long-term one and one that Germany has not made lightly for two reasons.

First, Germany has many business ties with Russia, its political elite is very divided on the Russian question, many would like to resume ties with Russia. Second, Germany adopted an exclusively pacifist strategic culture after World War Two, while its society does not support military measures for resolving crises.

For their allies, it was tough to convince the Germans to join NATO operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Therefore Germany’s commitments in Warsaw are particularly valuable. The fact that Germany is an important country for Putin, with Angela Merkel one of the few Western leaders with whom he agrees to talk, attaches even more weight to the German battalion in Lithuania.

Deterrence measures endorsed in Warsaw open the gate for the next step: renewing dialogue with Moscow at the NATO-Russia Council. Last week, there was an ambassadorial-level meeting with Russian officials at NATO’s headquarters. This might make Lithuania and other Baltic states suspicious and wonder if this is not a normalization of relations with Russia.

Why is the dialogue important? Its main goal is to minimize the chance of misunderstanding and sudden escalation. The dialogue is particularly important in preventing the nuclear scenario from playing out. Some countries say that, in addition to that, important issues of international security simply cannot be addressed without Russia.

Which is why Lithuania should support the NATO-Russia dialogue for two reasons. First, it reduces the likelihood of the most negative scenarios and, second, maintains unity in the North Atlantic Alliance.

However, dialogue is a two-way street, therefore its success or failure will depend on Russia’s good will, too. Unfortunately, due to domestic problems, it does not seem like an efficient dialogue with NATO is something that Putin wants right now.


Dr. Margarita Šešelgytė is deputy director of Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science

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