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Russia, IS and the Future of NATO

25 Dec 2015
By Dr Stephan Frühling
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other members of NATO Ministers of Defense and of Foreign Affairs meet at NATO headquarters. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons.

The years 2014-15 were a watershed for European security. The hope that NATO could enjoy a strategic pause and peace dividend after the end of its operation in Afghanistan has been dashed, as direct threats to the alliance have emerged at the Eastern and Southern flanks. 

Whether NATO manages to find an effective response to this situation will have important repercussions for the long-term value of Australia’s partnership with NATO, for the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and for US global leadership.

At the Wales Summit in September 2014, NATO allies re-focused the alliance on collective defence and decided on a range of adaptation and reassurance measures, including the creation of new headquarters elements, more exercises and presence in Eastern Europe and a reform of the NATO Response Force (NRF). But not all allies were wholeheartedly behind this shift, and in the time since the rise of the IS and the Syrian refugee crisis have become the dominant concern of the members on NATO’s southern flank.

While both Russia and IS pose grave threats to the Alliance, many senior policymakers in NATO today are concerned that a split between NATO’s southern and eastern flanks is, in fact, the main danger facing the Alliance.

Russia’s intervention in Syria now links the strategic challenges on the Eastern and Southern flanks of NATO in ways that will only accentuate the different views of various allies on future relations with that country. Some NATO Allies are scrambling to respond to a newly acute sense of vulnerability to terror attacks linked with the ongoing war in Syria, while others are pushing hard to maintain and expand the Alliance’s core focus on deterring Russia from threatening actions in the Baltic or Black Sea regions.

On both sides of this divide, some allies suggest that NATO faces a zero sum choice – between holding the line against Russian aggression in the post-Soviet space and facilitating an effective “grand coalition” with Moscow against IS and terrorism in Syria, Iraq and beyond. If this persists, NATO will face great difficulty in displaying political unity at its upcoming Summit in Warsaw in July 2016 – let alone in developing a coherent response to the new challenges to Euro-Atlantic security.

Any discussion of NATO’s priorities that begins from a zero sum premise is likely to set the Alliance up for failure in deterring Russia, combatting terrorism, or even both. Simply put, NATO is strong only when it is united, and to sacrifice security priorities for some members in favour of those preferred by others practically guarantees the Alliance will be divided. Collective defence of the allies remains the bedrock of the alliance, but this does not mean it can eschew working with partners around the globe—including Russia—to reduce common dangers.

The critical question for NATO members is therefore whether and where common ground can be found between apparently competing security priorities and whether decisive collective action within this space will be adequate both to address threats, as Alliance members perceive them, and to strengthen the Alliance as a whole.

NATO’s 2014 Summit in Wales was thus only a first step to providing a coherent response to the challenge NATO faces from Russia. The defence investment pledge of the Wales summit is essential and needs to be re-confirmed as a central element of Alliance solidarity, exactly because many European allies find it difficult to reverse or even just to halt declining defence budgets in what remain economically challenging times.

Moreover, the development of NATO policy and institutions  in recent years has often been reactive and focused on symbolism rather than driven by a clear strategy – including the creation of tactical instruments such as the NATO Response Force, the new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force; the development of “demand-driven” partnerships; the quest for savings in the command structure; or the focus on “hybrid” conflicts as a reaction to events in Ukraine as well as the Southern flank. What is less apparent from all this is whether the whole is really greater than, even equal to, the sum of its parts.

In particular, NATO has so far not clearly articulated the link between collective defence and deterrence, to the more proactive collective security and capacity building measures that underpin NATO members’ operations against IS and NATO’s partnership policy. Nor is there a clear strategic concept that articulates how NATO would manage and control escalation of a conflict, from countering hybrid threats to conventional operations to nuclear capabilities.

Clearer articulation of NATO strategy in both regards could help bridge difficult political differences within the alliance about priorities and threats. It would also likely draw attention to the need to be able to operate from and within Alliance territory; to NATO’s nuclear posture and capabilities; and the value of NATO’s partnerships even for collective defence as important elements in NATO adaptation. Within the alliance, developing a coherent strategy will require concerted transatlantic leadership, even as the Obama administration’s attention continues to be diverted to the Middle East and East Asia.

A prerequisite to a sound NATO strategy must be a coherent approach by NATO to relations with Russia. Within NATO, it is entirely natural that individual Alliance members will have differing perceptions about Russia based on factors such as geography, bilateral ties and history. NATO needs to be able to defend itself against Russia at the same time as it needs to engage Russia. Deterrence and détente should be mutually reinforcing, by increasing the cost of a breakdown of relationships and increasing mutual understanding, rather than be seen as opposites.

In that sense, resuming meetings of the NATO-Russia Council will be an opportune step that should not imply a weakening of NATO’s pledge to the common defence, nor negate that Russia and NATO have a fundamental disagreement about the shape of global and regional order.  Russia remains an inherent and central factor in Euro-Atlantic security, however, and engagement of Russia must complement NATO’s renewed efforts at collective defence.

NATO leaders have their work cut out, and the Warsaw Summit promises to be just as challenging – and important – as the last.

Dr Stephan Frühling is a Senior Lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University. Matthew Rojansky is Director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington DC. This post was written while they both worked as Research Fellows in the Research Division of the NATO Defense College in Rome, and contains the personal views of the authors. This article may be republished under a Creative Commons License.