BACKGROUND: NATO countries have taken measures in the last two years to counter Russian hybrid political-military threats that use cyber-attacks, information operations, economic coercion and other tools for projecting Russia’s power and influence in foreign countries. For example, the alliance has conducted multiple exercises with different hybrid scenarios, including some with levels of aggression above the alliance’s Article 5 threshold for collective defense. These drills have tested national-level procedures, multinational coordination and command structures, and collective mobilization and reinforcement capacities. In their commitment to enhance their collective resilience, the allied governments pledged to invest in preventive measures against hybrid security challenges. Importantly, NATO leaders at Warsaw recognized the need to adapt the alliance so that NATO would remain “credible, flexible, resilient and adaptable” in the face of hybrid and other evolving security threats.
The allies are working with NATO’s non-member national partners to modernize their armed forces through various initiatives. The NATO Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine consolidates the alliance’s funding for defense and security measures as well as political and social reforms to make Ukraine more resilient against Russian subversion. The U.S. alone provides several hundred million dollars in security assistance to fortify Ukraine’s intelligence, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities through training and arms sales.
The summit expanded the partnership between NATO and the EU for addressing “common challenges” such as countering Russian hybrid threats as well as managing transnational terrorism and migration. For instance, the alliance has launched a new Operation Sea Guardian to coordinate efforts with the EU’s Operation Sophia to interdict human trafficking in the eastern Mediterranean. A joint declaration signed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and European Council President Donald Tusk pledged to pool resources for enhanced intelligence, surveillance, resilience, and strategic communication; develop more interoperable and complementary military assets; promote greater defense industrial cooperation; and engage in more joint institutional exercises, particularly regarding cyber defense scenarios.
The declaration stated that greater NATO-EU collaboration aims “to boost our ability to counter hybrid threats, including by bolstering resilience, working together on analysis, prevention and early detection through timely information sharing and, to the extent possible, intelligence sharing between staffs; and cooperating on strategic communication and response. The development of coordinated procedures through our respective playbooks will substantially contribute to implementing our efforts.” NATO also committed to continue building partnerships with other multinational organizations, such as the United Nations, the African Union, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), through various mechanisms: The Transatlantic Capability Enhancement and Training Initiative (TACET), the Partnership Interoperability Initiative, the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI).
IMPLICATIONS: Despite this progress, the security of the non-member governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine remains precarious. In their Warsaw Communique, the allies affirmed their territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty. But unlike the Baltic States, which enjoy NATO collective security commitments, or the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which fall under Moscow’s control, these in-between states lack major multinational security ties. NATO governments have resisted providing them NATO membership or powerful conventional weapons. They have not met Ukraine’s request to join NATO’s Enhanced Opportunities Partners Program. Warsaw marked the first meeting between the Georgian and NATO foreign ministers in a formal session of the NATO-Georgia Commission at a NATO summit. However, the resulting ten-point statement praising Georgia’s troop contributions to NATO’s Afghan mission and reaffirming non-recognition of Moscow’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Substantial NATO-Georgia Package – which funds further training, exercises, and other capability-building – did not represent a major improvement from the status quo.
Viewing Montenegro’s impending membership, the head of the Russian legislature’s defense committee has complained that NATO members were “ready to admit even the North Pole to NATO just for the sake of encircling Russia.” However, whatever might happen in the Balkans, further NATO membership expansion in the former Soviet space is not on NATO’s near-term agenda. West European fears of antagonizing Russia still preclude offers of NATO membership to these countries or even a level of robust defense partnership that would substantially improve their ability to counter a conventional Russian invasion. NATO leaders remain divided over whether providing more lethal military assistance to Georgia and Ukraine will enhance their security by raising the threshold for Russian aggression or degrade their safety by feeding into the Russian threat narrative that Moscow needs a sphere of influence in neighboring states to preemptively exclude NATO encirclement.
For now, the best that can be hoped for is that NATO will continue to fortify these states against Russian hybrid subversion despite the risks, already growing in Georgia, that local leaders or voters will conclude it would be safer to appease Moscow rather than rely on fickle Western backing.
NATO’s Afghan mission remains as troubled as ever. At Warsaw, the allies and partners renewed their plans, subsequent to approval by future NATO governments, to keep more than 10,000 military personnel in the country for several additional years as well as render US$ 4-5 billion of aid annually to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) through 2020. The military campaign has stalemated, with neither the government forces nor the main militant opposition, the Taliban, able to deliver a decisive blow. The ANSF require extensive NATO assistance for current combat operations and still suffer from high rates of desertion.
The new national government has yet to overcome the tensions of the hotly contested presidential elections. Divisions within the governing coalition and the Taliban and the growing presence of the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) in Afghanistan reduce even further the already small prospects of an Afghan-led and owned peace and reconciliation process. As in Syria, many actors can now block progress.
Afghanistan’s economy remains burdened by corruption, dependent on foreign aid and drugs production, and isolated from the rest of Central and South Asia, making it improbable that the country will realize NATO’s goal of becoming self-sustaining by 2024.
For various reasons, Russia and China severely limit their collaboration with the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission, whose capacity-building programs train, advise and assist the ANSF. Yet, Moscow and Beijing fail to render their own military support to the Afghan government.
The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris, Nice, and Istanbul highlighted the vulnerability of NATO members to terrorists based in poorly secured regions. It is hard to see how any of these local governments can secure their territory from terrorists without NATO’s help – or curb the illegal flow of migrants from their countries. NATO has therefore supported the global coalition to counter ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Afghanistan and Central Asia. For example, the alliance has pledged to assist Turkey in securing its border with Syria and have its AWACS fleet fly from bases in Turkey to assist with airspace de-confliction, intelligence gathering, and command and control.
CONCLUSION: Unfortunately, in many of its Eurasian missions, NATO lacks strong local security partners. The indigenous governments are weak, suffer from economic and political as well as defense capacity problems, and face powerful militant groups enjoying some foreign and domestic support. Whatever military success the alliance achieves in these struggles will be fleeting without more political, economic and other non-defense progress by NATO’s local partners. Even NATO member Turkey is presenting a regional security problem due to internal instability and poor leadership choices.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.
Image Attribution: commons.wikimedia.org, accessed on August 24, 2016