While some politicians and experts expect important decisions at the upcoming NATO Warsaw summit, the Alliance’s ongoing transformation process and the current geopolitical uncertainty leave it little space to maneuver.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, June 15, 2016. Photo: AP

On July 8-9, the leaders of the NATO countries will gather in the Polish capital, Warsaw, to discuss the immediate and long-term threats to their security and determine the best way for the world’s most powerful military and political bloc to respond.

The Alliance has been preparing for the summit for at least a year now; NATO ministerial meetings and consultations with partner countries have been held regularly. Yet it would be wrong to believe that these preparations will lead to any important breakthroughs at the meeting. The Alliance’s institutional and doctrinal development process along with ongoing global uncertainty – exacerbated by the Brexit vote – rule out the possibility of any real breakthroughs, despite ever-increasing pressure from certain partner countries for the group to make some long-awaited decisions.

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21st Century Transformation

NATO is still struggling with how to balance its plans for transformation with the changes in its environment that have taken place since 2014. The ongoing phase of transformation, which is regarded institutionally and politically as a constant process with no clear objectives, began in 2008, when U.S. President Barack Obama took office and the global financial crisis forced governments to tighten their belts. The impulse found its doctrinal embodiment in NATO’s Strategic Concept “Active Engagement, Modern Defense,” adopted at the Lisbon Summit in 2010, which “codified” the developments and changes the Alliance went through during the preceding decade and outlined a vector for further reforms, with the goal of making the Alliance as flexible and adaptable as possible.

The Concept defined threats to member countries in a very broad manner, including not only old risks (a massive attack on member states with conventional or nuclear forces) and new threats (terrorism, spread of technology, instability in neighboring countries), but also new challenges (cyber capabilities, climate change, energy security). Notably, the Concept did not prioritize any of these prospects, stating that it was impossible to predict which would be the most dangerous in a constantly changing world.    

The Strategic Concept called upon NATO to ensure its stability via three equally important components: collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security.

The collective defense component was based on the Article 5 commitment of the Washington Treaty, which states “an attack against one…is attack against all,” and stresses the need for maintaining superiority in armed forces.

As for crisis management, NATO officially stated that it was becoming an Alliance with a global area of responsibility and could “act where and when necessary” to handle crises that have the potential to affect Alliance security.

Cooperative security was aimed at active engagement in enhancing international security through partnerships, the open door policy and arms control, which was, in fact, a return to an old strategy of shaping the external environment.

Major changes took place in the armed forces with reforms in the command structure in 2010-2011 and the long-term initiative “NATO forces 2020,” adopted at the Chicago summit in 2012. Additionally, the partnership system was reformed in 2011, allowing the alliance to become more flexible and engage as many partners as possible. Within this framework, NATO introduced the “basket system,” under which the Alliance offers a set of formats for cooperation from which potential partners can select the most suitable option.

All these measures were aiming at transforming NATO into a powerful global military and political alliance situated in the center of a “global security net,” although the parameters and concrete forms of this structure were understandably left unspecified.

Challenges in the East and South

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine seems to have had only a limited influence on the Alliance’s development so far, despite claims by some NATO leaders and officials and outside experts. The events on NATO’s Eastern flank have slightly increased the importance of the bloc’s collective defense task, but did not dramatically change the organization’s strategic goals or institutional structure.

Even against the backdrop of strong pressure from the Baltic States and Poland, the response of NATO countries to the events in Ukraine proved to be more political than military – for example, the focus of the 2014 Wales summit was changed from Afghanistan and enlargement to the deterrence of a “belligerent” Russia.

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At that meeting, NATO countries agreed to adopt the Readiness Action Plan (RAP), aimed at ensuring an adequate response to changes in the security environment. In the framework of the RAP, the Alliance created a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, which could deploy within 48 hours.

From the broader perspective of NATO’s transformation, it is clear that the general path of reforms were not primarily affected by events in Ukraine. The new measures presented in 2014 were designed to counter threats not only from the East, but also from the South, where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria was gaining momentum and civil wars were raging in a number of countries.

The situation in both of these conflict areas has changed since the Wales summit, which will affect the discussion and decisions at the Warsaw summit.

Clearly, the situation to the East of the Alliance has become more stable and predictable. Russia has shown no intention to attack the Baltic countries (which it most probably never had), and has demonstrated a cooperative approaching concerning the conflict in the Donbas. Additionally, the Minsk agreement is still in place and being implemented, albeit slowly. At the moment, no urgent measures are needed on the part of the Alliance in this conflict zone.

In the South, the situation has also stabilized, in the sense that the Islamic State is no longer rapidly expanding and a truce has been agreed between the Syrian government and the opposition. The problem of refugees and migrants stemming from the instability in the region is not within the sphere of NATO responsibilities, and the Alliance in general is not well-positioned to address it. 

There are new challenges to confront, however – including the Brexit vote and the upcoming U.S. presidential election. In the midst of continued global uncertainty, NATO is likely to take modest, carefully negotiated and concise decisions at the Warsaw summit.

Moderating expectations

Most sources say that the upcoming summit will concentrate on the situation in the East and the South. Different members of the alliance prioritize these two threats differently, however, and the major challenge for NATO at the Warsaw summit is to balance the expectations of its member states. It is no secret that Italy, Greece and a number of other Central and Western European countries push for more action in the South, while Poland and the Baltic States want the Alliance to focus on the East.

The Eastern threat is going to be dealt with by the “Defense and Deterrence” strategy. Firm declarations of support and condemnations aside, NATO is going to make a decision to deploy at least four battalions in Poland and the Baltic states. However, new forces will still operate on a rotational basis, and this move still has to overcome opposition from France and Germany, which seek to avoid antagonizing Russia.

While these troops are intended to provide increased political assurance to the Baltic States and Poland, they do not make much sense in countering a massive offensive from a military point of view. Some might regard this decision as another step in creeping militarization of the Eastern Europe, but it hardly is a long-term strategy of the Alliance if it wants to remain internally united.

To counterbalance the decision to deploy the battalions, meetings in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council should be resumed, and practical cooperation with Ukraine and Moldova put on the back burner.

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A significant addition to NATO’s Defense and Deterrence policy should be the fact that the U.S. decided to quadruple funds for the European Reassurance Initiative launched by Obama in 2014 in order to increase the American presence in Europe.

As for the Southern threat, NATO is able to do even less. The organization has crafted the “Projecting Stability” approach, which is going to be approved at the summit, but the scope of this approach is quite limited. In terms of practical actions, it will include only continued assistance to FRONTEX [FRONTEX is an agency of the European Union established in 2004 to manage the cooperation between national border guards securing its external borders - editor's note] in its patrol operations in the Aegean Sea and some training programs for Jordanian and Iraqi forces. Most probably, the Alliance will also reaffirm its support to countries fighting the Islamic State and will decide to continue helping Turkey keep its border secure.

None of these measures can in any way be regarded as milestone steps in the development of NATO. Likewise, it is hardly possible that we will see any truly important decisions in the areas of secondary importance, such as Afghanistan and NATO-EU cooperation.

The summit will most likely produce a consensus on continued NATO operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo as well as the existing maritime operations Active Endeavour and Ocean Shield. The Alliance’s Baltic air policing operation is unlikely to be expanded further, even despite incidents involving Russian jets.

Some experts are concerned by the questions of enlargement and the open door policy, and expect important decisions on this issue. However, only Montenegro will be accepted into the Alliance at this summit, and it has already been agreed that Georgia will not receive a Membership Action Plan in Warsaw, much less Ukraine or Moldova. Instead, those countries will be offered further Cooperation Packages that are intended to help them conduct their reforms more efficiently.

Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. Ambassador to the Alliance, claimed in one of his latest speeches that NATO-EU cooperation is going to be one of the most important topics at the summit. However, in private conversations, NATO officials admit that there is no political will for deepening this partnership on the part of EU bureaucrats. The UK’s decision to break with Brussels has added additionally uncertainty into the future of NATO-EU relations. That said, another declaration of intent to continue close coordination of operations should be expected.

Close attention is likely to be paid to progress on the transformation goals set in 2012 in Chicago. Initiatives in the framework of “NATO Forces 2020” are being implemented, and allies are sure to reaffirm their commitment to it. The same applies to the investment pledge of 2 percent (each ally should allocate 2 percent of its GDP to defense), which at this point is being fulfilled by only five NATO members (U.S., UK, Greece, Estonia and Poland as of 2015).  

All in all, nothing implies that the Warsaw summit is going to bring profound changes to the Alliance’s doctrinal, institutional or political structure, rather, it will just bring a continuation of processes that have started before.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.