While NATO backed away from arming Ukraine, the alliance did create a new “spearhead” force capable of responding to conventional military attacks along member country borders. How will Russia respond?

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (sixth from right) and the Heads of State and Government during the Air power flypast. Photo: NATO

At its summit in Wales last week, NATO leaders tried to reassure member countries alarmed by Russia’s actions in Ukraine as well as address other challenges. The leaders did demonstrate strong public solidarity and took concrete steps to reassure all alliance members that NATO would meet its Article 5 collective defense commitments.

However, many of the initiatives announced at the summit were aimed at averting a most unlikely scenario  a Russian conventional military attack against a NATO member. They left largely unaddressed two more plausible concerns: nonmilitary exploitation by foreign actors of members’ internal vulnerabilities and the security vacuum of countries in Europe not belonging to NATO. Meanwhile, the Russian government’s public response also dwelled excessively on improbable military threats to Russia from NATO’s increased military presence in East Central Europe.

The immediate focus of the summit was on reaffirming alliance solidarity against external aggression. The summit adopted a series of “assurances measures” designed to keep some of NATO’s air, land, and sea forces continuously deployed in or near the alliance’s eastern members. Unlike the older NATO members in Western Europe, which host large NATO military facilities, the alliance’s newest members (such as the Baltic countries) lack a large foreign military presence on their soil.

In this regard, the creation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) as a standing “spearhead” force could address the problem that NATO had no means of rapidly reinforcing members located on the alliance’s periphery (such as the Baltic states and Turkey) under attack. NATO has been adding new members without developing the means to defend them.

Even the large NATO Response Force created a decade ago would require weeks to mobilize and deploy on a large scale. The alliance is also enhancing its command and control structures in Eastern Europe, prepositioning equipment and munitions there, and establishing other “enablers” needed to allow for the rapid and effective use of the VJTF in their region.

Furthermore, NATO leaders offered strong rhetorical support for the beleaguered Ukrainian government. “We condemn in the strongest terms Russia's escalating and illegal military intervention in Ukraine and demand that Russia stop,” read the Summit Declaration. However, NATO rendered little concrete assistance besides some modest pledges of non-lethal aid.

Not only did alliance leaders ignore proposals to provide Ukrainian forces with weapons to counter the tanks and anti-aircraft missiles available to the rebels, but also none of the NATO governments said they would individually provide such assistance to Ukraine, even while they pledged such support to the Iraqi government facing Islamist terrorists. In effect, NATO was leaving the Ukrainian government no choice but to negotiate with the rebels and Russia for an end to the current fighting, enhanced autonomy for ethnic Russians, and other concessions.

With the exception of Georgia, which was listed as a major beneficiary of the alliance’s new Defense and Related Security Capacity Building Initiative and its Partnership Interoperability Initiative, NATO did not address the concerns of the former Soviet republics not belonging to the alliance. NATO leaders declined to offer them a clear path to NATO membership or concrete security guarantees. They, too, will need to avoid conflicts with Russia or other countries or risk fighting their enemies without allied assistance.

The VJTF remains a work in progress, with its precise capabilities and rules for engagement uncertain. It might take a year for the new “spearhead” to become operational. It is unclear if the new force represents genuinely new capabilities or simply a moving around of organizational boxes in which existing NATO forces are given a new label and package. It is also unclear who has the authority to direct its use. 

What happens if there is a crisis and one member does not want to deploy it? Can it still go or is it so integrated that any member can veto its use?

Even when fully deployed and authorized, the VJTF could hardly defeat a full-scale Russian invasion. But such a contingency is highly unlikely. The main threat to NATO members’ security emanates from their domestic vulnerabilities  alienated minorities, other internal cleavages, high unemployment, paralyzed political processes, excessive dependence on foreign energy supplies due to inadequate domestic production, and similar issues. These vulnerabilities combined weaken a country’s external defenses and prime it for invasion or insurrection.

The alliance said that it would acquire “the necessary tools and procedures required to deter and respond effectively to hybrid warfare threats” to “include enhancing strategic communications, developing exercise scenarios in light of hybrid threats, and strengthening coordination between NATO and other organizations… with a view to improving information sharing, political consultations, and staff-to-staff coordination.”

Even so, NATO is not the best Western institution to address these problems. The EU could at least address some of them by compelling members and partners to take political, economic, and other reforms that address the civil-military vulnerabilities exploited by foreign and transnational actors.

Ironically, Russia looks to be making the same mistake as NATO. Russian leaders have described NATO’s plans to develop a means to deploy a few thousand troops near Russia in an emergency as a major threat that requires Russia to acquire new weapons, modify its military doctrine, and take other expensive and unneeded responses. The main threats to Russians’ security are also primarily domestic – such as demographic challenges, intermittent terrorist threats, and an economy overly dependent on natural resource exports. These – not a putative NATO build-up – should be the focus of Russian security policy.

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