European Affairs

After the Warsaw NATO Summit— NOW WHAT?     Print

john barry 1“Andy Goodpaster,” as everyone called him during his two decades as a military elder-statesman in Washington, would counsel that in any enterprise – especially military ones – it was invariably tempting but always fatal to confuse rhetoric and reality. He had personal experience. In the aftermath of World War II, as the formidable Colonel Andrew Goodpaster, engineer and soldier-scholar with a war record of some bravery, he was picked by Eisenhower to help transform NATO from rhetoric into a functioning military alliance.

The birth of NATO is dated to that Monday afternoon in April 1949 when top officials of a dozen nations clustered in the State Department auditorium to sign the North Atlantic Treaty. The date is accurate in political terms. Article Five of the treaty – all for one, one for all – is being invoked now in response to Putin’s threats to re-assert Russian rule over the three Baltic states that were once Soviet captive nations. 

But what was signed that spring day was, however portentous, a piece of paper. Nothing more. The treaty nominally created a “governing council;” but no plans existed to give the alliance organizational, still less military reality. When the Marine Corps band serenading the signing ceremony played a selection from Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’, “I’ve got plenty of nothing”, seemed about right to some.

Eighteen confused months later, the new alliance’s members made an overdue decision: General Dwight Eisenhower, organizer of D-Day and the subsequent western advance into Nazi Germany, was tasked to turn NATO into a functioning alliance. On the first day of 1951, Ike took up the post. He gave Goodpaster the job of running his staff.

The infant NATO had set up shop in France, so Eisenhower housed his team in a hotel in central Paris. Goodpaster would recall that staffers used to take time out at a café just off the Champs d’Elysees run by a brother of French boxing champion Georges Carpentier. At its sidewalk tables, first plans for a military command structure and first notions of a division of allied military roles were talked through. Diagrams were even sketched on the café’s napkins.

The fear then was lest Stalin order his Red Army to sweep on westward across a shattered Europe which retained no significant military capabilities. Stalin was insisting that the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe was purely defensive. “Our concern,” Goodpaster would recall, “was that the Soviets would defend themselves all the way to the English Channel.”

NATO’s Warsaw summit earlier this month evoked memories of Goodpaster. The threat perceived now is that Putin could overrun the Balts. Putin has always been clear: NATO member states directly along Russia’s borders he views as a mortal threat to its security. The Baltic states were accepted into NATO in 2004. To Putin, this and other proofs of NATO’s aggressiveness – a charge he makes ever more stridently – may require Russia to reassert its hold on the Balts. NATO’s most pressing task is to figure out how those slender coastal strips could be defended and to muster the forces to do it. The Warsaw summit demonstrated this is proving to be an existential challenge for the alliance.

NATO is already in deeper political trouble than Europe’s leaders care to acknowledge. Donald Trump’s throwaway declaration that, under his presidency, America might not honor its Article Five commitment to defend the Balts has sent shockwaves through the alliance. Perversely, the impact is useful, even overdue. Trump’s phrasing was feckless; but his basic point – too many European members of NATO are not paying their way – is a view uniformly shared in the U.S. It’s also accurate. Warsaw summit’s communique brought word that 2016 looks to be the first year since 2009 that European defense expenditures will in aggregate increase. The document had then to acknowledge that, even now, only four of NATO’s 26 European members reach the level of defense spending – two percent of GDP – pledged some 20 years ago at a NATO summit in another central European capital, Prague. President Obama has dismissed with evident disdain “free riders” among America’s allies. Successive Secretaries of Defense have warned that the current imbalance – America accounts for roughly three-quarters of NATO’s military expenditures – is politically unsustainable. Europe should pay heed. Whoever wins the presidency in November, this issue will be high on their international to-do list.

While Trump’s comminations raised uproar, far too little attention has been paid to a more significant event: NATO’s collective failure at Warsaw to respond effectively to Putin’s threats against the Balts. The decisions agreed at Warsaw demonstrated, again, the temptation Goodpaster observed to confuse rhetoric and reality.

Rhetoric was well up to standard in Warsaw. The gathering resounded with pledges of solidarity and renewed commitment to the transatlantic alliance. The range of topics addressed in the final communique – 32 pages, 109 clauses – did usefully demonstrate the unique global span of NATO’s activities. It is undeniable, too, that since NATO’s last summit in Wales in 2014 in the wake of Putin’s takeover of Crimea, the alliance has been galvanized out of two decades of torpor – “turned the corner” the Warsaw communique asserts. A hectic sequence of multinational military exercises gives support to that -- though sceptics would point out that those are still baby steps, a fraction the size of maneuvers throughout the Cold War.

But, But, But…. At Warsaw, on the challenge most immediately confronting NATO— the defense of the Balts – Europe flinched.

Does that matter? How real, how immediate is Putin’s threat? The consensus among Russia-watchers is that even if Putin has decided to take back the Balts – whatever he says, he must surely see that as a giant gamble — he has options other than armored assault.

Option One: Subversion. Putin is well embarked on that. Estonia and Latvia have sizeable Russian populations – a majority across a sizeable swath of Estonia. (Stalin transported Russians into the Balts after World War II to Russify them.) Putin has been pouring in money: NGOs with ill-defined missions have mushroomed. Efforts are made to foment grievances. The Russian language’s “inferior” status to local tongues looked to gain traction for a while. But the Balts responded swiftly and sensibly, decreeing equal status for Russian in schools. The Balts’ able security services believe that subversion has, so far at any rate, made little headway. Even among those ethnically Russian, the Balts’ membership of the EU is seen to offer opportunities vastly outweighing nostalgia for Mother Russia. English, not Russian, remains students’ second language choice.

Option Two would be a more or less peaceful coup. A re-run of Crimea. That wouldn’t be possible in all three Baltic states, but it could possibly succeed in Estonia. Russian special forces wearing no identity markings are quietly inserted into the Russian population in Estonia – “little green men” they were labelled in Crimea. Barrages of disinformation hide what is in train. A cyber-attack paralyses Estonia’s uniquely internet-dependent society. (Russia did just that in 2002.) Under cover of this blackout, government offices are taken over and Estonian leaders seized. Russian special forces, this time uniformed, arrive in strength to seal the takeover. Russian divisions mass on Estonia’s border to deter any NATO impulse to intervene.

The flaw in this otherwise plausible scenario is that Crimea has taught everyone the template to watch for. The Balts are confident the “little green men” would swiftly be identified and rounded up.

Option Three is one many Russia/Balt experts reckon is the likeliest: Escalation. Russian combat aircraft have courted disaster over the Baltic for a couple of years. They intrude into the Balts’ airspace until seen off by NATO fighters deployed on airbases in Estonia and Lithuania. They roam the crowded civilian air lanes of the southern Baltic with transponders switched off, all but invisible to the region’s air traffic controllers. They buzz NATO warships in the Baltic: a video in April showed one flying within yards of an American destroyer. Western leaders repeatedly warn that these actions are reckless and could cause “an incident”. But what if that’s what Putin wants? Suppose that destroyer USS Donald Cook had shot down the encroaching Russian fighter. Suppose a NATO air policing patrol downs an intruding Russian. Suppose there is a collision in those crowded air lanes. Accusations would fly. Blame would be disputed, charges made, apologies demanded. The dispute escalates. Rival militaries go on alert, provoking fresh charges and counter-charges. Diligently fanned, the kindling for war would be at hand. As a Russian assault on the Balts gets under way, Putin would claim this was to pre-empt what he would assert were NATO’s plans. Step by step, the stand-off in the Balts would metastasize into a catastrophe for NATO.

All those scenarios have been discussed within NATO. What was the response at Warsaw? To bolster the Balts’ defenses, the summit agreed to deploy three battalions of troops: 3000 at most, probably few more than 2500. Sometime next year.

Conscious perhaps that this might seem an underwhelming response, NATO exaggerated it. The alliance will deploy four battalions, the Warsaw communique said. True. But the fourth battalion will sit on a Polish base 300 miles from the border with Lithuania. As a response to a sudden Russian advance into the Balts it would be irrelevant. It probably wouldn’t reach even the Lithuanian border in time.

Nor could three battalions, once deployed, even contribute to a remotely plausible defense. The Baltic states’ border with Russia and Belarus stretches close to 900 miles. Three thousand troops would give a force-to-space ratio of three-and-one-third soldiers per mile. NATO manuals hold that a full-up infantry battalion, a thousand troops laden with mortars, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and backed by artillery, should ideally defend a front of less than 1000 yards.

If Putin were to decide to invade the Balts, the assessment of NATO’s military commanders – a verdict accepted reluctantly by its political leadership – is that Putin’s priority would be to carry the operation through as swiftly as possible, to confront the West with a fait accompli. Against a Russian invasion force plausibly comprising two armored divisions with, perhaps, a division of airborne troops, NATO’s notion – as yet, nowhere close to an operational plan – is that those three battalions would disperse into combat teams of company or even platoon size. Their task would be to supplement and support the Balts’ own militaries.

How? Those national forces are tiny, none mustering more than the rough equivalent of a single light-infantry brigade. Matched against the Russian military, there’s very little there. Insofar as any military rationale other than a faut de mieux faith in deterrence undergirds NATO’s thinking, it’s the hope that the Balts’ terrain – a tough landscape of forests, marshlands and networks of small rivers – is ideally suited to guerrilla warfare by small light-infantry groupings. Especially if these would be battling columns of Russian tanks and self-propelled artillery so heavy they would have to stick to the roads. Tactically, NATO’s defense strategy boils down to ambushes to try to impede the Russians long enough to give NATO reinforcements time to arrive.

Could this succeed? Would NATO’s proposed deployments impede a Russian advance long enough? In a sequence of wargames through 2014 and 2015, RAND analysts played through this notion: “The outcome was, bluntly, a disaster for NATO. Across multiple plays of the game, Russian forces eliminated or bypassed all resistance…” NATO reinforcements fared especially poorly: “NATO’s light forces were not only outgunned by the Russian units, their lack of maneuverability means that they could be pinned and bypassed if the Russian players so desire. By and large, NATO’s infantry found themselves unable even to retreat successfully and were destroyed in place.”

Russia’s ground forces would likely reach the Balts’ capital cities in perhaps 60 hours, the game predicted. If airborne assault troops dropped on the approaches to each capital, the end could come in 36 hours.

What would the Balts do then? In June 1940, as German tanks ground towards an undefended Paris and the French government collapsed, prime minister Paul Reynaud had the moral courage to declare Paris an ‘open city’ and save it from destruction. France surrendered a few days later.

The Balts’ bravery is not in doubt. In the wake of World War Two, courageous guerrilla resistance to their Soviet occupiers persevered for a decade. (Another forgotten chapter of Cold War history.) But faced with destruction of their historic and beautiful capital cities – Putin reduced to rubble the Chechen capital Grozny in 2002 – it is hard to believe that the Baltic governments would not follow Reynaud’s decision, declare their capitals open cities and sue for peace.

What the Warsaw summit agreed, in sum, was to deploy – on a leisurely timetable – forces wholly inadequate to mount even a holding action against a plausibly-sized Russian assault. While the nearest reinforcements are to be based too far away to be useful. Lithuania’s foreign minister and former defense minister Linas Linkevicius observed to the Financial Times: “It would be naïve to say that a battalion can defend the country.” The deployments would be “symbolic.”

Symbolic of what? Scarcely a symbol of united resolve by NATO’s European members. In months of closed-door bargaining to prepare for Warsaw, it’s reliably reported that four European governments sought to cut back even these minimalist Baltic deployments – the heavyweight among the four apparently arguing that even they were a reckless provocation of Putin. One of the quartet reportedly opposed even the ancillary installation of advanced air-defense batteries in Poland.

Linkevicius obliquely acknowledged all that: “The eye-opening exercise [about Putin’s ambitions] is still taking place. I don’t know how many wake-up calls are needed to wake up – it depends on individual countries – but it’s obviously not enough so far.”

Not enough indeed. The Balts’ precarious geography excruciatingly amps up the challenge to NATO’s command structure. When speed is of the essence, how could NATO respond?

This was discussed, at times vigorously, in those closed-door discussions preparing for Warsaw. The alliance’s top military commander, SACEUR – currently U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti – needs authority from NATO’s governing political forum, the North Atlantic Council, to order any troop deployments. The 28 members of the Council make their decisions, to quote NATO’s happy-talk brief, “on the basis of unanimity and common accord”. In the run-up to Warsaw, several governments proposed that SACEUR be pre-delegated with authority to mobilize initial forces in a Baltic crisis. This was rejected

What are the likeliest consequences? In one scenario – an escalating crisis – some NATO governments would oppose sending reinforcements, arguing that Putin would find this provocative. In the other scenario – a Russian assault on the Balts – some NATO governments would argue that negotiations should be tried before NATO forces were committed. In either case, the failure to pre-delegate the movement of forces means that in all likelihood NATO’s political leadership would still be debating appropriate responses as Russian divisions reached the Baltic coast.

NATO remains the West’s greatest politico-military achievement since World War II. The issue surfacing is whether the alliance retains its historic significance. The temporizing in Warsaw suggests that may not be a groundless question.

John Barry is former national security correspondent for Newsweek.