NATO is at a crossroads in terms of strategy moving forward. The Atlantic alliance faces challenges from within its membership, for example with Turkey, and from outside, specifically Russia. NATO is also stressed by extra-regional missions, such as in Afghanistan.
With members expected to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, NATO has committed to having 30 air squadrons, 30 combat vessels and 30 mechanized battalions ready to deploy within 30 days to defend the Baltic states by 2020. That commitment is going to be complicated by several factors.
There is no doubt that NATO’s problems are still left over from the Cold War, in that individual member states are befuddled by clashes in culture and identity, mixed with corruption, that ultimately affects military capability. Newer NATO members, particularly in some parts of Eastern Europe, just do not seem to be full-fledged, supportive members of the alliance. True, concentrating on specific missions such as counter-narcotics is important, but any conventional war set in the European theater involving a NATO member, and reaching the level of a fully-functional conventional armed force to face a Russian action, is problematic. It is well proven that Russia uses corruption in Europe to weaken the political order in a NATO state to achieve strategic gain in the EU.
Nevertheless, NATO and the EU are united in their common values, strategic interests and a majority of member nations. In the last few years, the two organizations have developed closer cooperation to improve security for European citizens because of internal and external threats. This cooperation ranges from cyber defenses and addressing threats to building maritime security.
Importantly, NATO and the EU cooperate on crisis management operations that help with confidence-building. In Kosovo, the NATO peacekeeping force KFOR works closely in the field with the EU’s Rule of Law Mission. And the EU’s Operation Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina is commanded by the NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and is located at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. In Afghanistan, the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission and its predecessor, the International Security Assistance Force, have also cooperated with the EU’s Rule of Law Mission.
NATO and EU naval forces also work together in response to the refugee and migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. NATO deployed a maritime force to the Aegean Sea to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of illegal crossings, supporting Turkish and Greek authorities and the EU. In the central Mediterranean, NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian supports EU Operation Sophia with information and logistics. Clearly, both regional organizations are implementing their mandates.
Russia remains a fundamental challenge to NATO because of a variety of sharp tensions, including in the Baltics and Ukraine. As such, NATO and Russia are meeting at a very high level in order to maintain an open line of communication for deconfliction. The Commander-in-Chief of NATO’s Armed Forces in Europe, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, met with the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, in Baku last month. Scaparrotti also met with President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, thanking him for offering Baku as a platform for such a meeting for the second time. He said Baku was the perfect venue for a NATO-Russia meeting.
Baku is important because Azerbaijan represents an important strategic transit between Europe and Afghanistan. Baku has good relations with NATO and has participated in Afghan operations, but it is also keenly aware of the Kremlin’s interests and balances perfectly between the two, for now. Azerbaijan’s energy plans are a subject that requires NATO-Russia attention in order to reduce misunderstandings in the short term.
It should be noted that US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and Gerasimov have also been meeting in Baku to discuss issues face-to-face with the aim of easing tensions and preventing military incidents.
The third and most important factor in NATO’s outlook is what happens with Turkey. Debate rages over how to deal with an increasingly powerful and assertive Ankara, which now has a major say in Syria’s future. Aligned for the most part with Russia, NATO member Turkey is dancing with the devil for some observers in terms of its relationship with Moscow.
This relationship complicates NATO’s mission. With Ankara fighting a war in the Levant, Russia’s ability to pressure Ankara to achieve key geostrategic goals will give it an advantage against NATO in any future scenario. What is happening around the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and how Turkey is not reacting to Moscow’s moves against Ukraine is indicative.
In addition, Turkey’s relationship with Iran challenges NATO because of America’s position on Syria. With a pull-out pending by the US, NATO is looking at a Levant where Turkey will have a major say in what happens next. That puts Turkey in a more powerful position within the NATO alliance by being able to throw its weight around — an attitude that NATO is not about.
With James Mattis now out at the Pentagon, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan’s business approach to NATO is going to trump strategic priorities. That factor needs to be seen now in terms of how NATO moves forward in the coming years, especially when calculating requirements in the Baltics versus other potential theaters.