Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

Cohesion and Flexibility of NATO's Response to Russia's Problem

Academic journal article The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs

Cohesion and Flexibility of NATO's Response to Russia's Problem

Article excerpt


There is hardly any space for doubt about Russia as the central challenge for NATO's strategy-making, but the complexity and variability of this challenge are such that designing and committing to a straightforward response is all but impossible. There are perfectly sound reasons for defining Russia as an "existential threat," as did U.S. Defense Minister Ashton Carter.1 At the same time, it is also possible to downplay this challenge to the somewhat muddled point made by U.S. President Barack Obama in his last State of the Union address: "Even as their economy severely contracts, Russia is pouring resources in to prop up Ukraine and Syria, client states that they saw slipping away from their orbit."2 Russia possesses the whole range of military capabilities and employs them with brazen skill as an instrument of policy, but the industrial/technological foundation of this ambitious policy is weak, and every exercise in power projection delivers another blow to its declining economy.

The Russian leadership has abandoned its usual ambivalence and now unequivocally defines the Atlantic Alliance as a hostile party to the newly rigid confrontation. The revised National Security Strategy, approved by President Vladimir Putin on 31 December 2015, identifies not only the expansion but also the "build-up of power potential" and the "intensification of military activity" of NATO as threats to Russia's security (Article 15).3 The strategy also asserts that the U.S. and its allies are pursuing a "policy of containment" against Russia, which involves "political, economic, military and information pressure" (Article 12). This straightforward definition of relations as inherently confrontational does not mean that the Alliance has to respond in kind by committing to a strategy of containment and cancelling all plans for engagement and initiatives on cultivating dialogue as incompatible with the reality of confrontation.

Togetherness as the Key Measure of Success

The main reason for moderating the strategy of containment, which appears to be the most natural NATO response to Russia's aggressiveness, is the damage that such a posture is certain to inflict to the unity of the Alliance. The issue is not only in the asymmetry of security challenges in the vast Euro-Atlantic area (countries such as Greece and Portugal are only minimally exposed to the Russian threat), but also the influence of great many stakeholders in "normal" relations with Russia. While many business lobbies that advocated against economic sanctions have dropped their opposition (primarily due to the depth of the economic crisis unfolding in Russia), there are other political forces arguing against engaging in a "New Cold War." Moscow is searching for allies among these various forces, using all material incentives and propaganda tricks possible. These have included, for instance, Putin's Versteher-toned interview with the tabloid as Bild.4

It is true that, from the very beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Moscow has consistently underestimated the ability of the West to build a united front, and in particular the EU's ability to enforce and sustain meaningful economic sanctions. At the same time, preserving NATO's cohesion is always a work in progress, and the success achieved since the September 2014 Wales summit is no guarantee of new achievements in this work. This task cannot be reduced to the question of U.S. leadership, important as it is, particularly in the election year.5 What is crucial here is the involvement of all Allies, so that every NATO member can be certain that it has a say in decision-making and a share of ownership in the resulting commitment. In this way the dissenters would not become spoilers, and instead of the proverbial lowest common denominator, it is the sum total of different and maybe diverging opinions that forms the median for the consensus.

In the current economic situation in Europe, cost efficiency factor inevitably becomes the central consideration in any strategic process. …

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