Monday, July 11, 2016

NATO Summit: The Most and the Least Canada and the Alliance Can Do

The summit in Warsaw received a great deal of attention from the Canadian media and other outlets, and deservedly so.  Was it the most important NATO summit since the end of the Cold War?  Maybe.  If so, both because it made some very important commitments to the allies in the East and because it was the first major NATO meeting after the Brexit vote. 

Some folks wonder if the 4000 soldiers to be based on Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are just a symbolic token or is it meaningful?  The answer is: yes.  It is a symbolic force that could not even be a "speedbump" for a Russian invasion, but symbols can have much importance.  In this case, NATO has made a dramatic change as the onus to avoid the risk of escalation has moved from NATO to Putin--that any thought that he could break NATO by invading the Baltics and then forcing NATO to dither is now gone.  The Wales summit led to the creation of the Very High Readiness Task Force, which was supposed to be able to respond to a crisis quickly.  But it was not really very ready--it would have required a decision at the North Atlantic Council to move, and that would come too late in a crisis, even if they managed to fix the challenge of having troops move across boundaries to get to the Baltics (not to mention the existence of Russia's anti-access/area denial forces in Kaliningrad).
  The situation instead will be this: American/British/Canadian/German/etc/etc troops will be in the Baltics on any and every given day, which means no opportunity for Putin to present NATO with a fait accompli.

Can Putin cause trouble?  Yes, but not the same kind.  He hoped to break NATO, and that did not happen.  And now it will not happen.  NATO has made an important commitment, one that ties the hands of the leadership in a crisis.  I have been calling out for this for the past two years.  No, NATO did not declare, as I have, that the NATO Russia Founding Act is dead, but NATO has declared that Russia cannot veto NATO decisions over deployments or over enlargement (Montenegro's joining NATO at this meeting is a small but powerfully symbolic move to remind Russia of this).

On the radio this afternoon, I was asked about Putin and the relevance of Russia--is this another cold war?  No, because in the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a near-peer competitor with the United States with an ideology that played in much of the world and with allies (some).  Today, Russia's most significant ally is in year five of a civil war, led by someone who is hated by an entire region.  Russia has no ideology and no appeal.  Its economy is in turmoil due to the drop in the price of oil and now the sanctions.  So, let's not be too impressed with what Putin has accomplished, as it has backfired--NATO unity on some key issues with other countries much closer to membership than ever before (that would be Sweden). 

Back to the 450 Canadians and the 4000 NATO troops--this is the most and the least that could be doneLeast in that NATO needed to have a semi-coherent fighting unit in each of the four countries (Romania is not included in this effort but in a related one--that a Romanian brigade will get some troops from elsewhere to create Multinational Brigade).  You really cannot have a smaller unit that a battalion to have a presence--a multinational battlegroup of one thousand soldiers can staff a headquarters and have enough capability to, well, um, fight a battle and then lose it.  This is the tripwire that would force leaders across the NATO countries to respond to a Russian attack.

It is also the most that could be done--in this time of austerity and strapped defense budgets, it is hard to get 1k from the non-Americans of the world.  The Canadian commitment of 450 is almost 1/9 of the deployable army, which means that with a six month rotation system, one third of the army will be affected by this deployment--one there, one getting ready for it, and one recovering from it. The stress is far lower than that of Kandahar or any peacekeeping mission.  But it is a significant commitment for the foreseeable future.  Canada still needs to develop agreements with various partners (unnamed but apparently real enough) to get the 450 up to 1000.  The good news is that by putting this force into a relatively inexpensive location (far easier to provide logistical support to the edge of Europe than to landlocked Afghanistan--no Pakistan in this equation), by replacing the continuous exercising mission with this and by cutting the Ukraine training mission (I think), it will not really mean that many more troops are deployed in East Europe.  Instead, they will be in one place with a beach and hockey rinks nearby.

Also, this allows Germany to keep the NATO Russia Founding Act alive--that the agreement essentially bans basing of substantial numbers of troops.  Four thousand, the equivalent of a brigade is apparently short of "substantial" whereas four brigades or one division, would have been substantial.  Plus, as I said, getting countries to kick in more troops would have been real hard.

As always, force generation is begging (chapter two).  And, yes, we have a song for this:

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