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NATO looks east again

Bernd Riegert / glbSeptember 3, 2014

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is meeting this Thursday and Friday to go over ways to offer better protection in Eastern Europe. The military alliance is considering the creation of a rapid reaction force.

NATO soldiers Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

This summit will probably be called "historic," top NATO diplomats speculated as they prepared for the two-day meeting in Wales. That's because the Ukraine crisis and the increasing confrontation with Russia will lead to a complete change in priorities for the alliance. Over the last 13 years, especially with the Afghanistan mission, NATO has focused on crisis management beyond alliance territory. Now it's back to national defense in Europe. At the end of 2014, the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan is to be replaced by a much smaller training mission.

"We are getting ready for the next phase of NATO," the Atlantic alliance's top commander in Europe, US General Philip Breedlove, said. "We are going from a deployed force to a ready force. How do we bring this deployed force home?"

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has taken a hard line against Russia in recent weeks. He sees the future role of NATO as follows: "We cannot afford to be naive, and we don't have any illusions. We are faced with a reality that Russia considers us an adversary, and we will adapt to that situation."

Travel light, strike hard

The government heads of the 28 NATO members will most likely use their time in Newport, just east of Cardiff, to decide on reinforcements at home and to finalize plans for five weapons storage sites in the Baltic nations and Poland.

Rasmussen has also said NATO is mulling the creation of a rapid reaction force that will comprise only a small contingent of troops, which will be able to "travel light but strike hard," if necessary. The small incursion unit, which would consist of several thousand troops drawn from NATO allies, could be deployed within two to three days. Another several thousand troops on top of that would serve as reinforcements, spanning several nations but requiring at least two weeks before being ready for deployment.

Rasmussen PK zu Ukraine 01.09.2014
Rasmussen and NATO went against inviting Moscow this aroundImage: Reuters

"The problem has always been the time it takes to react," former NATO commander Harald Kujat said in an interview with DW. The new force is intended to shorten that reaction time and to provide a counterweight in Eastern Europe to Russian troops across the border.

"Of course we must keep in mind that more troops will have to be deployed in these countries. But Russia, too, needs a certain amount of time before it is ready for attack. If we manage to create an effective rapid alert system, that could neutralize the threat," Kujat said.

NATO-Russia agreement holds

The Baltic states and Poland had initially called for a permanent troop presence, with Estonian President Thomas Hendrik Ilves warning on Tuesday that if this didn't happen it would create what he called a "two-class NATO."

The Western partners, however, have rejected such demands. They intend to abide by the agreements reached between Moscow and NATO in the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, the accord signed in 1997 that stipulates no NATO troops shall be stationed permanently in any of the Warsaw Pact countries.

Rasmussen, meanwhile, has accused Russia of breaking those agreements, following the latter's annexing of Crimea and the allegations of incursion into eastrern Ukraine. "We have unfortunately observed that Russia is in blatant breach of the … Founding Act. We urge Russia to comply with these provisions."

NATO Satelliten-Photos Russische Truppen INNERHALB Ukraine 21.08.2014 AUSSCHNITT
NATO published satellite imagery last week purporting Russia's military presence in eastern Ukraine

NATO mistakes

At the last NATO summit, in Lisbon in 2010, President Vladimir Putin was in attendance. This time, that won't be the case; Putin hasn't even been invited, and when Rasmussen was asked whether the Kremlin should be surprised about that absent invitation, the secretary-general laughed and remarked: "No, I don't believe so!"

Russia-NATO relations are at a low-point. This shouldn't have been allowed to happen, claims Kujat, and he has criticized NATO leadership openly for this. The NATO-Russian Council, a body that was created to mediate such conflicts, hasn't been incorporated into the dialogue, Kujat points out.

"It would have been a very effective means to prevent the conflict from escalating. Unfortunately, NATO didn't even think to use it. They certainly could have contributed a great deal to de-stabilization in Ukraine."

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will be in attendance in Newport. NATO diplomats have warned, however, that he shouldn't expect too much from the summit. Ukraine is not a NATO member and won't be for the time being. "Ukrainian membership is not in question," said US President Barack Obama during his visit to Brussels in March, following the Russian annexation of Crimea.

NATO has also voted against arming the Ukrainian army. "We can pledge support in the training and reforming of Kyiv's army. But we will protect only our fellow members," said a high-ranking NATO diplomat in Brussels.