NATO Strategic Considerations Part I

The current crisis in Ukraine has revealed glaring holes in NATO’s readiness and strategic planning, especially with regards to its Eastern Flank. If anything, the events of the last two months should serve as a catalyst for renewed efforts to prepare the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to be the vanguard against future Russian designs on Eastern Europe. The growing importance of the Eastern Flank is not up for debate. The bone of contention is in the lack of commitment to build the infrastructure for a sizeable and permanent military presence on the Eastern Flank.

Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the alliance realized how exposed it truly was in the east. Plans for a permanent military presence in Poland, the Baltics and Romania were drawn up. The United States developed Atlantic Resolve, a series of military activities aimed at enhancing NATO military capabilities in Europe. NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence was also developed along similar lines and guaranteed a semi-permanent alliance military presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Unfortunately, as time went on, the importance initially attached to the Eastern Flank missions waned. Ukraine cooled down to an extent and Russia’s Crimean Anschluss was tacitly accepted. Although Atlantic Resolve and Enhanced Forward Presence continued on through the years, NATO’s attention turned to other areas. 

I believe it is imperative for NATO to begin thinking about what it will take to establish a large and permanent military presence on its Eastern Flank for an extended period of time. During the Cold War, the Inner-German Border served as both the physical and psychological frontier between East and West. Central Europe became an armed camp with hundreds of thousands of troops stationed on either side of the border. When the Cold War ended, there was no need for NATO to sustain such a large force. The Soviet threat was gone and governments from Bonn to Washington were eager to reap the benefits of the peace dividends. Now, NATO finds itself needing to make up for lost time, so to speak. The Eastern Flank now requires the necessary military command structure and framework to sustain a multi-division force on the ground. A structure similar to what NATO had in West Germany through much of the Cold War. Specifically, an army group set up along the lines of NORTHAG and CENTAG back in the 1980s.

This morning, I began writing the first of what will be a series of posts on the strategic considerations NATO is now forced to look at carefully in light of what’s happening in eastern Ukraine. After the events earlier today, I planned to set it aside, but decided to post at least the first entry. Provided things quiet down a bit in Ukraine through the rest of the week, I’ll post the second one around Friday. Between now and then, the focus will be on Russia and Ukraine.

Ukraine Update 9 February, 2022: NATO and Russian Military Activity On The Rise

In the last 24-36 hours there has been increased military activity in Russia as well as a number of NATO member-states. The failure of Monday’s talks between the French and Russian presidents to deescalate the crisis has prompted Denmark and the United Kingdom to begin preparing forces for movement east. The alliance is also preparing to hold military exercises in close proximity to the frontiers of Belarus and Russia to demonstrate NATO resolve in the face of growing Russian troop numbers. Simultaneously, Russia continues its military buildup, moving more assets and troops into Crimea, Belarus and along the Ukrainian border. Military exercises in Belarus and on the Black Sea will also begin to get underway later this week.

Denmark is moving decisively even as her larger fellow NATO member-state to the south Germany dithers. The Danish military will increase the readiness of a combat battalion that is earmarked for NATO operations. Preparations are underway for the battalion of 800 troops to be ready for a deployment east within five days instead of the thirty days generally needed. Additionally, the Royal Danish Air Force will be moving a flight of F-16 fighters to Bornholm in the Baltic, should the situation call for it.

Great Britain will be moving more troops and equipment to Poland. 350 Royal Marines from 45 Commando have been diverted from exercises in Norway and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he’s prepared to go further. Deployments of RAF Typhoons to Romania and Bulgaria, as well as moving warships to the Black Sea are all being considered by London right now.

For Russia, the final pieces of its pre-hostilities military deployment puzzle could be coming into place. Considerable attention is being paid to the Black Sea where a trio of Russian Navy amphibious assault ships and a Kilo class conventionally-powered submarine were expected to pass through the Bosphorus this morning. They will join three other amphibs that entered the Black Sea for naval exercises according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. Their arrival is raising concerns from Ankara to NATO headquarters in Belgium as leaders, diplomats and military leaders attempt to decipher whether their presence is a sign that Russian military operations will begin soon.  

Ukraine Update: 17 January, 2022

The weekend is ending and the week ahead promises to be active and eventful. Once the West’s official response to Russia’s security proposals and demands is presented, the ball will be entirely in Vladimir Putin’s possession. The Kremlin, as well as the rest of the world, is well aware the West’s response will be a firm ‘NO.’ Odds are, Russia has been banking on a full rejection of its unrealistic redrawing of the post-Cold War boundaries and the numerous security concerns attached to it. A negative reply has been factored into its planned justification of hostility and will be used accordingly.

Late last week and over the weekend, Russia has been busy on a number of fronts. On Friday, increased Russian military activity in the Baltic led to the Swedish government’s decision to send troops to the Swedish island of Gotland. Officially, it was the failure of NATO-Russia talks and the movement of three amphibious assault ships into the Baltic that brought on the Swedish action. There have also been reports of unmarked drones flying over Stockholm, Gotland and around some Swedish nuclear reactors. Between the lines though, Russia’s actions are pure intimidation tactics intended to help keep Stockholm on the sidelines and mute as the crisis with Ukraine intensifies. Sweden has been vocal when it comes to calling out Russia’s aggressive moves and behavior in the Baltic as well as Ukraine. Moscow’s response has not been limited. Operating amphibious assault ships in close proximity to Gotland is sending a message that will be difficult for Sweden to misinterpret.

Microsoft revealed early on Sunday morning that computer systems at Ukrainian government agencies have been subjected to a malware attack. In a blog post earlier, Microsoft said it detected the Malware on Thursday, not long after the final round of talks between NATO, the US and Russia came to an end with no agreements made. The detection of malware also came around the same time a cyberattack took 70 government websites temporarily offline. Cyber attacks are almost certain to play a major role in any Russian plan for offensive operations against Ukraine. They are a large part of the  ‘Military-Technical Response’ Vladimir Putin has been threatening and talking about for weeks now.

Is Now the Time For Finland to Join NATO?

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At the moment there is a growing movement in Finland lobbying for Finnish membership in NATO.  The security policy debate surrounding the idea came to being in 2014. With NATO-Russia tensions on the rise, and the geopolitical situation around Finland deteriorating, NATO membership began to look appealing to a limited number of Finnish citizens and politicians. For a period of time afterward, the debate went dormant. In recent weeks, though, it has flared up once more. Finland is a member of the European Union, however, it has remained outside of NATO for fear of antagonizing its eastern neighbor Russia. Finland and Russia share an 800+ mile border and a complex history.

During World War II, Finland and Russia fought each other twice. The first time was during the Winter War of 1939-1940 when Russia attacked Finland. The second conflict was the Continuation War from 1941-1944 that saw Finland align itself with Germany following the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Following this war, as well as the end of the Second World War, Finland and the Soviet Union signed peace treaties that allowed Finland to maintain its sovereignty, though at the cost of giving the Soviet Union great influence over Finnish domestic and foreign policies. This is where the term Finlandization stems from. In the International Relations field, the definition of the term is as follows: The process by which a major power forces a smaller neighboring country to abide by the former’s foreign policy rules, in exchange for allowing it to keep its nominal sovereignty political system intact.

During the Cold War Era Finlandization dominated Finnish politics at home and abroad. The nation maintained cool relations with Western Europe and NATO in order to appease the Soviet Union. Some experts and scholars point to it as a textbook example of appeasement. Most Finns who lived during the period counter with the argument that their participation in Finlandization was strictly Realpolitik: to ensure survival. After the demise of the Soviet Union, Finland started to integrate itself with the West, assuming a more active role in European affairs.

In recent years, NATO-Russia tensions in the Baltics have influenced Finnish politics and society. Though most Finns appear to oppose NATO membership for the moment,  there is less resistance to Finland having forged closer ties with NATO. Finnish military forces have taken part in military exercises with NATO nations. With all of this in mind, it comes as little surprise that an increasing number of Finns regard their neighbor to the east warily. Hannu Himanen, Finland’s ambassador to Russia until 2016, is openly advocating Finnish membership in NATO. Following the four years he spent in Moscow, Himanen appears convinced his country should stop concerning itself with provoking Russia and focus on its own security. Specifically, by joining the Atlantic alliance.

The Finnish presidential election is scheduled to be held in January, 2018 and there is one openly pro-NATO candidate in the pack of seven contenders. Nils Torvalds, of the Swedish People’s party, is not expected to win, though he does appear determined to begin a national debate on the subject of Finland joining NATO. “Finland should join NATO now that the sun is shining. When the thunderstorm breaks out, we’ll already be sitting in another boat,” Torvalds told a Finnish newspaper.

He might have a point. Where this debate goes now remains to be seen. However, the topic of Finland possibly joining NATO is worth exploring between now and the end of the year.

 

Wednesday 13 September, 2017 Update: Zapad 17 Gets Underway

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After months of anxious speculation by Western politicians, general officers, and media outlets, the waiting is over. Zapad 17 is underway. Russia’s quadrennial strategic military exercise has attracted an overwhelming amount of scrutiny and attention. In light of past behavior on the part of Russia, some observers and analysts believe this exercise could be cover for a large scale Russian military action against NATO, or even against their erstwhile Belarussian allies. The 2008 Georgian invasion, and 2014 Crimean takeover were preceded by large scale military exercises. This fact is pointed to as cause to suspect Zapad 17 might be more than it appears. Other observers, politicians, and military officials suspect that Russia will use the exercise to permanently station large numbers of troops in Belarus, tilting the military balance in eastern and northern Europe in its favor.

Practically speaking, Zapad 17 is a preparation for war. After all, that is the point of a strategic exercise like this. In the absence of a hidden political agenda, the results of the exercise will be an indicator of the nation’s military capabilities and of vital importance to Moscow.

Zapad 17 will run from 14-20 September and involve units from every Russian service branch and military district. Moscow claims there are only 12,000 or so troops participating, however this number is deliberately false. In reality there are upwards of 100,000 personnel involved. Not admitting the true number is a deliberate attempt by Moscow to prevent Western observers from being allowed to monitor the exercise up close. Russia and NATO have previously agreed that exercises containing upwards of 30,000+ troops trigger an automatic attendance by observers from the other side. By cooking the numbers in this case, Russia is taking advantage of a loophole to keep as many prying eyes out of Belarus as possible.

As the week goes on and Zapad 17 unfolds, we’ll keep  an eye on what is happening in and around Belarus and the Baltics.