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.

Poland-Belarus Update: 14 November, 2021

With the migrant situation on its eastern border showing no signs of easing, the Polish government is looking for NATO to play a more prominent role in the crisis. Today, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki let it be known that Poland, Latvia and Lithuania are considering placing a request for consultations under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Article 4 allows member-nations to request a consultation when their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened. Invoking this particular article does not signal that an escalation is imminent, though it does indicate how critical the three nations consider the situation on their borders to be. NATO involvement in the crisis has so far been minimal. The security threat to Poland and the Baltic States, stemming from thousands of migrants pressed up against their frontiers, is not yet evident. The European Union has been the primary supra-national body involved in the dispute.  

The EU is set to expand the sanctions against Belarus on Monday to include airlines and private businesses involved in bringing migrants to the Poland-Belarus border. Sanctions against the Minsk National Airport are also under consideration, according to a number of sources in Brussels. Tomorrow, EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet and finalize the new sanctions.

RyanAir Flight Forced Down In Belarus, Dissident Journalist Arrested

In normal times this would never have taken place. The potential backlash, both diplomatic and economic, would be so decisive and painful that no nation-state in the First World could even contemplate taking action similar to that undertaken by Belarus on Sunday. Unfortunately, in contemporary times, international rules and regulations are flaunted by certain governments, and a growing reluctance to punish governments that openly challenge international norms.

As for the Sunday’s action in Belarus, it falls into a gray area between state-sponsored terrorism and modern day impressment. A RyanAir flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to Belarus because of a potential security threat on board,” according to Belarussian authorities. A Belarusian MiG-29 was launched to intercept the airliner and then escort it to Minsk. On the ground, the aircraft was inspected for explosives and none were found. Before being cleared to depart, however, Belarusian authorities boarded the plane and took Roman Protasevich into custody. Protasevich is a high-profile dissident journalist and active member of the opposition. He was placed on a terrorist watch list by the Belarusian KGB while living in exile. It is believed Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko personally gave the order for the airliner to be turned around. Belarusian officials have wanted him in custody for some time. Their wish has been granted.

This incident, along with being bold and reckless, has the power to bring about far-reaching consequences. Belarus is already contending with deteriorating relations between itself and most of its neighbors. There’s increasing suspicion about Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s growing influence in Belarusian affairs, as well as Russia’s long-range plans for Belarus.

Baltic States And Poland Cast A Wary Eye To The East

Lithuania’s president took advantage of the anniversary date for the May 3 Constitution of 1791 to lob a shot across Russia’s bow. While in Warsaw addressing an online session of both Poland’s and Lithuania’s parliaments, President Gitanas Nauseda affirmed that Lithuania will never recognize the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, its military pressure on eastern Ukraine or Russian moves to influence Belarus. “Lithuania will never recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea and will be taking steps toward ending the actual occupation of part of eastern Ukraine,” the Lithuanian president said. “Whatever happens, we cannot allow Ukraine to slide back into the past.”

Poland’s president Andrzej Duda also said today that Russia’s actions in Ukraine “must never be accepted.”

The two leaders were joined in Warsaw by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the leaders of Latvia and Estonia to celebrate the 230th anniversary of the joint Poland-Lithuanian constitution. Symbolically, the setting and event were tailor-made to demonstrate the Eastern European unity against Russia’s expansionist actions and desires in recent years. The consensus from Riga to Warsaw is that once Russia is finished with Ukraine, it will set its sights on the Baltics and eventually Poland. Perhaps even before the Ukrainian adventure is brought to a favorable end for Moscow.

Belarus has been a cause for concern recently. From the large-scale unrest and protests following the presidential election last year to Alexander Lukashenko gravitating nearer to the Russian sphere of influence, the nations bordering Belarus suspect that Russia’s ambitions include developing that country into a springboard for future operations against the Baltic states and Poland.

Sweden Increases Military Readiness And Sends A Signal To Russia

Wary of what the Swedish Armed Forces’ Commander of Joint Operations referred to as ‘extensive military activity in the Baltic Sea’ at present Sweden is moving to raise its military readiness. Both Russia, and NATO have been holding sizeable exercises, and running patrol operations in the Baltic region of late. The scale of activity has been on a level not seen since the Cold War. This, coupled with the uncertainty of the ongoing global pandemic, and disputed election in Belarus is creating a heightened security situation in the Baltic. The Swedes are rightfully growing concerned and this latest move is intended to send a signal to friend and foe alike that Sweden stands prepared to defend its sovereignty.

It goes without saying, however, that the signal is intended more for Moscow’s benefit rather than Washington’s, or London’s.

Sweden has not been shy about publicizing its deployments. On Tuesday, Swedish television broadcast video footage of armored vehicles arriving on Gotland amid vacationing families, and other tourists. In Stockholm, the Swedish government has been careful not to connect its military moves with the unrest taking place in Belarus. It has admitted the ongoing Russian military exercises are what finally moved Sweden to take action. Along with the armored vehicles, a number of Gripen fighter planes have also been deployed to Gotland. In the Baltic Sea, four Swedish corvettes are presently exercising with the Finnish Navy. Other nations are also moving military pieces around the Scandinavian chessboard. Over the weekend a US special operations aircraft landed on Gotland for a period of time, and farther north Norwegian F-16s, and US Air Force B-52s exercised together over the Arctic.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sweden became concerned about Russia’s intentions in the Baltic, and Europe. Following years of declining defense budgets, Sweden reversed course and started to spend more money on defense. Since 2014 the size and capabilities of the Swedish armed forces have increased with Russia now seen as an unfriendly, potentially hostile Baltic neighbor. Sweden remains unaligned, and neutral in most regards but that has not prevented Swedish forces from taking part in exercises and engaging in closer military relations with a number of NATO nations.