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.

George Soros Warns the European Union

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George Soros issued a frank warning in an op-ed piece  published yesterday. The billionaire activist, and financial supporter of leftwing  progressive political causes around the world, urged Europeans to “please wake up” and recognize the internal and external threats facing the European Union. He compared the situation facing the EU today to the Soviet Union in 1991. The supra-national organization is facing a revolutionary moment that could pave the way to an uncertain future. Sadly, Soros points out, Europe’s leaders, and citizens seem not to recognize the dangerous territory which the EU is entering.

For a politically-involved wealthy private citizen to be publicly sounding the general alarm, it speaks volumes on the present state of the EU. Soros has long been a staunch supporter of the European experiment. However, unlike  many officials in Brussels, the Hungarian billionaire is also a realist.  The messy Brexit situation, unrest in France, Angela Merkel’s declining influence, and of course, the continuing rise of  populism, and nationalism have come together to form a perfect storm. Soros is obviously hoping his words will motivate Europhiles to take action before it is too late. Yet even he suggests it possible that the union is past the point of rescue.

European Parliament elections are coming in May. Soros is hoping his call will rally the EU and its supporters before then, and perhaps prevent the anticipated antiestablishment surge from becoming a reality. Fears of what the upcoming elections could bring are already circulating around the continent, and many view the May election as being a referendum on the entire 60-year old European Union experiment. There is a very real chance that anti-EU parties can win enough seats to severely disrupt legislative affairs. If Britain is still an EU member come May, it will send representatives to the European Parliament. An awkward scenario at best, a potential political storm at worst.

How the Soros warning is digested will become known as May draws nearer. Can his words rally EU leaders, and supporters in time, or is the European Union destined to meet the same fate as the Soviet Union?

End of the Road For the INF Treaty?

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Russia wasted no time responding to the United States announcement it was suspending compliance with the INF Treaty. Earlier today, Russian President Vladimir Putin let it be known his country would be doing the same. The door is not completely closed on the landmark arms control agreement though. The US has given Russia a six-month period of time to return to full compliance with the terms of the treaty. Not that Russia has been honoring its treaty commitment in recent years. Washington has long suspected Russia of violating the treaty with suspicions going back to when Barack Obama was in office. Little was done by the previous administration to redress the situation, however. President Trump’s approach to the matter has been more decisive. The Trump administration has openly called out Russia and provided evidence that at the very least suggests Moscow is not adhering to the terms of the INF treaty.

The latest US action was anticipated and can hardly be considered a surprise. Fair warning was given and Russia did not respond to it. If Moscow does not begin complying with the treaty terms in six months, the INF treaty will be terminated. The US suspending compliance doesn’t herald the start of a new arms race, contrary to the warnings of some pundits. The race has been underway since Russia breached the terms of the treaty. The United States is now forced to play catch-up in essence. The current mindset in Washington is simple: Russia has not been restricted by the treaty in recent years, so why should the US continue to allow its own hands to be tied?

The Atlantic Alliance is standing behind the United States on this matter. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the BBC: “All [European] allies agree with the United States because Russia has violated the treaty for several years. They are deploying more and more of the new nuclear capable missiles in Europe.” This week US envoys will be dispatched to the capital cities of numerous alliance members and detailed briefings on the situation will be given.

Saturday 20 October, 2018 Update: USS Truman Crosses the Arctic Circle

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The USS Harry S Truman, and her escort ships entered the Norwegian Sea on Friday, marking the first time a US aircraft carrier has operated above the Arctic Circle in nearly 30 years. The last time was in September, 1991 a few months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. USS America moved north of the Circle while taking part in the NATO exercise Northern Star. Coincidentally, the reason for Truman’s venture north is also to participate in a NATO exercise. Trident Juncture 18 is scheduled to officially begin on 25 October.

In the last decade of the Cold War, US aircraft carriers operated north of the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian Sea on a fairly regular basis. If hostilities had ever broken out between NATO and the Warsaw Pact back then, the Norwegian Sea would’ve been a hotly contested piece of water. The US Navy’s Maritime Strategy had called for multiple carrier battlegroups to operate in the Norwegian Sea, in close proximity to the Soviet mainland. The concept at the time was for the carriers to eventually bring the war to Soviet soil with heavy airstrikes against military targets on the Kola Peninsula. Back then, whenever a US carrier moved north of the Arctic Circle ostensibly to take part in an exercise, it was also there to send a message to Moscow.

The same could very well hold true today. Truman’s journey north serves as a reminder of the US Navy’s global reach, and striking power at a time when tensions between Russia and the West remain high.

A Brief Summary: INF Treaty Violations and the Future of US-Russian Relations

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During the 1980s ground-based mobile missile systems became a major arms-control topic for the United States and the Soviet Union. The rationale of the superpowers on the matter was uncomplicated: both sides wanted them in Europe, yet each side was scared of the other possessing them. The US systems in place in Western Europe at the time probably worried Moscow more than the Soviet systems concerned Washington. The reason for this was the superiority of the US missile systems. The Pershing 2 and BGM-109G, the Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) system were newer and more advanced than their Soviet counterpart, the SS-20.

Those mutual fears and anxieties led President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to hammer out a treaty that eliminated all nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges between 310-620 miles (short range systems) and 620-3,420 miles (intermediate range) as well as their launchers. The treaty was named the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty for short. It was signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in December, 1987 and went into effect in June, 1988. At the time, the treaty was heralded as a major step forward towards eventual nuclear disarmament and peace. Then the Cold War came to an abrupt, unforeseen conclusion in 1991 and the treaty was largely forgotten for a long period of time.

In 2007, INF was again in the news. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that it no longer served the purposes of the Russian Federation. Putin’s chief military officer supported the statement by hinting that whether or not Russia remained bound by the guidelines of INF would depend on the United States intentions with the Ground Based Midcourse Defense missile system, which the US had planned to deploy in Eastern Europe. Those plans were eventually halted and replaced with a combined sea-land based system. The very system now becoming operational, with ground locations in Romania and soon Poland.

In 2017, The US/NATO missile defense system in Eastern Europe is not yet entirely online, however it continues to be a thorn in Russia’s side. For years Russia has spoken of the potential vulnerability which the system casts upon Russia and its strategic arsenal. In spite of countless assurances by the United States and NATO that the missile defense system is designed to counter missile threats from Iran, Russia has not backed down from its position. The West has not backed down from its commitment to the system. In fact, since the events in Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, NATO and the US have become more determined to field the system as soon as possible. Russia views this reality as an indication that the true purpose of the missile shield is to neutralize Russia’s strategic arsenal.

Fast forward to the present day. News broke in the media today that the Russian’s are deploying a cruise missile in direct violation of INF. The news was probably something of a shock to the public, however, the US intelligence community and Pentagon have been monitoring the development of the SS-C-8 ( a cruise missile version of the SS-30A) and surmised that eventually the system would become operational. In fact, in 2014 the Obama administration accused Russia of violating INF by developing and testing this missile.  Russia denies any treaty violation, however, the SS-C-8’s performance characteristics say otherwise. Its range is between 300 and 3,400 miles, a distance covered under the terms of INF. Russia currently has two battalions of SS-C-8 missiles in service. One is operational and deployed somewhere in the Russian Federation while the second unit is still working up.

For the short term, the appearance of the new Russian cruise missile will not affect the military picture or security situation in Eastern Europe. The violation issue will be viewed differently in Washington, however. Specifically, it will be seen as a challenge to the Trump administration at a moment of early upheaval with the resignation of Mike Flynn from the National Security Adviser chair. Further, the violation will make Trump’s desire to improve relations between the United States and Russia all the more difficult. Even though Vladimir Putin has stated a desire to also improve relations with the US, his recent actions suggest otherwise. Last Friday, Russian aircraft buzzed the destroyer USS.Porter while she was on patrol in the Black Sea. The incident was the first of its kind since Trump was inaugurated on 20 January.

Putin might not want a confrontation with the US, however, he is quite blatantly attempting to test the new president and see for himself just how far Trump can be pushed.