The NATO Summit 2016 in Warsaw: A Summit of Compromises

by Patrick Truffer (originally published in German). He graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Affairs and completes a Master of Arts program in International Relations at the Freie Universität Berlin.

At the beginning of July, NATO member states met for the biannual summit, which this time was taking place in Warsaw. The host nation, Poland, made elaborate attempts to use the summit to assert its own interests. Hence “Anaconda 2016“, a military exercise, was run this year between the 7th and the 17th June 2016, with over 31,000 soldiers from 24 NATO states and partner states taking part. This military exercise was therefore the largest of its kind after the Cold War if we discount Russia’s military exercises, which are on an even larger scale. Additionally, the annual military exercise “BALTOPS” also took place between the 3rd June and the 19th June 2016, which involved 6,100 soldiers from 15 NATO states and 2 partner states including Poland.

Poland, along with other Eastern European nations, is looking to convince the other NATO member states that it requires NATO troops to be permanently stationed in Eastern Europe, as well as C2 installations, in light of the threat from Russia. Such permanent stationing would – at least from a Russian perspective – be in breach of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. This means that, after the NATO summit, we are faced with the question, if the Eastern European countries were able to assert their interests during the summit in Warsaw, and what measures NATO is taking to secure its eastern flank. Moreover, the interests of the Eastern European countries seem to compete with the interests of the southern European countries, who, for their part, are in need of a stronger southern flank. This raises also the question of which interests the Southern European countries were able to assert at the summit, and whether a combining strategy exists.

Meeting in Interoperability format at the level of Defence Ministers.

Meeting in Interoperability format at the level of Defence Ministers.

Today, NATO no longer needs to justify its existence given the fact the eastern and southern flank face more challenges than ever before. Additionally, in the wake of Brexit, the defence alliance has to take on an unexpected additional function: the integration of British military power in the European security framework. This involves heightened cooperation on the part of NATO and the EU in the defence against hybrid threats, in the area of Cyberwarfare and the field of maritime security: Even with Brexit, the West will not collapse. However, for the cooperation agreement between NATO and the EU to be, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it, a “historic decision”, it will need to actually be put into effect. Most likely we will only be able to judge it in the long run.

Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow also viewed this year’s meeting as one of the most fateful meetings in the history of NATO, highlighting the varied but concurrent challenges the defence alliance is currently facing (“The NATO Deputy Secretary General A. Vershbow: NATO Summit in Warsaw could be one of the most fateful“, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of Poland, 04.06.2016). The decisions taken in Warsaw are indeed a political signal to Russia, yet do not deserve to be called “historic”. It is hardly surprising for a consensus-based alliance made up of 28 states, then, that this year’s meeting of NATO members turned out rather to be a “Summit of Compromises”.

Germany and France in particular showed themselves to be moderating forces even before the summit took place. Although new multinational battalions of up to 1,000 men will be dispatched to Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from 2017 onwards, but these battalions will not be permanently stationed. Instead, the troops will in fact be rotated (Enhanced Forward Presence). Germany will support the battalion in Lithuania as a framework nation, with the United Kingdom supporting the battalion in Estonia, the USA the one in Poland and Canada the one in Latvia. Before the summit there were rumors that perhaps even a multinational brigade might be stationed in Romania to benefit the southeast, though on the summit no final decision has been made with regards to such an action. As expected, basically, NATO is thereby remaining loyal to the NATO-Russia Founding Act and doesn’t fulfil the wishes of the nation hosting the NATO Summit, which has requested robust, permanently stationed NATO troops and C2 installations.

In any case, these multinational battalions will still act as a “trip wire”. Their offshore presence will ensure that any violation of Baltic or Polish territory would automatically involve several member states, thus unequivocally triggering a case for collective defence (in accordance with article 5 of the NATO Treaty). This strategy has already been tested against the Soviet Union during the Cold War when the stationing of NATO troops along the border between West and East Germany made it abundantly clear that a Soviet attack would lead to a nuclear escalation. With regards to the Eastern European member states, the multinational battalions could be reinforced during a crisis with 5,000 soldiers from the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) within 2-5 days. After these 5 days, as many as 30,000 NATO Response Force soldiers could then be deployed in total.


Independently of all of this, the USA has been running the European Reassurance Initiative since the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. This initiative comprises a rotating tank brigade that takes part in military exercises in Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania. In light of Russia’s plans to station 30,000 soldiers in the western military district, which have the capacity to reach the capital cities of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in 60 hours at most, we can hardly say that a credible deterrent exists even if we factor in the U.S. tank brigade. In order to really be able to prevent Russia taking military action in the Eastern European states by making entry into said countries very costly, we would, according to the Rand Corporation (which is relying on the results of a series of practical simulations that took place between summer 2014 and early spring 2015), need to permanently station seven brigades, including three tank brigades, and set up combat support on the ground and in the air (David A. Shlapak und Michael Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank“, RAND Corporation, 2016). So, the decision to station four multinational battalions on a rotational basis is at best a kind of “restrained deterrent” — if such a thing could exist. Despite the ostensibly positive response of the Eastern European NATO member states, the deterrent against Russia that was originally hoped for would look different.

This does not mean, however, that such a defensive, cautious approach from NATO would be wrong per se. This is because a permanent stationing of troops would have declared the NATO-Russia Founding Act null and void, and it would have provoked comprehensive countermeasures on the part of Russia. On the contrary, NATO stresses in its final communiqué that it is complying with international agreements, including the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and expects Russia to do the same. NATO deems the following actions to be Russian violations of international agreements: Russia’s annexation of Crimea, general border-breaches and the destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine in particular, Russia’s carrying out of short-term, large-scale military exercises that violate the spirit of the Vienna Document, provocative military actions in the Baltic region, the Black Sea Region and the Eastern Mediterranean, in addition to the aggressive rhetoric regarding the use of nuclear weapons.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg viewing the Global Hawk, Allied Ground Surveillance (AGS) display.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg viewing the Global Hawk, Allied Ground Surveillance (AGS) display.

Regarding the southern flank, the final communiqué from NATO states that the terrorist organisation “Islamic State” represents an immediate and direct threat to NATO member states and the international community as a whole. Even though NATO has been solely involved on the sideline, its member states and many of its partners support the U.S.-led International Alliance against Islamic State. NATO will now supply the alliance with its AWACS aircraft, which are equipped with modern radar and communication technology, though only outside Syrian and Iraqi airspace.

In order to secure the southern flank, NATO will also expand the training missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, set up a Fusion Centre in Tunisia that will provide Tunisian special forces with intelligence, and broaden it’s naval operation in the Mediterranean (Jens Stoltenberg, “Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the level of Heads of State and Government on Projecting Stability“, NATO, 9. Juli 2016). This new naval operation, known as “Sea Guardian”, is meant to supersede Operation “Active Endeavour“, which was initiated soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in order to uncover and deter terrorist activities in the Mediterranean.

The details of Operation “Sea Guardian” are not yet well known, but it is likely that it will primarily support the EU’s naval operation “Sofia“. Operation “Sea Guardian” is, however, no longer meant to be based on collective defence outlined in article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which was in fact the case for Operation “Active Endeavour”. Probably the new acquired Global Hawk drones (RQ-4B Block 40) will be used, five of which were procured as part of the Alliance Ground Surveillance Program, and which are scheduled to come into operation from 2017 onwards at the Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy. US Air Force Global Hawks are currently already stationed in Sigonella, and these have been visible on satellite images for about a year now. To accommodate them, additional hangars were in fact built on the military airfield a few years ago.


The differing approaches to securing the two flanks are evident, and they account for the fact the nature of the threat is so varied. However, the measures for protecting the southern flank only partially meet demands, especially from Italy and Turky, of a bigger NATO involvement. As such, the VJTF intended for the eastern flank, for instance, is not being expanded for deployment in the south (Karl-Heinz Kamp, “The agenda of the NATO summit in Warsaw“, Security Policy Working Paper, Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik, Nr. 9, 2015).

Also with regard to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, there is nothing surprising to report: As expected, the Afghan forces are going to continue to receive financial support until 2020, and mission “Resolute Support” will also continue. Given the fact Afghan forces remain weak, NATO ultimately has no other options. What is far more important, however, is the fact that the USA has stopped withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, and the fact that it has kept its military contingent at 8,400 men for the time being. We can expect approximately 6,000 soldiers from the remaining NATO member states (Carol E. Lee und Felicia Schwartz, “Obama to Slow Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan“, Wall Street Journal, 07.06.2016).

As before, NATO deterrent and defence doctrine is based on both nuclear as well as conventional capabilities. In the long term, however, the missile defence shield will become increasingly important (for details, see: Thomas Karako, “Looking East: European Air and Missile Defense after Warsaw” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 14.07.2016). The setting up of a land-based AEGIS system with SM-3 Block IB missiles (Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System; AAMDS) at the Deveselu Military Airbase in Romania enabled the shield to attain Initial Operational Capability just in time for the summit. The range of the interceptor missiles is around 1,200 km. The second AAMDS is due to be set up at the Słupsk-Redzikowo Airfield (Poland) in 2018 (Radu Tudor, “NATO activates first missile defence site in Europe“, IHS Jane’s 360, 13.05.2016).

As part of Switzerland’s participation in the NATO program “Partnership for Peace“, the Head of the Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports, Guy Parmelin was also invited to Warsaw. His visit was, however, prevented by the fact that he was already take part at the annual Bundesratsreise, when all seven members of the Swiss Federal Council visit a part of Switzerland. Though this wasn’t entirely unwelcome, because of the neutrality of Switzerland, the Swiss Population is by the majority against a closer move to NATO (Tibor Szvircsev Tresch et al., “Sicherheit 2016“, Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich, 2016, p. 123). He thus sent Ambassador Christian Catrina, Head of Security Policy in the Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports, to the summit instead, who explained that cooperation with the NATO was progressing as “business as usual” (“auf der üblichen Flughöhe“).

Meeting in Interoperability format at the level of Defence Ministers: Minister of Defence of Spain Pedro Morenes Eulate, Minister of Defence of Sweden Peter Hultqvist and Ambassador Christian Catrina, who was named as "Minister of Defence of Switzerland" by mistake.

Meeting in Interoperability format at the level of Defence Ministers: Minister of Defence of Spain Pedro Morenes Eulate, Minister of Defence of Sweden Peter Hultqvist and Ambassador Christian Catrina, who was named as “Minister of Defence of Switzerland” by mistake.

The decisions reached at the NATO Summit in Warsaw are not surprising. Ultimately the interests of the NATO member states are only being served at a bare-bones level. In other words, the Eastern European NATO member states are being reinforced with multinational battalions rather than permanent ones, yet any breach of the NATO-Russia Founding Treaty will come to nothing not least due to resistance on the part of Germany and France. Consensus decision-making makes NATO averse to taking risks, meaning it will all too happily resort to tried and tested methods. Take, for example, the “trip wire” strategy from the time of the Cold War. Not only is this offshore troop presence a political signal to Russia, but it also (albeit probably unintentionally) illustrates the relationship between NATO and Russia, which is not that different from their relationship during the Cold War. This fact also confirmed by the talks that took place during the NATO-Russia Council after the NATO Summit, which was only meeting for the second time since the crisis in Ukraine began in 2014.

NATO is a civil-run political organisation. Hence the additional offshore troops will not, not even combined with the European Reassurance Initiative that the USA is implementing single-handedly, be able to meet actual military requirements for deterring Russia effectively. The political signal to Russia is clear, though, but only time will tell whether it will be enough (and Donald J. Trump, the 2016 Republican Party nominee for President of the United States, is not helping with his statement, which put the U.S. assistance in the case of a Russian aggression in Eastern Europe in question). The advantage of this political and, from a military standpoint, more defensive approach, however, lies in its fundamental compliance with the agreements outlined in the NATO-Russia Founding Act. This in turn gives Russia no new ammunition in the propaganda war, and it will hardly increase the risk of escalation. In the end, a new arms race is the last thing the NATO member states want.

Measures for strengthening the Eastern European flank indirectly compete with the demands of the Southern European member states for greater NATO involvement on the southern flank. Currently, however, the VJTF is solely focused on the eastern flank, and there are no plans to deploy it on the southern flank. But even here, despite the fact the interests of the Southern European member states have only been partially fulfiled, these restrictions do make a great deal of sense. The nature of the threat on the southern flank and the capabilities of the Southern European armed forces differ significantly from the threat Eastern Europe faces and the modest capabilities the region’s countries possesse. It is thus doubtful that deploying VJTF on the southern flank would be of any added benefit. So, thanks to the support it is providing to the International Alliance Against Islamic State in the form of AWACS aircraft, the expansion of the training mission in Iraq and Afghanistan, the setup of the Fusion Centre for intelligence in Tunisia for supporting Tunisian special forces, not to mention enhanced cooperation with the EU, NATO is on the right track. Nevertheless, it appears that the full potential of the measures that are available for securing the southern flank more effectively have not been exhausted. In particular, there still seems to be a lot of room for closer cooperation with partner countries in the MENA region.

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