Tuesday, 23 September 2008

After London, Budapest Next

Last week, NATO Defence Ministers met in London in an informal session, one that issues no communique and takes no decisions. The occasion was surrounded in some mystery, with even the reason for the meeting seeming somewhat confused - even after (or perhaps because) Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer gave his press conference.

Defence Ministers will meet again in Budapest in two weeks time for their regular Autumn informal session. So why was the London meeting held? And what was discussed? What are the concrete results liekly to be? The picture is now becoming a little clearer.

The meeting had been planned at the invitation of UK Defence Secretary Des Browne, who called for the meeting during the Bucharest Summit this spring. His intention was to discuss the further transformation of NATO's defence structures. At issue was the pressing need to provide more equipment to front-line NATO operations in Afghanistan, especially helicopters; and also the need to build common infrastructure including strategic airlift. Another issue that concerned Browne is the need to bring the NATO Response Force up to full operational capability. Further, Browne has ideas about slimming down the NATO HQ bureaucracy to provide funds for the more urgent needs.

However, in the event this agenda was derailed by the fallout from the Russia-Georgia conflict this Summer. A group of countries led by Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic States demanded a review of NATO relations with Russia. In this they had the full support of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. They also called a revision of the mandate of the NATO Response Force, conceived to allow swift NATO intervention beyond Europe's borders, to allow it to operate within NATO territory in the event of a threat from Russia.

According to the AFP, Polish Defence Minister Bogdan Klich told the meeting that NATO's principle task is "still the defence of its member states, which must not be diluted." This is something of a U-turn for the Polish government, which since elections last year, had been taking a much more conciliatory line with Russia. This changed when Russia crushed Georgia in a few days this Summer. The return to an emphasis on territorial defence, something the Baltic States have always insisted on, is part of debate on the future of NATO and a direct thrust at those (including the Secretary General0 who believe that NATO must look ever wider for new security tasks in order to justify its existence in the 21st Century.

NATO sources added that there might be a greater visibility for the NATO air defence forces which have flown missions over the Baltic States since their entry into the Alliance. And their will more resources pumped into military planning for any eventual problems with Russia.

A NATO Spokesperson has been moved to respond to some press reports, saying that NATO has no plans to deploy forces to the Russian border. However, since that was never claimed the denial lacks real credibility. Obviously, the NRF could be used to confront Russia just as easily to mount an operation in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Browne's agenda on the slimming down of the NATO bureaucracy also ran into problems. The Greek Defence Minister, for one, opining that it was better for the NATO HQ to involve all nations (thereby building solidarity) than to save a little money and cut some nations out of NATO operations.

NATO Ministers move on to Budapest to continue this debate, and also to consider the future of their Afghan mission. They are also looking ofrward to the future Strategic Concept debate which will determine the future roles and organisation of the Alliance.

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