A couple of related items came up at NATO Spokesman James Apathurai's press briefing last week. Journalists asked about the NATO Response Force (NRF) questions that had leaked during the London Defence Ministerial a couple of weeks ago, and a group of NATO nations (plus Sweden and Finland) which is establishing a combined heavy airlift capability took a big step towards the purchase of the C-17 aircraft they will operate for the Alliance.
Appathurai was asked "whether you can give us any flavour of what were the discussions in London between the Ministers of Defence on what to do about the Baltics, whether there's any need to give them any sort of greater defence, reassurement?"
He replied that "there was an informal discussion amongst the NATO Defence Ministers on the issue of planning and exercising for collective defence. The consensus, not a formal decision because this was not a decision-taking meeting, but the consensus was that NATO has always done what is necessary to ensure that the necessary... that the appropriate planning and exercising is in place for the defence of allied territory. That is one of our core... or "the" core task of NATO; that no one should be surprised if any prudent planning or any exercises take place in future to meet... to continue to meet, excuse me, that core task. And if and when such planning or exercises take place, this should be considered business as usual for NATO."
This somewhat waffly answer conceals a difficult truth for NATO. In the wake of the conflict in Georgia the Baltic States have asked for NATO's defence guarantee to be given some extra teeth. They received support for this from Des Browne, then UK Defence Secretary. Specifically, they wanted assurances that in the event of Russian military deployments near their borders, the NRF could be deployed to defend them. France, Germany and Italy objected and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was left to finesse the question at a press conference in London, something he didn't do very well, raising more inquisitive eyebrows than he intended. (See previous posts on the London meeting)
De Hoop Sceffer and US Ambassador to NATO Volker have previously promised to do all that is necessary, both in terms of planning and exercises, to ensure that NATO is ready to defend the Baltic States. However, the idea of formally committing the NRF has become controversial as it is symbolic of the new confrontation with Russia. This has been building as Russian objections to the deployment of missile defence in Eastern Europe, and NATO nations failure to ratify the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty led to a cut-off in cooperation on CFE implementation. The Georgian conflict this summer has turned a simmering dispute into a full blown stand-off between the two.
The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding for the collective purchase of C-17 transport aircraft is significant in this context. It gives NATO a joint capacity to transport the NRF (as opposed to asking for American help) and thus contributes to enhanced operational capacity for the NRF. Since the transport wing will be based in Hungary, it also shifts the balance of NATO forces eastwards, and seems to go against promises about the restriction of military infrastructure in the east of Europe that were made to Russia repeatedly during the past 15 years, thus contributing further to Russia's sense of encirclement, and to the crisis in relations between NATO and Russia.
NATO leaders protest they don't want a new Cold War. They need to work out relations with Russia very quickly if it is to be avoided. Russia has announced plans to step up its nuclear force modernisation, and to work on its own missile defences. It has suspended cooperation with NATO on CFE and used that suspension to mount the Georgia operation in stealth. It has threatened to significantly enhance its military forces in Kaliningrad.
In present circumstances, the internal NATO debate about stepping up defence cooperation for the Baltics can only contribute to this negative spiral.