Will NATO fight? And for What? (la NATO combatterà? E per cosa?)
By Stephen Bryen @ Il Nodo di Gordio
Sunday, February 19th, 2017 @ 3:33PM
The one thing I am convinced about is that the Russians can count. They know the size and capability of NATO-directed forces deployed in the Baltic States and Poland, and they know that NATO is, despite recent frenetic activity and the delivery of tanks and equipment, far from prepared. But the Russians chose to put pressure in the Baltic area, including even Finland and Sweden (both of whom are outside of the NATO alliance) largely to expose NATO’s vulnerability and raise doubts about NATO’s pretension to protect its newest members.
It is quite easy to see that many of these countries, especially Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are seriously unprepared to defend themselves. One could ask, with a certain fairness, why NATO was so anxious to acquire their membership that no requirement was put on defense preparedness.
Latvia, for example, has less than 5,000 military personnel but only less than 1,000 in the army. It has no tanks and no combat aircraft. Latvia has 2.3 million people. Obviously, national defense takes a back seat to social programs and welfare,
Lithuania is a little better, having introduced conscription in 2015. Overall there are 20,000 in military service, though far fewer fighting units. About 4,800 of the 20,000 are border guards. Lithuania is acquiring some infantry fighting vehicles but has no tanks, very little artillery, and some second-hand L-39C Albatross trainer aircraft (bought second-hand from Kazakhstan) that can also provide some minimal air defense. Its population is just below 3 million, and it is spending roughly 1.9% of its GDP on defense (mainly for personnel).
Estonia also follows a de minimis defense policy with just 17,500 in the military, roughly half women. The number on-duty is about 6,000. It has no air force save a few helicopters, and while Estonia pretends to be shopping for some fighters, it has not bought any. Estonia has said it wants more NATO troops operating on its territory, provided they are not black (that is of African heritage). While this is not a real problem in Europe, outside of France, it is a major one for the United States where black Americans are a vital part of America’s armed forces. In the US Army, 31% of active duty women are black Americans, and 16% of active duty males are black. Estonia is a small country (1.3 million) and spends very little on defense (€477 million or roughly 2.3% of GDP, putting it ahead of Latvia and Lithuania).
The picture brightens considerably when we talk about Poland (which spends $9.4 billion on defense, or roughly 2.0% of its GDP). It has a substantial army and air force.
Sweden and Finland, despite their non-aligned status, also have fairly strong military capabilities. In March 2013 Sweden experienced a Russian “practice run” that looked to them like a rehearsal for an invasion. Sweden’s army has 120 main battle tanks and over 500 infantry fighting vehicles. It also has rapid reaction forces, a small but strong navy and less than a handful of highly capable submarines. But most impressively Sweden has a top-notch air force, one of the largest in Europe with 217 combat aircraft projected to increase by between 100 and 120 aircraft in future. Sweden’s biggest problem is that its defense budget has, until recently been shrunk and is only about 1.5% of GDP. Sweden’s goal is to increase its defense spending to reach 3% of GDP. Whether Swedish politicians, mainly strongly leftist will allow this surge remains to be seen. But of all the Baltic countries (excepting Poland), Sweden is in a good position to defend itself, even against the Russians who would find any attack on Sweden very costly.
Finland has universal military conscription for males and with it both a strong army and a large and talented reserve force. Having fought the Soviet Union, the Finns have an appreciation for how much sacrifice is involved and how important preparedness is as well. Finland has been flirting with a stronger NATO relationship as Russia carries on saber rattling. Finland has 160 main battle tanks and 40 new ones arriving in the next few years. It has an air force of 62 front line fighters with another 65 combat-capable aircraft mainly relegated to the training role. The Finnish army has a high level of mechanization and strong artillery. Unfortunately, Finnish defense spending is below par, considering their needs and population, rounding out at around $2.2 billion or 1.3% of GDP. Given the equipment they must maintain and the size of the reserves and active duty forces, this is a thin budget to deal with any local threat.
Thus, we have in the Baltic area several countries that are vulnerable should the Russians start trouble. While the US and its NATO allies now have put four multinational battalions (not brigades) into the mix and are providing modern fighter and strike aircraft as part of the European Reassurance Initiative, these commitments are more psychological than capable of turning back a real Russian attack.
The Rand Corporation study of the situation was highly negative. Rand’s investigators ran war games revealing that:
- Across multiple [war] games using a wide range of expert participants in and out of uniform playing both sides, the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, is 60 hours.
- Such a rapid defeat would leave NATO with a limited number of options, all bad.
Rand recommended the following:
- A force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades — adequately supported by air power, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities — could suffice to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states.
- While not sufficient to mount a sustained defense of the region or to achieve NATO’s ultimate end state of restoring its members’ territorial integrity, such a posture would fundamentally change the strategic picture as seen from Moscow.
The U.S. and allied reinforcement of the Baltic states fall very far short of what Rand sees as a minimal defense posture.
The heart of the NATO system is Collective Security or sometimes termed Collective Defense. The key article of the Washington Treaty (alternatively called the North Atlantic Treaty) signed on April 4th, 1949 is Article 5.
Article 5 set s down the key idea, namely that an attack on one Ally is considered as an attack on all the Allies. While NATO has taken, what can be called collective defense actions as it did regarding Syria and the crisis in Ukraine, Article 5 was only invoked once since 1949, and that was in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States.
In that one instance, the US asked for Article 5 to be invoked. But the Article’s invocation was not exactly what the United States was hoping for from its Allies. NATO’s initial finding was to make Article 5 contingent on evidence that the attack on the United States was directed by an outside state and only a month after 9/11 (actually on 5 October) did NATO agree that an outside force was involved and thus Article 5’s implementation was approved. Even then, NATO’s action was very far from anything one would imagine as a collective defense. NATO agreed that it would do some things to support the U.S., but that the United States was “free” to do whatever it felt necessary consistent with its obligations under the UN Charter. In short, NATO granted rights to the United States that it anyway always had, and fell short of backing its Ally in a meaningful way.
This prior performance under Article 5 perhaps gives us a clue as to how useful NATO might be in a real crisis with a powerful adversary.
There are two features of Article 5 that draw attention. The first is that Article 5 leaves it entirely up to member states to decide what action each individually to take if Article 5 is invoked, which itself must be done by a unanimous vote. The second is that Article 5 is tied strongly to the United Nation’s Security Council where Russia has a veto over any implementing resolutions.
The full text of Article 5:
“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
“Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”
Would NATO be able to get agreement should military action by Russia go against one of the Baltic countries, especially if there was some alleged provocation? Such an incident happened in 2007 when the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn that had been erected by the Soviets in 1949 was moved by the Estonian authorities. This included either the transfer of Russian soldier’s graves associated with the Bronze Soldier to an alternative burial site or where the Russian relatives could be found, returning the remains to them for re-burial in Russia.
The bronze soldier incident touched off a political firestorm where the Russians responded in a variety of ways, most notably to launch a powerful cyber-war against Estonian government organizations, the Estonian military, and banking and financial systems in that country. By 2007 Estonia was already a member of NATO for three years but did not ask for Article 5 implementation. But would they take the same view now that NATO has located forces on their territory and given them some assurance it will support them in a conflict? In a sense, NATO has made itself a hostage to a future incident, real or manufactured.
But the bigger question, one that Donald Trump has raised, is whether the U.S. should continue to support NATO where most of the burden is on the U. S., especially the fighting and dying? And even if the U.S. remains among the willing, pushed into that posture by a combative Congress and press, what about the other NATO members?
Would Greece or Turkey support NATO in a fight far in the north where they have no interest and where they are, anyway, gravitating to the Russian orbit? Or would France or Germany want to risk the wreck of their economies for a war they believe could be avoided?
Much of the Baltic question is wrapped up in the Ukrainian mess. To the degree, the Ukraine issue can be mitigated and defused, the potential for conflict in NATO is reduced. The truth is, of course, that the NATO states played a pernicious role in stimulating the conflict in the Ukraine by raising alarm bells in Moscow that still are echoing down the halls of the Kremlin. At some point, a resolution needs to be found that is consistent with Western security and provides a guaranteed solution of the Ukraine question.
Whether that can be achieved depends not only on President Trump’s ability to negotiate but also to what extend President Putin needs to protect himself from his saber-rattling generals.
* Stephen D. Bryen is a senior fellow with the American Center for Democracy
* See the original article in Italian, Bryen: la NATO combatterà? E per cosa? Il Nodo di Gordio, February 17, 2017.