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The 2014 NATO Summit: President Putin’s Take

This blog was originally posted on the website of the Centre for Security Governance on 12 September 2014.

I have just reread the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit Declaration issued in Cardiff, Wales. I have been trying to put myself in President Putin’s place as I have proceeded. How would he, directly or through his advisors, react to this Declaration? I am just guessing but here we go.

First and not most importantly, Putin would have been overwhelmed by its length: 113 paragraphs long, a perfect recipe for burying a message in verbosity. So, the Russian president might be forgiven for believing that the Alliance wanted to compensate for not having a clear intent with a kaleidoscope of impossibly widely-ranging intentions. In 1994, when I was last involved in a NATO communiqué drafting exercise, the final text had 21 paragraphs.

This is not just about length. The Declaration only fails to address the kitchen sink. NATO has morphed into a jack/jill of all trades and persuasions. The Declaration talks about would-be members, partner countries, cooperation among different intergovernmental institutions, headquarters reform, women in peace and security, rogue states, terrorism, ballistic missile defence, cyber security, financial management, the situation in countries where the Alliance has played a crucial role, such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, and so on. These are all integral issues but they obfuscate the crucially important ones.

The Declaration has been co-issued with shorter documents on Afghanistan, the Transatlantic Bond, and Ukraine that are admirable for their brevity and their focus. But this only partly attenuates the view that NATO is dealing with so many trees, it can’t see the forest: Putin would be right to conclude that NATO is failing in the focus department.

Of course, Putin would look particularly carefully at how NATO frames its stance on the key Euro-Atlantic issues of the day. There are essentially three.

The first is about defence budgets and capacity. Only four Alliance members devote 2 percent or more – the NATO benchmark agreed in 2006 – to defence spending: the UK, France, Greece and the US. Other members are below this threshold, including Germany and Canada, and in many cases well below. There is a commitment in the Declaration to reverse this trend but admonishments about the need for greater defence spending are not new to the Alliance. This will not be lost on Vladimir Putin, whose country’s defence spending has increased by over 30 percent since 2008, while NATO’s performance has sagged.

Of course, this is not about numbers alone; it is about the effective capacity that you can muster on the battlefield. But something is seriously out of kilter when the differential on personnel spending ranges from 72 percent in the leader in this category (Albania) to half that by the lowest spender on personnel (United States). Clearly, this has huge implications for NATO budgets on research, development, and procurement.

NATO has also committed to creating a new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VHRJTF) that will have a headquarters in an Eastern member of NATO and be ready to deploy some 4,000 personnel in a matter of days. The question that comes to mind is just how effective such a force would have been in the areas of Lugansk and Donetsk against Russia’s stealth warfare and its “little green men.”

Second, the Summit declaration recognizes the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām (ISIS) as a strategic threat and calls for allies to support an action led by the US. But this will not be a NATO action. The fact that the language on ISIS seems more robust that that on Ukraine is significant. Putin will understand by this that NATO solidarity is thin and selective. (If I were he, I would be contributing to the salaries of ISIS fighters: this is a perfect way to give the Americans and others a target that is easier to deal with than Russia and deflecting attention from Russia’s machinations in former Soviet space – though if ISIS does come north to the Russian Caucasus, as it has threatened, that would be another issue.)

Third, and most importantly for the future of the transatlantic Alliance, is the situation in Ukraine. The NATO Declaration waxes long and broad about the situation in this beleaguered country but as an Alliance it is short on detail.

For example, this is as far as the two–page document devoted to Ukraine goes, which is further that what is said in the Summit Declaration:

“We will further strengthen our cooperation in the framework of the Annual National Programme in the defence and security sector through capability development and sustainable capacity building programmes for Ukraine. In this context, Allies will launch substantial new programmes with a focus on command, control and communications, logistics and standardisation, cyber defence, military career transition, and strategic communications.”

There is, heaven forbid, nothing about troops on the ground. The Declaration even contains a phrase to the effect that Kyiv should “…continue to exercise restraint in its military actions.” Of course, it should, as should both sides to this conflict, but there is no equivalent admonishment directed to Russia. Moreover, I suspect that one of the reasons why there has been some indiscriminate shelling and loose targeting on Russian-supported elements in the east and south is that Ukraine lacks the sophisticated equipment that could minimise this and sufficient numbers of informed personnel to allow its forces to engage closer to the enemies’ lines.

Ukraine can be forgiven for this lacuna. It is resource weak. Its security was moreover guaranteed in 1994 by the US, the Russian Federation, and the UK when it surrendered its nuclear weapons. Ukrainians will not be alone in asking themselves whether this was a wise decision. Western countries have an obligation to Ukraine. Not to deliver on it will cost them dearly.

Now, in the wake of the Summit, we have a cease-fire, which appears to be relatively well respected. But I hasten to warn that NATO’s conflict with Russia – to paraphrase Churchill – is not even half-way through the end of its beginning.

In the wake of the Cardiff Summit, Vladimir Putin will sense himself confirmed in his vision of NATO as a “paper tiger” Alliance; an entity of which we might say in Canada: big hat, no cattle. Do not be surprised if President Putin presses on.

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