After years of presuming that all significant activities by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would be “out of area,” big changes are afoot as key Alliance member countries are realizing that traditional military threats are returning and NATO, having placed enormous effort since 2001 on the losing war in Afghanistan, is unprepared to meet them. As NATO plans to leave Afghanistan next year, the Alliance’s future path is coming into focus.
The reemergence of Russia as a traditional military power is now clear to all who wish to see. Bolstered by oil money, the Kremlin is investing seriously in defense for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian naval shipbuilding, which nearly disappeared in the 1990s, is now funded at half the level of the U.S. Navy’s program, while only a few years ago it was only one-tenth of the Navy’s level. Russia’s ground forces, which have been troubled for more than two decades, are now receiving serious reinvestment and are slated to add forty new brigades by 2020 (by way of comparison, the U.S. Army will be down to thirty-two active maneuver brigades by 2017, even under unduly optimistic budget scenarios).
All this has been noticed by the NATO member countries located close to Russia, many of which were unnerved by Moscow’s recent Zapad (West) military exercises which, despite their portrayal by the Kremlin as a counterterrorism practice run, were clearly more conventional in focus and, given their location—and name—plus the involvement of Belarusian forces in the exercise, proved troubling to frontline NATO states, above all Poland and the Baltic states.
NATO’s Baltic members are accustomed to regular harassment by Moscow, with aggressive espionage, subversion, and manipulation of local politics, business, and Russian minorities being part of daily life in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russian intelligence services are highly active in the Baltics and generally treat them as less than sovereign states, much less NATO member countries. But the return of a conventional military threat from Russia, coupled with press releases from Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin that seem nostalgic for the Soviet period, has led to a mounting sense of dread in the Baltics.
Poland’s response here has been significant, as it is the largest and most important NATO frontline state in terms of military, political and economic power. Warsaw of late has been trying to raise Alliance awareness of the rising threat from the East, but this has been met with skepticism by NATO members located farther to the West than Poland. In a typical example, the expression of current Alliance assumptions by NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen that “war among European nations is simply unimaginable,” was countered in May by the statement of Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski: “I’m afraid conflict in Europe is imaginable.”