Collective Defense or Unilateral Action: Poland’s Strategic Dilemma in the Baltics

In 1999, Poland joined the NATO Alliance. Ever since, collective defense has been at the heart of Poland’s national security strategy. But recent changes in Europe’s strategic environment may be leading Poland to think twice about whether collective defense alone can guarantee its security. The combination of a more aggressive Russia, a less resolute Western Europe, and a growing divergence between the military capabilities of Poland and those of the rest of NATO have made unilateral Polish action a real possibility.

Strategic Environment

Despite the West’s economic sanctions against it, Russia has continued to throw its weight around on its periphery. After annexing Crimea and fomenting separatists in eastern Ukraine, Russia appeared to have shifted its attention to the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. Finland, Sweden, and NATO’s Baltic members of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all experienced repeated Russian incursions into their air and maritime spaces. it would not only create a new threat on Poland’s border, but also damage, perhaps irreparably, NATO’s credibility as a defense alliance.

NATO is important to Polish security. Despite its bigger and better equipped military, Poland cannot deter Russia by itself. Poland needs a strong NATO and one committed to the defense of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately for Poland, most of its NATO allies seem less than fully committed. Twenty-three out of NATO’s 28 members do not meet the Alliance’s minimum defense spending , which obligate each country to spend at least two percent of its GDP on defense and 20 percent of that spending on major new equipment or defense research and development.[1] Nor have Poland’s allies invested in the infrastructure needed to deploy their forces to Eastern Europe, Indeed, many of the elites within some NATO countries, most notably Germany and Italy, want to entirely lift the economic sanctions imposed on Russia.

All of these issues make Poland nervous about the reliability of NATO’s security guarantee. Considering Russia’s threat to the Baltics, Poland has begun to think about what it can do to ensure NATO’s commitment to collective defense should a crisis erupt there. Paradoxically, what it can do—owing to its geographic location and increasingly robust military—may lead Poland to take unilateral action.

Strategic Dilemma

On the one hand, Poland could wait for NATO before taking action against a Russian intervention in the Baltics. But such a wait could last for weeks as each NATO country must debate and approve the use of force, mobilize its troops, and send them to Eastern Europe. While NATO’s rapid response forces could go into combat faster, they could not fight for long without sufficient logistical support. That could result in a long pause in the crisis that would give Russia time to consolidate its territorial gains and conduct an information campaign to discourage already reluctant NATO countries from ever trying to liberate the Baltics. The result could be a negotiated settlement that leaves Russia in control of part or all of the region—which would restore peace in the short run, but mean the end of NATO in the long term.

On the other hand, Poland could act immediately, and unilaterally. The swift entry of a major NATO country would undoubtedly complicate Russian operations. It would also escalate the crisis without a unified NATO decision to do so. While that may sound a little troubling, it may not trouble Poland as much as one might think. After all, Warsaw has long sought to

“internationalize Poland’s security within [NATO] to ensure that an attack on Poland would generate a collective allied response.”[3] Reflecting on Western Europe’s lack of enthusiasm to confront Russian aggression, Poland might think it wise to hold NATO’s feet to the fire.

Unilateral Action and Its Consequences

Since the end of the Cold War, Poland has generally worked in concert with other European countries on security matters. But it has acted alone when it felt its interests were at stake. In 2011, after a rigged election in Belarus, Poland unilaterally slapped sanctions on those Belarusian officials it saw as responsible without waiting for the European Union’s (EU) approval. If relations between the EU and Poland continue to deteriorate because of their conflict over Polish judicial reforms, Poland would have even more reason to act to compel a united NATO response.

However, a unilateral Polish reaction to a Russian intervention in the Baltics could make things far more difficult for NATO. Strategically, it could undercut NATO’s ability to manage the conflict’s escalation, a perilous proposal given Russia’s relatively low threshold for the use of tactical nuclear weapons. At the operational level, it could disrupt plans for a larger and more coordinated NATO counteroffensive, which would arguably stand a better chance of success than the piecemeal introduction of Polish military and NATO rapid reaction forces.

Fate of Collective Defense

The best way to avoid a potentially disruptive, unilateral Polish military action is to ensure that Poland never loses faith in NATO’s credibility. Surely nothing would reassure it like the combination of firm political resolve and strong military forces. Sadly for NATO, that is probably more than it can muster at the moment. NATO needs to do better on both counts. Otherwise, it can expect that some of its members, like Poland, may take unexpected (and possibly unwelcome) actions in a crisis.


[1] In 2018, the five NATO members that do meet the Alliance’s minimum defense spending goals are Estonia, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Ironically, six NATO members met the Alliance’s minimum defense spending goals when they were first agreed to in 2006. The number gradually fell to three in 2010 and did not rise until after Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine.

[2] Brooks Tigner, “NATO’s rapid deployment ability faces many obstacles,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 25, 2016.

[3] Andrew A. Michta, “Polish Hard Power: Investing in the Military as Europe Cuts Back,” in A Hard Look at Hard Power: Assessing the Defense Capabilities of Key U.S. Allies and Security Partners, Gary J. Schmitt, ed. (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2015), p. 164.

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Preparing for the Worst: Poland’s Military Modernization

No one needs to remind Poland of the strategic dangers arising from its geography. Often sandwiched between great European powers, Poland has been invaded, carved up, and occupied for over two centuries. During World War II, its mostly flat and open terrain made it particularly vulnerable to the mechanized armies of Germany and the Soviet Union. Today, Poland’s position is less tenuous, but still fraught. While its western and southern borders are anchored by friendly NATO countries, its eastern border abuts Russia’s military stronghold of Kaliningrad, Belarus (a close Russian ally), and Ukraine (a country riven by Russia).

Russia’s New Military Challenge

Unfortunately for Poland, the last decade has seen the emergence of a militarily stronger and more aggressive Russia, despite Western economic sanctions against it. Much of Russia’s new-found strength can be traced back to its long-running “New Look” military reforms, which assumed a new sense of urgency after its lackluster war against Georgia in 2008. The reforms sought to streamline Russian combat units, outfit them with new military equipment, and most importantly boost their training and readiness.

The reforms turned Russia’s once-lumbering military into a more nimble fighting force, one far better able to fight modern conventional wars as well as leverage “hybrid warfare” techniques.[1] Several of Russia’s airborne and “New Look” brigades can now go into action within 24 hours of an alert.[2] Russia demonstrated that capability in 2014, when it swiftly deployed its special forces, airborne, and naval infantry units to Crimea on short notice. Soon afterwards, it massed another 40,000 to 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine.

Rising to the Challenge

Russia’s military success in Ukraine convinced an increasingly anxious Poland of the need to be prepared to fight across the entire spectrum of operations. Fortunately for Poland, its briskly growing economy has enabled it to fund those preparations. Over the last three years, its regular armed forces have grown from 100,000 personnel to over 130,000. By 2025, Poland’s Ministry of Defense expects that number to reach 200,000. It also plans to expand the Polish army’s force structure from three divisions to four. In 2017, it even established a new armed service called the Territorial Defense Force (Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej or WOT). Separate from the regular army, the WOT’s wartime role will be to counter Russian airborne and special operation forces behind the frontlines. The WOT will eventually field 17 light infantry brigades, one in each of Poland’s provinces (two in the largest province), with an authorized strength of 53,000.[3]

Poland has also accelerated its military’s modernization. Rather than wait for new-build acquisitions, the Polish military chose to buy off the shelf and update its existing kit. Thus, Poland not only acquired 105 retired Leopard 2A5 tanks from Germany in 2015, but also began to upgrade its 142 Leopard 2A4 tanks with improved armor and combat systems a year later. Likewise, it laid plans to modernize its T-72 and PL-91 tanks and may purchase more second-hand Leopard 2A4s. Poland also expects to procure a full range of short-, medium-, and long-range anti-tank guided missiles for its regular army and the WOT.[4]

In its modernization drive, Poland has not overlooked its combat support arms. In the summer of 2017, it took delivery of the first 14 of 96 Krab 155-mm self-propelled howitzers and the first eight of 64 Rak 120-mm self-propelled mortar systems. And, to enhance the mobility of its mechanized forces, it has begun discussions to acquire new mobile bridging equipment. Finally, to counter Russia’s deployment of 9K720 Iskander ballistic missiles and Su-35 fighters in Kaliningrad, Poland has decided to buy U.S.-made MIM-104 Patriot air defense systems and as many as 48 new multirole combat aircraft.[5]

But perhaps the most telling sign of Poland’s earnestness has been the repositioning of its combat forces. Notably, Poland has shifted its best armored forces eastward. Last year, it transferred the PL-91 tanks of the 1st Armored Brigade on the eastern edge of Warsaw to the 15th Mechanized Brigade in Giżycko, near the Polish border with Kaliningrad and the strategic Suwalki Gap that links Poland to Lithuania. Replacing the PL-91 tanks will be two battalions of Leopard 2A5 tanks, which will be transferred from the 34th Armored Cavalry Brigade on Poland’s border with Germany.[6]

Commitment to Deterrence

In the coming years, Poland’s total defense expenditures will likely exceed two percent of its GDP—well above what most other NATO countries are spending. Even so, Poland’s military modernization still has gaps. A big one lies in its small Soviet-era attack helicopter fleet. Though Poland is upgrading its 23 Mi-24 attack helicopters with new sensors and guided missiles, it needs a next-generation attack helicopter and far more of them.[7] A recent war game demonstrated that even with 120 attack helicopters, Poland would have trouble holding back a determined Russian assault before NATO rapid reaction forces could arrive.[8]

Ultimately, what is most notable about Poland’s military preparations is not how complete they are, but rather the scale and speed with which they are being made—which for a European country are extraordinary. While other NATO countries make excuses for their plodding attempts to enlarge or modernize their armed forces, Poland has done both, at the same time. Surely, Poland hopes for peace. But Poland also seems committed to building a stronger military to help preserve it.


[1] Andrew Monaghan, “The ‘War’ in Russia’s ‘Hybrid Warfare,’” Parameters 45(4), Winter 2015-2016, pp. 65-74.

[2] Gustav Gressel, “Russia’s Quiet Military Revolution and What It Means for Europe,” European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Brief, Oct. 15, 2015, p. 4.

[3] Remigiusz Wilk, “Polish Territorial Defence Force expanded to 53,000 personnel,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 17, 2016; The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Poland Ministry of National Defense, May 2017), pp. 46, 53; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland to stand up Territorial Defence Force,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 22, 2016.

[4] Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland seeks short-range ATGM,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Oct. 9, 2017; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland reinforces armour,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jul. 12, 2017.

[5] Bruce Jones, “Russian Duma confirms Iskander-M Kaliningrad deployment,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 8, 2018; Nicholas Fiorenza, “First Polish Army unit receives full complement of Krab SPHs,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Aug. 4, 2017; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland receives first Rak 120 mm mortar vehicles,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jul. 3, 2017.

[6] Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland relocates Leopard 2A5 tanks to the east,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 21, 2017.

[7] Charles Forrester, “Thales, Poland to integrate rocket launchers onto Mi-24s,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Sep. 6, 2017.

[8] Reuben Johnson, “Baltic conflict simulation concludes Poland is wasting valuable time,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Sep. 21, 2017.

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Bear at the Door: Poland Ponders its Strategic Environment

Russian behavior has long influenced how safe Poles feel. Centuries of fending off or being subjugated by Russia (or, its 20th-century incarnation, the Soviet Union) have left them with an abiding mistrust of their big and often unfriendly eastern neighbor. Needless to say, Russia’s recent aggressiveness in Eastern Europe has put many Poles on edge. Adding to their unease have been worries over the reliability of Poland’s principal security partners: NATO and the United States. At times, both have appeared either slow or unprepared to counter Russia’s actions.

Strategic Differences with Russia

Even without its deep-rooted anxiety over Russia, Poland has good reason to regard its neighbor with suspicion. After all, the two countries have very different aims in Eastern Europe. For generations, Russia has sought to create a sphere of influence over the region and control its ports on the Baltic and Black Seas. To that end, Russia has backed pro-Russian regimes in Belarus and Ukraine, and lately harassed the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with airspace incursions. In contrast, Poland has viewed westward-looking governments in Eastern Europe as in its national interests. Hence, Poland supported Ukraine after that country’s “Orange Revolution” (which toppled a pro-Russian leader) in 2005 and Belarus’ opposition following a government crackdown on it in 2010.

Unfortunately for Poland, things have not gone its way in the last half decade. Russia successfully annexed Crimea (along with its Black Sea port of Sevastopol), sponsored separatists in eastern Ukraine, and survived Western economic sanctions against it. Russia also bolstered its forces in Kaliningrad, a Russian military stronghold on Poland’s northeast border, with new K-300P Bastion coastal defense missile systems and S-400 air defense systems. Topping it all off, the Russian military conducted large-scale exercises that resembled thinly veiled rehearsals for operations against Poland and the Baltics. The most recent of these exercises took place in September 2017.

Poland’s growing concern over Russia can be seen in the shifting tenor of its official national security strategy papers, particularly after Russia’s military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine. Whereas the papers’ 2003 and 2007 iterations supported the notion that cooperation with Russia was the surest way to ensure Polish security, Poland’s 2014 national security strategy paper declared Russia to be a “challenge” and stressed its need to respect international law and the territorial integrity of its neighbors.[1]

(Un)reliability of NATO and the United States

Meanwhile, Poland has become less confident in NATO and the United States as reliable security partners. A decade ago that was not the case. American commitment to Poland’s security seemed rock solid. As Russia backed away from its conventional and nuclear arms control commitments in Europe during the latter half of President George W. Bush’s administration, the United States suggested stationing interceptor missiles for its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, an advanced anti-ballistic missile system, on Polish soil. Despite some popular misgivings, Poland’s leaders welcomed the proposal as a tangible sign of American reliability.

But that changed with the election of President Barack Obama. He hoped to “reset” U.S. relations with Russia on friendlier terms. To remove a source of friction, the United States cancelled the deployment of the GMD system. The unilateral American decision left Polish leaders feeling jilted. As a consolation, the United States offered Poland the less-robust Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system. But soon after the Obama administration backpedaled on that too, scrapping its original plan to outfit the system with the latest SM-3 missiles.[2] Clearly upset, former Polish President Lech Wałęsa grumbled: “It wasn’t that the [missile] shield was that important, but it’s about the way, the way of treating us.”

In the following years, Poland would also find cause to question NATO’s dependability. In contrast to Russia’s swift and decisive intervention in Ukraine, NATO struggled to form an effective response. Even after its member countries agreed on economic sanctions against Russia, many remained hesitant. NATO again appeared flat-footed after Russia intensified its harassment of NATO’s Baltic members in 2015 and again after it deployed nuclear-capable 9K720 Iskander ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad in 2016. It would take NATO over a year to “enhance” its forward presence in the Baltics with a deterrent force of three multinational battlegroups (essentially reinforced battalions). A fourth battlegroup, formed around a U.S. mechanized infantry battalion, deployed to Poland in mid-2017. By comparison, Russia’s nearby Western Military District alone can muster over 22 armored, airborne, and motorized infantry battalions, along with ten battalions of artillery.

But possibly most worrisome to Poland was its recent realization that much of the critical infrastructure that the Alliance needs to deploy and sustain its frontline forces either fails to stretch far enough eastward or is no longer fully functional. And while Poland can take some comfort in the presence of a U.S.-led battlegroup, it does not fully allay Polish concern over the long-term commitment of the United States, given its continued distractions elsewhere in the world and its growing reluctance to act as the “world’s policeman.”

Greater Self-Reliance

How Poland has reacted to the changes in its strategic environment was evident in its 2017 defense concept white paper. The paper’s tone was strikingly different from those that preceded it. It pointed out Poland’s past “wrong conviction that the risk of an armed conflict in [Eastern] Europe was marginal.”[3] Rather than urging cooperation with Russia, it asserted that Russia is “a threat . . . for Poland and other countries in the region.”[4] The paper also intoned in its opening sentence that “The Polish Armed Forces remain the best guarantor of the security of Polish citizens.”[5]

Poland has much to do before its military can adequately deter Russia. While NATO and the United States remain key parts of Poland’s defense plans, Warsaw has come to realize that it must do more itself. As Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski summed up: “In recent years, we have found out once again that defense of principles and values is sometimes effective only when supported by force—not only moral force, but also by military force.”[6]


[1] National Security Strategy of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Poland National Security Bureau, 2014), p. 22.

[2] Andrew A. Michta, “Polish Hard Power: Investing in the Military as Europe Cuts Back,” in A Hard Look at Hard Power: Assessing the Defense Capabilities of Key U.S. Allies and Security Partners, ed. Gary J. Schmitt (Carlisle, PA: United States Army War College Press, July 2015), p. 150.

[3] The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Poland Ministry of National Defense, May 2017), p. 23.

[4] The Defence Concept of the Republic of Poland, p.6.

[5] Ibid.

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Sweden’s Foreign Policy: Nonaligned, But Not Entirely Neutral

In late 2014, Swedish authorities spotted what many suspected was a Russian submarine lurking off Stockholm. The incident set off alarm bells among Swedes. It reminded them of a similar incident in 1981, when a nuclear-armed Soviet Whiskey-class submarine ran aground a few kilometers outside Sweden’s main naval base.[1] Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia, annexation of Crimea, and intervention in eastern Ukraine, the recent submarine scare served to underline the threat that a resurgent Russia could pose to Sweden.

No wonder that, despite Sweden’s long tradition of neutrality and an “alliance-free” foreign policy, Swedish leaders of almost all political stripes began to consider closer ties with NATO. That of course irked Russia. Victor Tatarintsev, the Russian ambassador to Sweden, responded with what seemed like a backhanded reassurance that Russia had “no plans to invade Sweden.” In May 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin put it more bluntly. He warned that if Sweden joined NATO, Russia would take military measures “to eliminate [the new threat].” While Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström clearly stated that her government would not seek NATO membership, Sweden has moved closer to the Alliance. NATO naturally welcomed the shift, given Sweden’s strategic importance to NATO’s defense of its Baltic member countries.

Sweden’s National Interest in the Baltic Sea

Observers have long described Sweden’s security policy as “non-participation in military alliances during peacetime and neutrality during wartime.”[2] But that does not mean that Sweden takes its security environment lightly, especially when it comes to the Baltic Sea. For centuries, its waters have been a thoroughfare for not only trade, but also power projection. Should unfriendly forces control it, they could easily threaten Sweden and even reduce its access to the wider world. Hence, Sweden has had an enduring national interest in the security of the Baltic Sea and the coast beyond.

Armed Neutrality

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union controlled the Baltic coast. Because of that, Sweden kept up its guard. It maintained a sizable standing military and nurtured a world-class defense industry. That attention to military preparedness has had a long history in Sweden where a popular nineteenth-century slogan proclaimed: “one man, one gun, one vote.”

After the Cold War, Sweden cut its defense expenditures. But the advent of an aggressive Russia across the Baltic Sea has led Sweden to rethink its military posture. In September 2017, it raised its defense budget by five percent over its already planned increase. It also recently reinstituted conscription to bring its military back to full strength. Starting in 2018, it will conscript 4,000 18-year-olds. That number will rise to 8,000 per year by 2022. Sweden still has more to do. Apart from the 60 JAS 39E fighters and two A26 diesel-electric attack submarines already on order, Sweden will need more and newer armaments for its soon-to-be larger armed forces.

Even so, Sweden has begun to strengthen its defenses on Gotland, a strategic island in the Baltic Sea. Contrary to reports in 2016 that reestablishing a permanent military presence on Gotland was unexpected, Sweden’s Defence Policy white paper—which all of Sweden’s major political parties agreed to in 2015—outlined Gotland’s rearmament as part of a broader set of security precautions that Sweden would take through 2020.[3]

New Normal for Swedish Neutrality

While it is perfectly understandable why neutral Sweden has felt the need to be better armed, what is unusual is how enthusiastically it has embraced multilateral defense cooperation. Roughly a decade ago, Sweden joined the European Union’s (EU) Common Security and Defence Policy and led the effort to create the EU’s 2,400-man Nordic battlegroup. Soon after, it helped to establish the Nordic Defence Cooperation, which brought together five Nordic countries, including two NATO members.

Recently, Sweden has stepped up its collaboration with NATO. It signed a host-nation agreement that allows NATO forces to train in Sweden and boosted its participation in NATO military exercises, like Baltic Operations (Baltops) and Steadfast Jazz. Sweden has gone so far as to commit a fighter squadron to fight alongside NATO’s rapid-reaction force.

Sweden is also shedding its long-time aversion to a bilateral military relationship with the United States. The number of meetings between Swedish defense ministers and U.S. secretaries of defense has noticeably risen, from an average of once every two years over the last decade to twice a year in 2016 and 2017. During Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist’s visit to the Pentagon in May 2017, he announced not only Swedish participation in NATO’s Baltops 2017 exercise in June, but also the involvement of about 1,000 U.S. troops in Sweden’s largest military exercise in 23 years. Over 20,000 troops from nine countries (seven of them NATO members) took part in the exercise, called Aurora 2017, which spanned three weeks in September and focused on the defense of Gotland.

Seeking Partnerships, Not Alliances

Swedes—ever conscious of their cherished neutrality—have long opposed their country joining multilateral defense organizations, like NATO. But fewer of them do so than before. A national poll found that a slim plurality of Swedes favored membership in NATO for the first time in 2014.[4] While opinions of the public slipped back the other way two years later, those of Swedish leaders did not. Most now believe that Sweden needs to form stronger partnerships, though not alliances, with NATO and the United States. From their perspective, the real question is how Sweden can translate those partnerships into greater security without formal defense treaties.

Such partnerships bring Sweden close to breaching its traditional neutrality and “alliance-free” foreign policy. Someday, it may be forced to choose one approach over the other. In the meantime, Swedish leaders will continue to wrestle with what it means for Sweden to be a partner, but not an alliance member—to be nonaligned, but not entirely neutral either.


[1] Milton Leitenberg, “The case of the stranded sub,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Mar. 1982, pp. 10-13.

[2] “Sweden: Scene-Setter for Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s May 15 Visit to Washington,” May 4, 2007, WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks cable: 07STOCKHOLM506_a.

[3] Government Offices of Sweden, Sweden’s Defence Policy, 2016-2020, Jun. 1, 2015.

[4] Pütsep Mona and Ryen Linda, Opinioner 2016: Allmänhetens syn på samhällsskydd, beredskap, säkerhetspolitik och försvar (Karlstad, Sweden: Civil Protection and Emergency Agency, Jan. 2017), p. 75.

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Sweden’s Importance to NATO’s Defense of the Baltics

Sweden is not a member of NATO. But Sweden is very important to the defense of NATO’s Baltic member countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. That importance mainly stems not from what Sweden could add to NATO’s collective military strength, but from how its strategic position could help NATO overcome the operational challenges it would face if it needed to respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltics.

Strategic Position in the Baltic Sea

Spanning the length of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Sweden’s geography dominates much of the Baltic Sea, a fact that NATO has long appreciated. Early on in the Cold War, NATO recognized that Sweden could serve as a valuable location for early warning facilities to monitor the Soviet Union in peacetime and for combat aircraft to interdict Soviet lines of communications across Germany and Poland in wartime.

Sweden took on a new relevance for NATO after Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the Alliance in 2004. With tiny military forces of their own and large Russian military forces on their borders, the three Baltic countries are highly vulnerable. Russia could easily sever their air and land connections to the rest of NATO and capture all three countries—a prospect that could jeopardize the very existence of NATO. Thus, NATO holds annual exercises called Baltic Operations (Baltops), in part, to practice reinforcing the Baltics by sea. But, in a conflict, Russian strike aircraft and coastal defense missile batteries based near Kaliningrad could interdict such seaborne reinforcements before they ever reached the Baltics. (See Map.)

Sitting astride of NATO’s most likely reinforcement route, Sweden could mitigate many of Russia’s military advantages. That is what makes Sweden so important to NATO. Were Sweden to allow NATO reinforcements to sail through its territorial waters, NATO could halve the distance over which its reinforcements would be exposed to Russian air and missile attacks between Denmark and Estonia. Theoretically, Stockholm could even allow NATO to safely transport its troops and supplies over land to Sweden’s east-coast ports before they embarked for an amphibious assault across the Baltic Sea.

Got Land?

Sweden also controls Gotland, an island situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Gotland is strategic because it is an ideal location from which to defend forces moving through the Baltic Sea or to project power into the Baltics. Though primarily seen today as a holiday destination, it has been prized for its strategic location for centuries. During the Cold War, Sweden stationed a reinforced armored brigade, fast attack craft, and a fighter squadron on Gotland to defend it. While all of those forces have since been deactivated or dispersed, Russia’s recent aggressive behavior prompted Sweden to reestablish a permanent military garrison on Gotland in 2016.

NATO also sees the value of Gotland. At a minimum, the island could complicate Russian anti-ship cruise missile strikes on NATO reinforcements sailing to the Baltics. But if Swedish cooperation with NATO were to increase, NATO air forces could use Gotland’s airfields to fend off Russian air and missile attacks as well as provide air support for NATO military operations in the Baltics. Gotland’s main port of Visby could even serve as a logistical hub for NATO forces fighting in the region.

On the other hand, Sweden could also help NATO by simply defending its territory from Russian incursions during a conflict between NATO and Russia. Doing so would constrain Russian freedom of action in the Baltic Sea. If nothing else, denying Russia use of Gotland would prevent it from not only making any seaborne reinforcement of the Baltics extremely difficult and thus narrowing NATO’s operational options, but also threatening the Baltic coasts of Germany and Poland behind NATO’s frontline.

Sweden in NATO?

Though not a member of NATO, Sweden is important to NATO’s defense of the Baltics.

Swedish cooperation with the Alliance would make protecting the Baltics easier and thereby strengthen NATO’s security guarantee to its member countries. That, in turn, would improve NATO’s ability to deter Russian aggression in the region.

Meanwhile, some have begun to speculate whether Sweden would shed its longtime “alliance-free” foreign policy and join NATO. But Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem has dismissed such speculation. She cautioned that NATO membership “would expose Sweden to risks, both political and otherwise” which her government was not willing to bear.[1]

Still, over the last decade, Sweden has taken a more active role in Nordic and European Union defense arrangements, many of whose members are also NATO members. Moreover, Sweden has stepped up its direct military contacts with NATO and the United States. While NATO membership may be off the table for Sweden, it would appear that Sweden has come to believe that NATO’s interest in deterring Russian aggression is very much in its own national interest, too.


[1] Damien Sharkov, “Putin Vows Military Response to ‘Eliminate NATO Threat’ If Sweden Joins U.S.-Led Alliance,” Newsweek, June 2, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/vladimir-putin-vows-eliminate-nato-threat-sweden-joins-619486.

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Russia’s Existential Threat to NATO in the Baltics

NATO seems more united today than it has been at any time since the end of the Cold War. An aggressive Russia, unbowed by Western economic sanctions after its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, has driven NATO member countries closer together. However, if given the opportunity, an aggressive Russia could also put NATO in a position that could strain its cohesion and ultimately undermine its existence. One place where that could happen is in the Baltics states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Bigger, Not Necessarily Stronger

As part of NATO’s eastward expansion after the Cold War, the Baltic countries joined the Alliance in 2004. But geographically separated from nearly all of NATO and having small militaries, the Baltics have always been vulnerable. From the start, military planners understood that NATO would have to commit substantial resources to properly defend the region from a Russian invasion.

At the time, NATO’s European governments were unconcerned. Russia, they believed, no longer posed a real threat. So, rather than make the costly outlays needed to protect the Baltic states, they cut their defense budgets. It was little surprise, then, that Europe’s conventional military forces saw their numbers and combat readiness fall. Today, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom would each be hard pressed to rapidly deploy a single combat-ready armored brigade. NATO’s reduced fighting capacity was also evident in its air campaign over Libya in 2011. After less than a month of combat, European air forces ran short of precision-guided munitions.

Moreover, given how easily Russia could sever the land and air routes into the Baltics, one might have expected NATO to have boosted its amphibious capacity in case it needed to send reinforcements across the Baltic Sea. Instead, NATO’s combined sealift capacity, excluding U.S. amphibious forces, has fallen to such a low level that it can ferry little more than two infantry brigades. Even worse, almost all of that capacity is based far from the Baltic Sea. And even if NATO could transport those brigades to the Baltics (through what might be a gauntlet of Russian air and missile strikes from Kaliningrad) it is doubtful whether they would be enough to stop a mechanized Russian invasion.

Peril of the Interregnum

Should NATO prove too unprepared to help the Baltics, Russia could achieve a quick victory. That would mean that NATO would have to mount a counteroffensive to liberate the region in order to fulfill its treaty obligations. But before it could do so, the Alliance would need time to fully mobilize its armed forces. During that interregnum, between Russia’s victory and NATO’s counteroffensive, NATO leaders would have time to contemplate what was to come.

They would have a lot to consider. Since the only land route into the Baltics runs through the 100-km wide Suwalki Gap, a narrow corridor between Lithuania and Poland, NATO ground forces would have little choice but to mount a frontal attack. Massed Russian artillery could turn the gap into a killing zone. Meanwhile, Russia’s coastal defense batteries and attack helicopter battalions could inflict heavy losses on any amphibious assault.

The conflict could also escalate beyond the Baltics. As a prelude to any counteroffensive, NATO commanders would naturally want to use their air power to attrit Russian forces and logistical capacity as well as suppress Russia’s supporting artillery, air defense, and coastal defense batteries. That would require strikes against targets on not only Baltic soil, but also possibly Russian soil. Moscow could seek reciprocity. It could launch air or missile strikes on similar targets in Western Europe and the United States. Russia could even escalate to a nuclear confrontation. In effect, it could thrust upon NATO leaders the decision: “Is Tallinn worth Berlin?”

Ultimately, the near certainty of high casualties, the uncertainty of battlefield success, and the possibility of a wider war might cause NATO leaders to think twice about liberating the Baltics. Russian information operations would likely exacerbate those concerns to sow doubt and division within NATO countries. If NATO leaders were to hesitate during the interregnum and agree to a settlement that left any part of the Baltics in Russian hands, then no NATO member could fully trust NATO’s security guarantee again. The rationale for NATO would be lost and its future existence put at risk.

The Tripwire Fix

NATO faced a similar danger during the Cold War. At that time, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies had amassed such enormous conventional forces that they threatened to overwhelm those of the Alliance. Observers wondered whether the United States would risk a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union if it quickly occupied Western Europe. The question put to American leaders was: “Is Bonn worth Washington?” NATO responded by stationing large U.S. military forces close to the frontline, in part, to act as a tripwire. They would incur the first casualties of any Soviet invasion. Those losses would bind the United States and its nuclear arsenal to the defense of Western Europe, and thus deter the Soviet Union from invading it in the first place.

NATO appears to be trying a similar tactic in the Baltics states. For years, NATO has rotated tiny military contingents through the region. But over the last year, their sizes have grown. Currently, a German-led battlegroup of 1,000 soldiers is in Lithuania. Later this year, a Canadian-led battlegroup will be in Latvia and a British-led one will visit Estonia. Though still too small to stop a Russian invasion, they could serve as a tripwire to bind the rest of Europe to the defense of the Baltics. However, that only works if NATO can prevent Russia from achieving a quick victory, since the prospect of a costly counteroffensive could still render NATO’s tripwire ineffective.

Conclusion

To reliably avoid Russia’s existential threat, NATO must ensure that Russia is unable to score a quick victory in the Baltics. That requires NATO members to pledge more than words of resolve. That requires more resources for more troops, better equipment, and, above all, higher combat readiness.

Most exposed to the Russian threat, NATO’s Eastern European members are leading the way. Poland created a new Territorial Defense Force of reservists who will number 53,000 in two years. It also ordered 128 upgraded Leopard 2PL main battle tanks.[1] All three Baltic countries have acquired new light armored vehicles. Better yet, they are beginning to acquire the firepower needed to slow a Russian advance. Lithuania recently bought PzH2000 self-propelled howitzers, and Estonia is in discussions to purchase K9 long-range artillery.[2]

The rest of NATO needs to do the same. After all, one of the key reasons why NATO was so important in the most successful unfought war of the last century, the Cold War, was because its member countries were conscious to brook no ambiguity about the Alliance’s combat readiness to take on its main adversary.


[1] Remigiusz Wilk, “Polish Territorial Defence Force expanded to 53,000 personnel,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 17, 2016; Remigiusz Wilk, “Poland orders 128 upgraded Leopard 2PL main battle tanks,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jan. 4, 2016.

[2] Nicholas de Larrinaga, “Estonia begins K9 artillery negotiations with South Korea,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Feb. 7, 2017; Nicholas de Larrinaga, “Lithuania receives first PzH 2000 howitzers,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jun. 28, 2016.

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NATO’s Baltic Defense Challenge

As NATO expanded eastwards after the Cold War, the geography that the Alliance needed to defend changed significantly (See map). Rather than a relatively narrow front in Central Europe (dashed line), NATO now had to contend with a far wider front across Eastern Europe (solid line) stretching its defense capabilities. When the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the Alliance in 2004, they created an even greater operational challenge for NATO.

Lay of the Land

Sitting on the Alliance’s eastern edge, all three Baltic countries border Russia, NATO’s most likely adversary. But only one, Lithuania, is connected to any other NATO country. Lithuania’s border with Poland, just 100 km wide and with a single highway running through it, forms a bottleneck that NATO planners call the Suwalki Gap (named after a nearby Polish town). Worse still, on one side of the gap is Kaliningrad, a large Russian military enclave, and on the other side is Belarus, a close Russian ally.

Figuring out how to overcome that problematic geography became more pressing for NATO after 2007, when Russia suspended its participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty, which had limited the number of troops and equipment that NATO and Russia could station in continental Europe. Since then, Russia has steadily strengthened its military forces across its western regions, including Kaliningrad. One recent study estimates that if Russia were to invade the Baltics today it could mobilize 25 battalions of armor, airborne, and mechanized infantry (supported by ten battalions of artillery, six of attack helicopters, and five of short-range ballistic missiles). By contrast, the Baltic countries could field only 11 battalions of light infantry, most of which are reserve units.[1] Plus, without any fighter aircraft of their own, Baltic forces would be completely exposed to Russian air power.

Clearly, without NATO support, the Baltics could offer little serious resistance to a Russian invasion. From St. Petersburg, a Russian column could advance into Estonia to seize Tallinn. From Pskov, another column could advance into Latvia to take Riga and pivot south into Lithuania.[2] Simultaneously, Russian forces in Kaliningrad could seal off likely avenues for NATO reinforcements. A Russian thrust toward Marijampolė would close the Suwalki Gap and another toward Klaipėda would close NATO’s most accessible Baltic port. To ensure battlefield success, Russia could use its strategic reserve of airborne and Spetsnaz forces.

From the Sea

Should Russia sever the land and air routes into the Baltics, NATO may be forced to send its reinforcements across the Baltic Sea. However, doing so would face serious hurdles. First, NATO lacks enough military sealift to transport the volume of troops and equipment necessary to stop a Russian assault. As a work-around for its sealift shortage, NATO could commandeer car ferries and other civilian shipping. But NATO could not as easily work around the threat of Russian long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. Launched from K-300P Bastion-P coastal defense batteries in Kaliningrad, such missiles could inflict heavy casualties on any NATO reinforcements.

Since the U.S. Navy would not likely want to expose an aircraft carrier battle group to such a threat in the confined waters of the Baltic Sea, the job of escorting NATO’s troop transports would then fall on smaller warships with less sophisticated anti-ship cruise missile defenses. That could put already scarce troop transports at higher risk.

Even worse, if Russian forces were to capture all the ports in the Baltics, NATO might have to mount an amphibious assault to reestablish itself on land. That would be difficult to pull off, despite the spectacle of NATO’s Baltic Operations (Baltops) exercises. Amphibious assaults have never been easy; but they are even more difficult today, given that modern precision-guided munitions could make short work of landing craft, helicopters, and even MV-22 aircraft.

Conflict Escalation

Given the potential for Russia to interdict their seaborne forces, NATO commanders would naturally want to suppress Russian coastal defense batteries. After all, a successful missile strike on a single transport could result in the loss of hundreds of troops and their equipment. Multiple missile strikes could swiftly sap the combat strength of any NATO relief force.

At first glance, the suppression of Russian coastal defense batteries (and the air defense systems protecting them) would appear to be a straightforward affair. NATO air forces based in Germany and Poland could easily reach and strike Russian positions in Kaliningrad. However, were NATO air forces to do so, they would be hitting targets on Russian soil. That, in turn, could prompt Russia to expand the conflict beyond the Baltics. NATO could expect retaliatory Russian strikes on its German and Polish air bases.

In addition, one could reasonably expect NATO commanders to want to stem the flow of Russian forces and supplies into the Baltics, either to slow a Russian invasion or as a prelude to a NATO counteroffensive. To be most effective, that would require NATO strikes on Russian logistical facilities near St. Petersburg and Pskov. Such strikes would hit targets deep into Russian territory. That could also prompt Russia to escalate. It could launch retaliatory strikes against NATO logistical facilities in Antwerp, Hamburg, and Rotterdam. Russia could even use submarine-launched land-attack cruise missiles to hit targets in the United States, like Naval Station Norfolk or Pope Air Force Base, which normally support U.S. operations abroad.

Ultimately, Russia could threaten to use nuclear weapons. Indeed, in 2016, Russia moved Iskander 9K720 intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles into Kaliningrad.[3] It may have done so, in part, to ensure that NATO leaders think twice before attacking targets there, since a strike on Russian nuclear forces could quickly escalate into a nuclear confrontation. In any case, even if armed with conventional warheads, those missiles could hit and devastate targets as far away as Germany.

Conclusion

The best way for NATO to overcome its operational challenge in the Baltics is to make sure it never manifests itself. To do that, NATO must convince Russia that it could not achieve a quick victory in the region. Already NATO has rotated small air and ground detachments through the Baltic countries to stiffen their defenses as well as to create a tripwire to guarantee a forceful NATO response in case of a Russian attack.

But more needs to be done before Russia is really convinced. Forward-deployed NATO battle groups need to be stronger—strong enough to hold open avenues for NATO reinforcements. Moreover, NATO countries need to revive their conventional war-fighting capabilities and maintain them at a higher state of combat readiness than they do now. Finally, NATO forces need to be able to react more quickly to Russian actions. That means Western governments need to give NATO’s commander the authority to not only put their national military forces on alert, but also order them into the field for limited periods. In short, NATO should, once again, adhere to the old aphorism that “if you want peace, prepare for war.”


[1] David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2016), pp. 4-5.

[2] Should Belarus allow them to do so, Russian forces could also pass through Belarusian territory to advance on Vilnius from Minsk.

[3] Brooks Tigner, “Kaliningrad becoming a more dangerous military threat for NATO, say officials,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 10, 2016.

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President Trump on NATO—Never Mind?

While watching President Trump’s April 12 press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, I was reminded of a famous quotation often (though probably erroneously) attributed to Mark Twain:

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

That quote maintains its popularity despite its dubious provenance because of its deft jab at the arrogance and solipsism of youth, but it can also be used as a metaphor for “outsider” presidential candidates. When one is relatively innocent of specific knowledge, it is easy to imagine that those with whom one disagrees are either ignorant or malevolent. Only as one grows in wisdom through experience can one begin to understand the reasoning behind decisions, and to see that those allegedly ignorant oldsters or insiders may actually be more sensible than one thought.

Thus has it been with Donald Trump and NATO. During the presidential campaign, Candidate Trump repeatedly denounced NATO as “obsolete” and attacked our European allies for failing to “pay their fair share” for their defense by meeting NATO’s defense budget target of two percent of GDP. After about three months in office, and a morning’s discussion with the alliance’s suave Norwegian civilian leader, President Trump declared, “I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete.”

What changed? According to President Trump, the alliance responded to his criticisms by devoting more attention to fighting terrorism and by discussing ways they could live up to their budgetary responsibilities, and thus (re-)gained his confidence. Secretary General Stoltenberg, like other European leaders, was polite enough not to quibble, preferring to welcome the president’s new sentiments rather than question his motivations. That’s the kind of tact that has allowed Stoltenberg to have such a successful career in international relations.

Policy analysts (and bloggers, of course) are less constrained by diplomatic niceties. So, it has to be said that President Trump’s praise of NATO’s alleged maturation is on par with Twain’s praise of his old man. Even while President Trump was demanding that NATO pay more attention to terrorism over the past year, people with actual knowledge of NATO operations had been discussing the alliance’s declarations and practical steps in that direction for over a decade. Stoltenberg himself had described those efforts in January 2016, and the alliance has been involved in combating extremism in Afghanistan since 2002. NATO has not changed overnight, but the president’s level of knowledge about the alliance’s work, and its importance to the United States’s global strategy, certainly has.

The last few weeks have seen President Trump make many discoveries about how much more complex the world is than he imagined during the campaign—from China’s currency policies to the proper responses to Syria and North Korea; from health care to the interest rate policies of the Federal Reserve. On China’s role in North Korea, the president declared that it only took a ten-minute discussion with Xi Jinping to make him realize his previous lack of understanding. It may have taken Jens Stoltenberg longer. Further reassessments of campaign assertions are no doubt on the horizon as the president settles into the responsibilities of governing.

This is not to say that NATO is perfect, nor even to say that Trump’s criticisms of the alliance were baseless, even if they were expressed in unusually hostile terms. Europeans and Americans have debated the proper sharing of strategic, budgetary, and leadership burdens for about as long as the alliance has existed, and with greater intensity since the end of the Cold War appeared to remove the alliance’s original raison d’être. Presidents and Secretaries of State and Defense have hectored NATO allies for years to be more active in advancing the alliance’s strategic goals and to be less parsimonious with their defense spending. Those debates will and should continue, just as we should hope that the president’s recognition of NATO’s value will lead to better intra-alliance negotiations about future alliance goals and policies.

A president being forced by circumstance to walk back confident campaign declarations is not unprecedented—consider Bill Clinton’s denunciations of the “Butchers of Beijing,” George W. Bush’s disdain for nation building, or even Barack Obama’s rejection of the individual mandate for health insurance. In the case of President Trump, the phenomenon is so notable both because the original statements were so categorical and because the pirouettes have come in such rapid succession so early in his term.

Being willing to learn and change positions based on new information is certainly better than closing one’s eyes to reality. The challenge comes when the president has to stop swinging between extremes and settle down to the steady realities of governing. Then, we will see whether the new positions are built on a firmer foundation of understanding than the old.

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Turkey: From “NATO’s Anchor” to What?

On Monday, the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Gazetesi published the backstory to President Recep Erdoğan’s meeting in St. Petersburg with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 9 August.[1] The report credited two persons for acting as go-betweens in the eventual “rapprochement,” Ramazan Abdulatipov and Cavit Çağlar. A number of Russian[2] and regional[3] media outlets published accounts of the Hürriyet Gazetesi report.

Welcoming Turkey’s “restoration of legitimate and constitutional order,” Mr. Putin said in St. Petersburg, “We have always opposed anti-constitutional actions.”[4] The Kremlin used that same term—anti-constitutional actions (antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy)— in its official statement after Mr. Putin spoke to Mr. Erdoğan on 17 July in the aftermath of the attempted coup (a conversation, the Kremlin hastened to point out, Russia initiated):

“Vladimir Putin…stressed the principled position of Russia regarding the categorical inadmissibility in the conduct of public affairs of anti-constitutional actions and violence.”[5]  

Turkish press reports emphasized Mr. Putin’s “decisive opposition to unconstitutional actions”[6] against Mr. Erdoğan’s government, some repeating Mr. Putin’s phrase verbatim.[7] That phrase is also the same one Mr. Putin used after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.[8] It was echoed then by other members of his government—for example, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s condemnation of “radical unconstitutional actions of Ukrainian oppositionists.”[9]

The Hürriyet Gazetesi account of events leading up to the meeting in St. Petersburg is worthy of a spy novel, and Ramazan Abdulatipov and Cavit Çağlar are among its central characters. Mr. Abdulatipov is said to have taken his directions from Yury Ushakov, a long-time Russian diplomat and aide to Mr. Putin. In September 2013, Mr. Putin appointed Mr. Abdulatipov to his second four-year term as Head of the Republic of Dagestan, a Russian federal republic located in the North Caucasus.

Mr. Abdulatipov ‘s counterpart, Cavit Çağlar, is said to have taken his directions from General Hulsi Akar, Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff since April 2015. Mr. Çağlar’s usual description as “a Turkish businessman” does not do him justice. In 1999, he was a central figure[10] in a covert operation in Kenya conducted by the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilâtı (Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, aka “MIT”) to interdict and capture Abdullah Öcalan, a founding member of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party known as the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎). Mr. Çağlar’s private aircraft was used to spirit Mr. Öcalan from Nairobi to Turkey. In late April 2001, he was arrested by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation in a parking garage at New York’s JFK Airport and extradited to Turkey, which had issued an Interpol Red Notice pursuant to his conviction in the collapse of Turkey’s Interbank. 

The precursor to the St. Petersburg meeting was President Erdoğan’s letter to President Putin. In it, Turkey apologized for the 24 November 2015 downing of a Russian warplane in Turkish airspace that was taking part in a combat mission in Syria.[11] Hürriyet Gazetesi reported a 30 April meeting in Istanbul, during which President Erdoğan authorized General Akar and Mr. Çağlar to open discussions with Russia about “normalizing” relations. Messrs. Abdulatipov and Çağlar then spent several weeks shuttling successive drafts of the letter (written by prior agreement in Turkish and Russian, not English) back and forth, with the support of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. This led to a 24 June meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where President Putin was scheduled to meet President Nazarbayev at the conclusion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. The Kazakh ambassador to Turkey contacted an aide to President Erdoğan, Ibrahim Kalyn, to set the meeting in Tashkent. After several last minute hitches—there were problems reconciling the Turkish and Russian versions of the letter, and Uzbekistan had closed its airspace due to the SCO summit so Kazakh President Nazarbayev had to ask Uzbek President Islam Karimov for permission to fly “his friends from Turkey” (whose aircraft, low of fuel, had landed in Shymkent) to Tashkent—President Putin and President Erdoğan agreed to the final wording. The timing was uncanny, coming a fortnight before the attempted coup in Turkey. As the Hürriyet Gazetesi report points out, the first leader to phone President Erdoğan with a message of support was President Putin.

The St. Petersburg meeting, write Gallia Lindenstrauss and Zvi Magen,[12] “is likely to be a beginning of a new phase in Turkish-Russian relations.” It may very well mark the beginning of something wider, given the pivotal Kazakh and Uzbek roles in brokering the rapprochement between their neighbors. There is another, less noticed factor as well: as Mr. Erdoğan met with Mr. Putin in St. Petersburg, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu declared his country would suspend its migration agreement[13] with the European Commission unless the Commission established a definitive date to abolish visa requirements for Turkish citizens.[14] Where that goes is anyone’s guess. What is certain, however, is that Turkey’s traditional role as NATO’s “anchor” on the Black Sea is indeed ripe for revision, exactly how much and to what extent nobody today can know.

NOTES

The translation of all source material is by the author.

[1] ” Türk-Rus krizini bitiren gizli diplomasinin öyküsü.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 8 August 2016].

[2] See for example: “Ramazan Abdulatipov yakoby okazal sodeystviye v vosstanovlenii otnosheniy mezhdu liderami Rossii i Turtsii.” Seryy zhurnal [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://kopomko.ru/ramazan-abdulatipov-yakobyi-okazal-sodeystvie-v-vosstanovlenii-otnosheniy-mezhdu-liderami-rossii-i-turtsii/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[3] “Negocieri secrete. Cum au reuşit Turcia şi Rusia să-şi restabilească relaţiile.” Publika.md [published online in Romanian 9 August 2016]. http://www.publika.md/negocieri-secrete-cum-au-reusit-turcia-si-rusia-sa-si-restabileasca-relatiile_2708501.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[4] “Putin: Rossiya i Turtsiya vystupayut za vozobnovleniye dvustoronnikh otnosheniy.” Novaya Gazeta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://www.novayagazeta.ru/news/1705969.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[5] ” Putin v razgovore s Erdoganom zayavil o nedopustimosti antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy.” TASS [published online in Russian 17 July 2016]. http://tass.ru/politika/3462009. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[6] ” Putin’den Erdoğan’a telefon.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/putinden-erdogana-telefon-40150943. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[7] See for example: “Putin’den Erdoğan’a: Anayasaya aykırı hiçbir eylem kabul edilemez.” İleri Haber [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. http://ilerihaber.org/icerik/putinden-erdogana-anayasaya-aykiri-hicbir-eylem-kabul-edilemez-56902.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[8] For example see: “Putin po telefonu obsudil s Merkel’ i Netan’yakhu ukrainskiye sobytiya.” Vesti.ru [published online in Russian 16 April 2014]. http://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1483262. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[9] “Ukraina na krayu. Vozmozhnyye stsenarii razvitiya sobytiy.” Vechernyaya Moskva [published online in Russian 24 January 2014]. http://vm.ru/news/2014/01/24/ukraina-na-krayu-232373.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[10] One of the best descriptions of the events surrounding Mr. Öcalan’s flight and capture was published in the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s Studies in Intelligence series. See: Miron Varouhakis (2009). “Fiasco in Nairobi: Greek Intelligence and the Capture of PKK Leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.” Studies in Intelligence. 53:1. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol53no1/fiasco-in-nairobi.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[11] A Russian language report about the Hürriyet Gazetesi article stated that the language of President Erdoğan’s letter in Russian used words that were ” stronger than ‘sorry’ but not as strong as ‘apology’.” Mr. Putin, it wrote, “approved the text, despite the fact that he found it a little closer to the Turkish position, because he read it as a request for forgiveness.” See: “Ramazan Abdulatipov vsplyl v istorii s izvineniyami Redzhepa Erdogana pered Vladimirom Putinym.” On Kavkaz [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://onkavkaz.com/articles/2781-ramazan-abdulatipov-vsplyl-v-istorii-s-izvinenijami-redzhepa-erdogana-pered-vladimirom-putinym.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[12] Gallia Lindenstrauss & Zvi Magen (2016). “The Russian-Turkish Reset.” FPRI E-Note 8 August 2016. http://www.fpri.org/article/2016/08/russian-turkish-reset/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[13] According to the European Commission Fact Sheet dated 4 April 2016, “On 18 March 2016, EU Heads of State or Government and Turkey agreed to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU and replace it instead with legal channels of resettlement of refugees to the European Union. The aim is to replace disorganised, chaotic, irregular and dangerous migratory flows by organised, safe and legal pathways to Europe for those entitled to international protection in line with EU and international law. The agreement took effect as of 20 March 2016.” It provides for unauthorized migrants to be returned to Turkey and for Turkey to block “nee sea or land routes for irregular migration.” In exchange, Turkey received a payment in the amount of EU payment of €3bn (USD3.3bn). http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-1221_en.htm. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[14] “Turtsiya postavila EC ul’timatum po bezhentsam.” Lenta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. https://lenta.ru/news/2016/08/09/stop_implementing_agreement/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

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Bundeswehr 2.0: A German Military for a New Normal

A visit to Germany’s military history museum in Dresden reveals just how deeply ambivalent modern Germany is about its military, the Bundeswehr.  One account described it as “a meditation on mankind’s addiction to state violence.”  No wonder that Germany—despite being Europe’s most populous and wealthiest country—has continuously cut the size of the Bundeswehr since the end of the Cold War.  While much of that was warranted, given the disappearance of the Soviet threat, today’s Bundeswehr is not only a fraction of its former self (and half the size of the French military), but also apparently in a state of disrepair, according to an independent review of the Bundeswehr’s combat readiness last September.[1]

Germany Military

Hence, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Moscow to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his aggression in Ukraine, she did so without the benefit of military power to back her efforts.  Instead, German diplomats have sought to use Germany’s economic power as leverage to shape Russia’s behavior.  Far better, they argue, to avoid competing with Russia on military terms, in which Germany is weak and Russia holds “escalation dominance.”  But economic power clearly has its limits, as Russia has yet to end its intervention in eastern Ukraine.  That has led even those Germans who have long been sympathetic to Moscow to consider whether there has been a fundamental shift in Russian posture—one that might require Germany to address through a stronger defense.  For the first time in decades, Bundestag legislators have begun to discuss the need to strengthen the Bundeswehr.[2]

But what kind of Bundeswehr is needed?  Surely, it must be one that is consistent with Germany’s vision of itself, if Germans are ever to embrace it.  It should be tailored for a mission that most German citizens can agree is in Germany’s national interest, such as the security of Central Europe.  It should also be one that can meaningfully contribute to NATO’s collective defense, but does not put its neighbors ill at ease.  As such, one could envision a Bundeswehr that is designed—through its armaments and force structure—to be fundamentally defensive, yet still beneficial to NATO.

From the way the German army chose to pare back its equipment after the Cold War, it is clear that its leaders sought to preserve as much of the combat capabilities of its heavy armored units as possible.  But by 2010 that was no longer possible, as the numbers of its main battle tanks (MBT) and armored infantry fighting vehicles (AIFV) plunged.  Rather than rebuild its army on a foundation of MBTs, Germany could equip it with more defensive weapon systems, like AIFVs that are fitted with long-range anti-tank missiles.  Such systems wound provide an effective defense against armor without having the offensive strength of MBTs.

Meanwhile, the German navy could focus its attention on the defensive mission to protect NATO’s sea lines of communication to the alliance’s Baltic member states.  Given the maritime environment of the Baltic Sea, that mission would primarily entail coastal diesel-electric submarines, corvettes, and minesweepers, rather than larger oceangoing combatants.  As a corollary to that mission, the German navy could contribute to NATO’s ability to send reinforcements to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with landing ship tanks (LSTs).  Finally, the German air force could focus its resources on filling an air-superiority role (which it apparently already has begun to do), rather than a more offensive ground-support role.  Such an air force would have the added benefit of being able to enforce future defensive no-fly zones.

Even so, if the Bundeswehr is to be seen as non-threatening to its neighbors, one must also consider its force structure.  The Bundeswehr should be appropriately sized relative to those of its neighbors, France and Poland—small enough that they would not find it menacing, but large enough that, when combined with the capabilities of other NATO countries, it would be useful to fend off a foreign threat to the alliance.

Within those criteria, one could envision an expanded German army that includes two armored brigades equipped with Leopard 2A7 MBTs and six mechanized brigades equipped with a new generation of missile-armed Marder AIFVs.  When operating alongside Poland’s heavily armored units (which include 900 MBTs), the German force could help respond to any aggression from the east.  Similarly, a German navy equipped with 12 coastal diesel-electric submarines, 12 corvettes, and 36 minesweepers could help NATO keep its sea lines of communication open to its Baltic member states.  Moreover, the navy could help NATO develop a credible sealift capability with 12 LSTs that could transport relief forces and supplies to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  Finally, the German air force—if equipped with 240 air-superiority fighters (a mix of European-built Eurofighters and American-built F-22 fighters)—could help ensure that NATO controls the skies over Central Europe.

Such a Bundeswehr would be a largely defensive force, essentially incapable of offensive action without the support of its NATO allies.  But it would be one that could make a meaningful contribution to the security of Central Europe and the integrity of the NATO alliance.  Of course, this sort of transformation would not be costless.  It will consume every bit of the military spending increase that Germany promised its NATO allies in the 2014 Wales Summit Declaration.  But in making that investment, Berlin could create a force that is worthy of praise from its allies and, perhaps, Germans too.

[1] “Consultants list Bundeswehr blunders,” Deutsche Welle, Oct. 6, 2014, http://dw.de/p/1DR9m; “Merkel peeks over Bundeswehr shortfall parapet,” Deutsche Welle, Oct. 3, 2014, http://dw.de/p/1DPdX; “A German army museum reopens,” Economist, Oct. 15, 2011.

[2] Anton Troianovski, “Ukraine Crisis Spurs Calls in Germany to Reverse Years of Trimming Army,” Wall Street Journal, Mar. 9, 2015, p. A10.

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