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Commentary | 20 May 2016

Planning for Warsaw, waiting for the next US President

NATO summits generally serve as an occasion to announce momentous decisions, after long talks between Allies and internal preparations. This was the case in Wales in 2014 when it was decided to again place collective defense at the top of the agenda following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and interference in Eastern Ukraine.

A few months before the US presidential election, no such far-reaching decisions can be expected in Warsaw, but there can be a general course of action agreed. In short, it can consist of the following formula: the implementation in full of the Readiness Action Plan and maintaining dialogue with Russia.

In the face of the present Russian behavior, we cannot do without an adequate adaptation of our defense posture. At the same time, there is an important reason why dialogue with Russia remains of crucial importance: security cannot be guaranteed solely through deterrence. Without and exchange of views between potential adversaries, any military arrangement, however robust, would risk sending wrong signals and fueling escalation, instability, and, as a result, greater insecurity especially in a context where nuclear weapons are present.

In addition, global issues such as the Iran nuclear program or the Syrian civil war are currently being addressed between Russia, the US and some other Allies, acting outside NATO channels. Although almost all Allies are participating in one form or another in the coalition countering the so-called Islamic State, NATO should maintain its present low profile in matters relating to the Middle East and North Africa, not least because of its negative public perception in those regions. However, it would be useful to have a debate inside NATO on these issues so that all the Allies could be persuaded of the necessity of a dialogue with Russia, whenever shared security interests have been properly ascertained. This would be a valuable contribution to the strengthening of Alliance unity as it would promote greater mutual understanding between member states.

A new balance should therefore be struck between deterrence and dialogue, according to a long-established NATO policy defined in the Harmel report in 1967. It would be highly advisable in this regard to strictly observe the commitments undertaken in the Founding Act on Russia-NATO relations. NATO should continue to refrain from permanently deploying substantial combat forces in Central and Eastern Europe, which does not preclude temporary arrangements for the stationing of such forces on a rotating basis as long as Russian behavior demands it. NATO members should also stick to their commitments regarding tactical nuclear weapons and reaffirm that they have no intention, plan or reason to deploy systems in Central and Eastern Europe. An offer of negotiation should also be unequivocally extended to Russia as regards nuclear disarmament in the area of tactical nuclear weapons. This should of course be coupled with a renewed dialogue on ballistic missile defense with a view to achieving greater mutual transparency.

Contacts on defense issues must also be resumed with Russia for practical reasons. De-confliction arrangements between Russian and coalition planes are in place in Syria. Why should similar arrangements not be made in Europe to avoid unintentional military escalation? Ideally the NATO-Russia Council would be the proper venue for such arrangements and it could be reactivated at least for that purpose. NATO should also stress the contribution to common security that transparency measures such as those provided for in the OSCE Vienna Document, and support their strengthening. Lower thresholds should be introduced for exercise notifications, there should be expanded quotas for inspections and an improved inspection mechanism for short-notice exercises. Beyond those practical arrangements, mutually agreed force ceilings properly verified through detailed data exchanges and inspections would be highly conducive to promoting security and stability. For obvious reasons, Crimea should be kept out of the agreement.

As far as the situation of Eastern Ukraine is concerned, sanctions and military adaptation cannot suffice. More political support for the Minsk agreements is required. While taking into account the vast Russian responsibilities in triggering and fueling violence, we cannot turn a blind eye to the failure of the Ukrainian government and Parliament to live up to the commitments they have undertaken, in particular with regard to the status of the Donbass region. Polish President Andrzej Duda has invited Ukraine to attend the NATO Summit in Warsaw. NATO countries will on this occasion have the opportunity to express fully their support for the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, but they will also have to follow closely the advances made by Ukraine in the implementation of the Minsk agreements and, more generally, in domestic reforms regarding in particular the fight against corruption and the overdue restructuring of the economy.

On a more general note, Europeans must wake up to an obvious fact: whoever the new US President may be, US military presence in Europe will never reach the same levels as during the Cold War, in spite of the current plans for a moderate increase. As a consequence, European Union leaders must be prepared to do more for Europe’s common security in terms of military capacity but, above all, in terms of political dialogue with all neighboring countries.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.