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Commentary | 2 December 2014

Strengthening NATO’s Eastern Flank

Eastern Europe Military Doctrine NATO Russia-West Relations Ukraine Euro-Atlantic Security

Although the idea of strengthening the eastern flank of the North Atlantic Alliance was not conceived at the NATO Wales Summit (the so-called contingency plans for Poland and the three Baltic states were prepared and upgraded even before the Lisbon Summit in 2010; moreover, many Central and Eastern European states lobbied ahead of Lisbon for the “reassurance package” to be included in the New Strategic Concept), it cannot be denied that actual implementation commenced only after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s transgressions have motivated NATO to re-evaluate its defence and deterrence policy. In effect, the Wales Summit upgraded Lisbon commitments with a number of specific obligations. These included adopting a Readiness Action Plan, which has foreseen, among other things, creation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (around 4,000-6,000 soldiers), a so called “spearhead” force which can be deployed to the eastern flank. The plan was supported with an obligation to undertake large-scale exercises to demonstrate NATO’s ability and commitment to secure the region. Before the Wales Summit, U.S. President Barack Obama visited Warsaw in June 2014 and pledged 1 billion US$ for the “European Reassurance Initiative” of increased exercises, trainings and rotational presence of the U.S. troops in Europe.

Indeed, the Ukraine crisis and the Wales commitments have served to fundamentally change the perception of NATO’s eastern flank amongst Member States. Over the last decade, notwithstanding the Alliance’s declared pledge to secure “new” Member States territories, it was in fact almost unfeasible to execute some of these provisions. For example, for a long time it looked like NATO “Steadfast Jazz 2013” exercises in Poland were to be mostly conducted in a virtual space, since most Allies refused to send substantial contingents to train on the ground. Member States from CEE called for more NATO infrastructure in their region, also without any great success. Only over the last few months has the CEE region turned into a real “training battleground”, with Poland and Baltic states hosting a record number of exercises.

The long list of recent initiatives undertaken to secure the Eastern Flank of NATO now includes increased patrols within the Baltic Air Policing Mission (which is crucial in the light of the airspace violations by Russian aircraft) and reinforcement of the NATO naval task forces in the Baltic and Black Seas. Perhaps crucially, a whole series of military exercises have taken place in the region, with one of the largest dislocation of Allied forces since the CEE states entered NATO. In addition to regular maneuvers like Saber Strike or BALTOPS, many additional initiatives were implemented. In April 2014 the U.S. sent around 600 paratroopers to Poland from the 173rd Infantry Brigade (stationed in Vicenza, Italy); and the number of U.S. F-16s stationed at the U.S. Aviation Detachment at Lask has been increased. In November 2014, around 1,350 British soldiers (together with 500 armoured vehicles) took part in the “Black Eagle” exercise on Polish territory, the largest British operation in Poland in a decade. Canadian troops have also taken part in Polish exercises, with the French also announcing that an armoured unit will soon also be deployed. In the near future, approximately 150 U.S. tanks and armoured vehicles will be sent to Poland and the Baltic states as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve.

As well as short-term military exercises, even more important is the debate on a more “permanent” deployment of Allied troops in the CEE region, contrary to only a “rotational” presence, which is welcomed but only provides temporary deterrence. Some Allies have indicated support for such a move. Recently Lt. Gen. Frederick Ben Hodges, Commander of U.S. Army Europe, announced that U.S forces deployed to the region would stay there until a stabilisation of the Ukraine crisis. Simultaneously, Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) is pressing the Pentagon to deploy more NATO troops and equipment to the CEE region.

Only time will tell, however, to what extent the Wales declaration will be implemented. On the one hand, the recommitment to territorial defence and to obligations stemming from the Article 5 of the Washington Treaty by a number of NATO Allies is encouraging. On the other hand, a permanent presence of NATO troops in the region will require much more political willingness and determination. As already mentioned, the Allied infrastructure in the region is still scarce and its development (in terms of command system, host nation infrastructure, bases, fuel stations, ammunitions depots) will take time and resources. Tough discussions lie ahead regarding the ultimate shape of the “spearhead” force, especially concerning political control issues [1],  rotations, the role of specific NATO commands, etc. It is also beyond any doubt that the NATO eastern flank, especially as far as the U.S troops are concerned, will compete for troops and resources with other areas of engagement such as the Pacific and Middle East.

Therefore, it is more than obvious that the continued determination of the NATO Eastern Allies will be a crucial factor for keeping their security needs on the Alliance’s agenda. Their solid commitment to their own defence according to the Washington Treaty Article 3 is worth noting, especially since some of them have made crucial decisions to raise their defence budgets – with Poland pledging 2% of its GDP starting from 2015; Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary announcing plans to increase their spending on military modernization in the coming years. In Poland, decisions on strengthening garrisons on the eastern border are pending. As stated in the newly adopted 2014 Polish security strategy, there is now a risk of a military conflict of a conventional nature, in which Poland may be engaged. The same is true for other CEE countries. Therefore, they should consider the creation of such military capabilities to strengthen the security of the whole Eastern flank to avoid a “blackmail” scenario. For example, the Polish air and missile programme may be treated as a future potential hub for creating a Central European NORAD of sorts, and may be extended to the whole CEE region. To invest in such a capital consuming endeavour will require a strong political will and support from the whole of NATO.

[1] It seems that SACEUR will require authorisation from the North Atlantic Council (NAC) to call the spearhead force to action


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 challenges of our time.