Deterrence is back in Europe. As NATO approaches its July summit in Warsaw, allies are adapting this concept to the new security settings in place in Europe since the 2014 crisis in Ukraine.
If a combination of deterrence and dialogue is the prescription for security in Europe, a crucial question is how to adapt it to post-2014 Europe. Allies have a clear interest in preventing military escalation by Russia, bolstering stability, and increasing predictability in the Euro-Atlantic area to reestablish a peaceful order. The task of the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw is thus to assure that the deterrence and defense component of NATO’s policy is sufficient to entice Russia to engage seriously in a dialogue that advances security on accepted principles.
Allies closest to Russia in particular fear that the current deterrence measures are not sufficient. They see an increased vulnerability of NATO as a result of the conventional imbalance in northeast Europe, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its military modernization, and the massive “snap” exercises that put upwards of 100,000 troops near NATO borders.
Allies likewise are worried by Russia’s nuclear modernization, its public nuclear saber-rattling, exercises that practice the escalation from conventional to nuclear conflict, alleged violations of the INF treaty, and its growing ability to deny access in the Baltic and Black Seas as well as the Arctic. The Warsaw summit will seek to remedy that perceived imbalance and be a “deterrence” summit.
Yet, NATO should not depend only on deterrence. Although it is certainly essential for ensuring peace in circumstances marked by confrontation, peace by deterrence alone carries significant risks of miscalculation, escalation, and unintentional conflict. Thus, the Warsaw summit should be one that improves the prospect of dialogue on the basis of improved deterrence.
Alliance unity is the precondition for successful deterrence and exploring dialogue. Yet, it is perhaps more complicated to achieve now than it was during the Cold War. NATO is larger and contains a greater diversity of views, be they on threat perceptions, defense spending, or the nature of the Russian regime itself.
Allies disagree, for example, whether the instability in the south or the east is the most immediate threat. The presence of NATO troops across the alliance varies as a result of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which expressed an intent not to deploy substantial combat forces permanently on the territory of new members.
This created a division between old and new members that persists until today. In an alliance based on consensus, such divisions could endanger NATO’s capacity to act and to agree on a new dual-track approach. Indeed, although general support for a revamped dual-track approach is likely, divisions will probably surface on three main points:
(1) how strong and how permanent additional deterrence measures should be, with allies such as Poland and the Baltics being more demanding, whereas others, such as Germany, might accept higher numbers but insist on the rotational character of the deployments;
(2) in particular, allies bordering Russia do not see NATO’s deterrence being sufficiently bolstered to enable dialogue; support for the dialogue track is likely to come from countries such as Germany and the United States;
(3) there is disagreement about how eastward-looking NATO’s military adaption should be; whereas some, such as Poland and Romania, see a priority there, allies from the southern flank, such as Italy, fear a one-sided approach and are calling for NATO to better prepare for challenges in the south.
Warsaw: A Deterrence Summit That Sets the Stage for Dialogue
Redressing the corrosive deterrence disequilibrium is a prerequisite for NATO’s security, as well as for the allies’ political cohesion in bringing about an eventual successful dialogue. In view of ensuring a new balance, allies should focus on:
Improving deterrence: Russia’s military buildup and the circumvention of the Vienna Document creates clear security risks that NATO can mitigate most directly through the enhanced forward presence of rotations of NATO forces.
NATO’s strengthened deterrence measures at Warsaw should be adequate for the alliance’s defense in their own right; they can make a further positive contribution if they are also sufficient in encouraging Russia to engage in dialogue and contribute to shoring up the security system in Europe.
It should also be stressed that they are a result of the current and foreseeable security environment and that, without a change in that environment, they will continue. This does not mean abandoning the NATO-Russia Founding Act;
although Russia has violated it, it is still useful, for it launched structures that could be used for dialogue. At the same time, NATO could express—as it did in the 1979 dual-track decision—an openness to discussions with Russia that could include transparency, inspections, and verifiable mutual limitations. This would preserve the viability of NATO’s strategy if Russia does not take up the offer, while setting the terms of a potential dialogue.
As key players in current reassurance measures, Germany and the United States should support the adoption, in Warsaw, of further deterrence measures–which could be of rotational nature–and be prepared to expand their current contributions, such as troop numbers. They should also seek to convince other allies to increase their contributions.
- Defining the potential for dialogue: Dialogue requires a partner. Yet, there are serious doubts about Russia’s credibility, given its flagrant violations of international law and the principles of European security.
Moscow has shown little interest in discussing transparency or arms control and has not made substantial propositions. Rather, its saber-rattling attitude and military buildup seem to point in the opposite direction. This should not impede allies from coupling a strengthened force posture with an openness to dialogue;
yet, it demonstrates how difficult the task ahead will be. Any dialogue should thus take place without illusions, and participants should remain cognizant that Russia may seek to use dialogue to sow dissension and divide NATO members rather than to promote security and stability.
Therefore, allies should agree on a set of principles that would undergird future bilateral and multilateral engagements with Russia, otherwise the impetus to restart a dialogue in the hope of managing tensions will outpace NATO’s ability internally to rationalize it and maintain unity.
In the near term, this suggests a pragmatic engagement with Moscow with modest expectations; not a partnership with shared values. It can reduce the likelihood of military escalation and increase reliability.
The network of contacts with Russia is not going to be reactivated in the foreseeable future, but precisely in times of crisis, dialogue must be maintained in order to keep possibilities of de-escalation open. In the short term, informal channels should be used, such as the meetings between Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg of NATO and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. This could be backed up by track-two initiatives to explore room for further discussions.
Practical technical steps can be agreed to avoid unintentional military escalation, such as the military-level crisis contact mechanism proposed by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany. NATO should also highlight the contribution that transparency measures such as the Vienna Document have made and support its modernization under Germany’s OSCE chairmanship in areas such as lower thresholds for exercise notifications, expanded quotas for inspections, and provisions to address “snap” exercises.
Beyond those immediate goals, the achievement of mutually agreed limits on force levels—backed up by detailed data exchange and inspections—would make a significant contribution to security and stability. All of these measures would reinforce the existing principles of European security rather than revise them.
Dialogue plays an essential role in managing what has become an adversarial relationship. The West’s prospects for an acceptable outcome are greatest when NATO’s force presence and posture, signaling, dialogue, and declaratory policy are aligned into a coherent whole.
Dr. Claudia Major is a senior associate in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. Jeffrey Rathke is deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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