Walking a Tightrope: NATO, Russia, Islamic State and the new brinkmanship


During the first week of February I was asked to deliver a talk at the annual Norwegian Air Power Conference at the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy in Trondheim. The theme this year was ‘NATO: Threats and Challenges’ and I was asked to reflect on whether NATO today has common threats and goals. The conference as a whole was somewhat inevitably dominated by the twin ‘crises’ NATO is facing: over Ukraine on its Eastern flank and over Syria and Islamic State on its Southern flank. The mood of the conference – which included speeches from the Norwegian Defence Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide, the Norwegian Ambassador to Sweden and former UN special representative to Afghanistan Kai Eide, and Obama’s former permanent representative to NATO Ivo Daalder – was sombre. There was a broad consensus that Europe faces one of the most challenging periods in its recent history. From the refugee crisis to the rise and spread of Islamic State (IS), economic instability and the possibility of Brexit, there is little doubt Europe is in the midst of multiple crises that pose a very real threat to the long-term future of the European project. Shortly after the conference ended, NATO announced it was sending three warships to the Aegean tasked with returning migrants to Turkey in an attempt to break the network of criminal gangs trafficking migrants into Europe.

Debate has intensified in recent weeks over the alliance’s role in the anti-IS coalition as consensus grows as to the threat posed to alliance members by the spread of Islamic State. Although a number of NATO member states have participated in airstrikes against IS, collectively the alliance has not played a role beyond providing support for Turkey. However, at a recent NATO ministerial in Brussels member states discussed the prospect of NATO becoming an active participant in the fight against IS through building partner capacity, training ground forces and providing stabilization support. The ministerial meeting came on the back of a formal US request for the alliance to assist the coalition through deploying its AWACS to Iraq and Syria. The momentum for an enhanced NATO role in the anti-ISIS coalition has been steadily growing since the Paris terror attacks in November 2015. Former SACEUR James Stavridis claimed then that it was NATO’s ‘turn to attack’ and that the alliance needed to consider utilising its command structure, as well as deploying special forces and AWACs, to lead the effort to defeat Islamic State. Interestingly, Stavridis also observed that such an effort would have the ‘additional benefit of demonstrating that NATO is willing to act decisively when it is under threat.’

This will not be the first time NATO acts with its own credibility at stake. Ever since the end of the Cold War the alliance has had to constantly prove its relevance and refute the charge that the disintegration of the Soviet Union robbed it of a clear and common enemy and an unambiguous purpose. It is notable that the crisis over Ukraine has been dominated by a narrative perpetuating the idea of NATO ‘coming home’ – returning to a focus on state-based threats to member states and collective defence. It is indeed tempting to assert that the revival of Russian revanchism has re-animated NATO, a reminder that despite its expeditionary adventures in the Middle East it remains a military alliance that exists for one reason above all else: to provide for the collective defence of its member states against common threats. The substantive US and European military presence in Eastern Europe – surveillance and reassurance measures in the Baltics; naval patrols in the Black Sea; the deployment of fighter aircraft to Romania; large-scale exercises – all these are visible manifestations of NATO in its purest form, as a military alliance protecting the territorial integrity of member states. In this view, the reconstitution of an ‘old’ threat is taking NATO back to a future of conventional defence, deterrence and reassurance.

Yet herein lies part of the problem for NATO. NATO’s eastern and Baltic member states have always prioritised collective defence simply by virtue of their proximity to Russia in a way that others – the UK, US, France for example – have not done so. For Southern allies – France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey – growing instability to Europe’s south, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, is a more compelling concern and the challenges in this region – the emergence of Islamic state, refugee and migrant flows – demand continued investment in crisis-management capabilities and in partnerships with countries in the region. Lest we not forget, some 10,000 US and 4,000 NATO troops remain in a volatile and unstable Afghanistan where the emergence of ISIS-K and the continued presence of AQ as well as ongoing attacks by the Taliban are creating the very real possibility of an enduring presence in the country for the foreseeable future. Further, both Afghanistan and Libya – as well as the wider growth in jihadism – are harsh reminders that in the 21st-century ‘threats’ to NATO members and regional and global security cannot be defeated in the same way that the Soviet Union could be defeated during the Cold War.

Libya was hailed as a ‘model intervention,’ seen as evidence that despite internal cleavages and the failure to generate a unified response, the alliance could still make a meaningful contribution to the challenges posed by fragile states. Yet it remains riven by violence and the lack of a stable government; Western powers have left a space in which militant Islam can flourish and as Islamic State’s foothold in the country grows the pressure to re-intervene is intensifying. The Libyan city of Sirte is fast becoming a hub for IS but President Obama is thus far resisting calls for more airstrikes and the deployment of special forces to target IS forces in Sirte. This may be a prudent choice; intensifying attacks against IS in Libya in the absence of a viable political plan may be precisely the kind of ‘stupid shit’ Obama avowed to avoid. But with less than a year left in office there are signs the administration’s ‘strategic patience’ is beginning to wear thin. The Pentagon’s recent budget revealed the US is increasing spending on the fight against IS to $7.5 billion while US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter pulled no punches in reminding allies at the NATO ministerial that ‘We will all look back after victory and remember who participated in the fight.’ Notwithstanding Carter’s rose-tinted optimism that the West will be able to declare ‘victory’ over IS, the US is once again finding itself in the all too familiar role of cajoling NATO allies to contribute resources in the fight against IS. Yet intra-alliance tensions are high; several NATO members are frustrated that the US has not taken a more critical stance against Russia’s involvement in Syria (which most regard as designed to shore up Assad’s regime rather than the stated aim of fighting IS forces) while the US is having to undertake its own balancing act, leading the fight against IS while at the same time continuing to provide reassurance to Eastern European and Baltic states more concerned about Russia’s actions on the alliance’s Eastern flank. The Pentagon has announced it is quadrupling its defence spending on Europe, via the European Reassurance Initiative, from $789m to $3.4bn. The US will also have a full armoured combat brigade deployed in the region on a rotating basis in a reversal of its 2012 decision to draw down two US Army Brigades from Europe in the context of its rebalance to Asia.

Herein lies the dilemma for NATO. With Northern and Eastern NATO members focused primarily on Russia’s actions in the East, it has been hard to generate a consensus within the alliance over a collective role in the anti-IS coalition. NATO is currently walking a tightrope between deterring any further Russian action in Ukraine or Eastern Europe with the need to keep open political channels of dialogue and communication and avoid becoming locked in a dangerous cycle of brinkmanship. The West more widely needs Russian cooperation in the fight against IS and in any future Syrian peace settlement, but with Turkey attacking Russian (and US) backed Syrian Kurdish forces (the PYD and its militant arm the YPG) on the Syrian-Turkish border Turkish-Russian relations are at breaking point. With the Kurdish fighters exploiting Russian air strikes in northern Syria to seize territory near the Turkish border, Ankara is now increasingly at odds with both Moscow and Washington. Moscow, meanwhile, is pursuing a risky twin-track approach; it is seeking to take advantage of opportunities to drive a wedge between NATO allies over Syria while simultaneously trying to use the carrot of cooperation in the fight against Islamic State to win relief from Western sanctions imposed following the annexation of Crimea.

It is into this heady mix that NATO must now consider what its own contribution to the fight against Islamic State will be. Any NATO contribution will likely remain confined to training for Iraqi forces combined with the deployment of AWACS and as the alliance builds towards the 2016 Warsaw Summit its principal focus will likely remain Russia rather than Islamic State. There is a growing consensus that despite its strategy of deterrence, a new emphasis needs to be placed on dialogue with Russia in an effort to avoid the ‘new Cold War’ that Medvedev alluded to at the recent Munich Security Conference, and which many believe is fast becoming reality. As a 2014 report by the European Leadership Network found, Russia and the West are engaging in ‘dangerous brinkmanship;’ the report mapped repeated incidents of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, and simulated attack runs, asserting that ‘the mix of more aggressive Russian posturing and the readiness of Western forces to show resolve increases the risk of unintended escalation and the danger of losing control over events.’ The OSCE – which monitors the compliance of NATO member states and Russia with Cold War era treaties governing troop deployments and exercises in Europe – has also claimed the current situation is more unpredictable than the Cold War; Russia has pulled out of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty while NATO’s deployment of ‘non-permanent’ forces in Eastern Europe has contributed to a sense that the existing European security architecture – an architecture Russia has never accepted – is no longer appropriate for managing the new security landscape in Europe.

But in the absence of a new security architecture – and there is no consensus as to what any such architecture should look like – NATO must continue to walk a precarious tightrope. As I argued in Trondheim while there may be a broad consensus within the alliance that Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the growth and spread of Islamic State across the MENA region and a zone of instability stretching from the Baltics to the Aegean all constitute common threats to NATO – and European stability and security writ large – generating consensus on how to respond to such challenges is infinitely harder in a 28-member alliance characterised by often profound differing geopolitical priorities and preferences. As it moves forward its principal challenges remain as much internal as external; it must find ways of balancing and harmonising its sometimes competing requirements for collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security and move beyond Cold War mind-sets that will only hamper crucial efforts at finding new pathways to deal with one of the most challenging security landscapes Europe has known since WWII.

Image: Ukrainian infantry man a roadblock during NATO exercise Rapid Trident/Sabger Guardian , July 2015, via flickr.

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