NATO Needs to Spell Out Its Intentions More Clearly

British Gurkhas take part in the multinational NATO exercise Saber Strike in Adazi, Latvia, on June 11, 2015. Keir Giles writes that Russia argues that NATO's reinforcement plans are escalatory and destabilizing, and it is hard to discern any coherent NATO effort in explaining that they are not. NATO should at the very least be able to get the message out that despite the rhetoric coming from Moscow, NATO is not “moving toward Russia.” reuters

This article first appeared on the Chatham House site.

NATO is moving forward with its plans to set up multinational battalions in Poland and each of the three Baltic states.

Estimates of the total size of this commitment vary in the range of 3,000 to 4,000 troops spread between the four countries.

It's understandable that NATO is being reticent about detailing precise numbers. But finding out the overall shape of these new measures agreed at July's Warsaw Summit—and consequently realizing that they are entirely unthreatening in nature—requires a close reading of NATO statements and some deduction.

By making people work hard to realize its defensive intent, NATO is failing in a core task of strategic communications.

Russia and its sympathizers argue that these plans are escalatory and destabilizing, and it is hard to discern any coherent NATO effort in explaining that they are not.

NATO should at the very least be able to get the message out that despite the rhetoric coming from Moscow, NATO is not "moving toward Russia." This new program envisages the stationing of small numbers of NATO troops on NATO territory.

The size of these measures is dwarfed not only by the Russian military preparations on the other side of the border, but also by the numbers of NATO military personnel already permanently established in each of these countries.

It's often overlooked that there are already many thousands of "NATO troops" in each of the Baltic states and Poland on a permanent basis: These are their own national armed forces, which are no less a part of NATO than the "new" battalions to be sited there.

No New Troops

Furthermore, the new commitments do not mean any increase in the total number of service personnel available to NATO.

For example, according to media reports, the U.S. battalion earmarked for Poland is to be drawn from 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which is already stationed in Europe and has been intensively active traveling through the region and the Baltic states as part of the U.S. Army's reassurance mission.

The structure for the planned units is NATO's "framework nation" concept, where one country provides the core functions of the notional battalion to be contributed, and other nations provide incremental numbers.

The U.S. is the lead nation for Poland, Germany for Lithuania, Canada for Latvia and the U.K. for Estonia. But this doesn't mean each of those countries is following the U.S. lead and contributing a reported 1,000 soldiers.

In the case of the U.K., the Ministry of Defence appears like NATO not to have publicly announced specifics of the deployment, possibly because, contrary to expectations, the British troop presence in Estonia is very small and apparently made up primarily of reservists.

Other nations that have offered contingents to round out the battalions include Norway, France and Denmark.

Given the intensive nature and enormous scale of Russian preparations for war, if Russia did for whatever reason decide to mount a conventional armed attack against any of these countries, the new deployments would do little to impede them.

But this is not the point: The simple fact that they are present will adjust the risk-benefit calculations in Moscow to make that kind of attack even less likely, because Russia would immediately encounter the serious complicating factor of direct conflict with other NATO nations in addition to the one immediately under attack.

Russia's Response

On an official level, Russia has reacted with claims that this is an illegitimate and provocative development. More privately, informed Russian senior officers and officials recognize that this tiny adjustment in NATO's posture poses absolutely no challenge or threat to Russia—unless and until Russia decides to embark on an act of military adventurism.

Concerns over new escalatory deployments by Russia in response need to be put in context. Russia has already responded with major reorganizations and troop buildups, since the NATO plans were announced well in advance of their implementation and Russia has had ample time to make its own dispositions ahead of any visible action by NATO.

Again, by comparison with the scale of the Russian preparations, NATO's defensive actions are practically invisible.

It has been suggested that NATO's plans are in breach of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, an agreement signed in 1997 in which NATO took upon itself self-imposed and voluntary restrictions on permanent deployments of new large forces.

But even leaving aside the fact that the current commitments do not meet any reasonable definition of the "substantial combat forces" named in the act, the text of the agreement states specifically that these limitations were valid "in the current and foreseeable security environment."

Nobody can seriously argue that nothing has changed in Europe's security environment since 1997. Russia's long-standing breaches of both the spirit and the letter of the act mean it has long since passed into irrelevance, and it is hard to understand why NATO persists in recognizing it as valid.

We might assume that NATO works to a carefully planned and managed communications strategy for explaining its activities, including the nature and purpose of the multinational battalions. But this can be hard to detect from outside the organization. Dangerously, for the time being, NATO appears to be failing to communicate effectively even with its own populations - let alone the equally important task of doing the same with Russia.

Keir Giles is an associate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.