NATO Expansion: Strategic Opportunities and Risks

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by John Gennace

north-atlantic-councilWhen recently-appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, named Russia as the greatest threat to U.S. national security during his confirmation hearing this past July, he caught some by surprise. Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea represented a disturbing shift in Russian foreign policy that sent shock waves throughout NATO, and until quite recently one could have argued that Dunford’s assessment was unduly alarmist. In March, President Obama referred to Russia as a “regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.” He also went on to say that Russia is not the United States’ top national security threat and that he is more concerned about a nuclear weapon detonating in New York City. With Russia’s surprise military intervention in Syria, it is now clear that Dunford’s assessment was more accurate than some believed. It may be a regional power acting out of weakness, but Russia has demonstrated that it can profoundly alter the geopolitical status quo not only in Europe, but in the Middle East, too, having built an “arc of steelranging from the Arctic to the Mediterranean Sea.

When superimposing this arc of steel over a map of Europe, we find that geography still matters, especially when contemplating strategies to counter the Russian strategy of undermining NATO’s influence and credibility. These air, land and maritime spaces are increasingly contested as Russia increases its operational tempo with the use of conventional and hybrid capabilities. What is likely already obvious to NATO planners is the fact that there are gaps where controlling or at least influencing these contested spaces could prove exceedingly difficult by virtue of the fact that they are situated in strategically important non-NATO states. Well to the north are Sweden and Finland, both occupying strategically vital maritime spaces and the latter sharing a large land border with Russia. To the south and southeast of NATO’s flanks are Montenegro and Georgia, respectively, the latter having been invaded by Russia in 2008. These states are considering (Sweden and Finland) or actively seeking (Montenegro and Georgia) NATO membership.

For NATO, the question of further enlargement should largely hinge on three considerations:  The strategic value of admitting new members, Russia’s potential reaction, and whether systemic problems within the Alliance undermine the strategic value of expansion.

The Strategic Value of New Members

A logical starting point for evaluating the strategic value of new members is to assess the current military balance between  NATO and Russia. In recent years, Russia has undertaken comprehensive military reforms which are translating into a more active, more battle-ready, and better-suited military to support its increasingly assertive foreign policy. Although it is believed that Russia’s military can be checked in certain qualitative terms, these advantages apply to only a few European NATO states. NATO’s largest European members – Germany, the UK and France – have militaries with clear qualitative advantages over Russia, but serious questions surround deployability, preparedness and logistics, which could erase any qualitative advantages. That said, NATO as a whole maintains distinct quantitative and qualitative advantage in naval forces, though assessing the balance of air and land forces is more difficult – particularly the latter. Despite Russia’s massive efforts to reform its military, European analysts estimate that only 65 percent of its new combat brigades are truly combat-ready. What they overlook, however, is that the European Defense Agency rated European land forces as 30.9 percent combat ready and 7.5 percent sustainable deployable. While both European and Russian militaries are beset with numerous challenges, they appear to be moving on opposite trajectories.

In this context, admitting Sweden and Finland to NATO would shore up the Alliance’s northern flank. In fact, defending the Baltics against a Russian incursion would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, without significant aid from Sweden and Finland, the latter having been attacked by the Soviet Union at the start of World-War II. Controlling the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland, and the large land border between Finland and Russia would be essential to any campaign defending the Baltics. Moreover, as Sweden and Finland lean more toward NATO they are apparently asking themselves the same question: “Will NATO membership add to our overall security?”  Increasingly, the answer appears to be yes. Nevertheless, NATO membership is far from certain as the Alliance seems to be experiencing expansion fatigue and Sweden and Finland remain reluctant to fully embrace membership.

However, the strategic value of admitting Montenegro and, especially Georgia, is even more uncertain. Even though Vice-President Joseph Biden recently voiced support for Montenegro’s admission to NATO, whether it adds to the Alliance’s overall security remains unclear. Despite being a very small country with few resources, what Montenegro’s membership could do is definitively derail Russia’s plans to construct a naval base there – preventing Russia from gaining greater access to the Mediterranean. Does that add to NATO’s overall security? Perhaps. NATO is scheduled to make a decision on Montenegro’s membership this December.

Georgia, however, is altogether different. On the one hand, Georgia has met virtually every requirement for admission into NATO. It has a very capable military and has actively participated in NATO missions, but because of its 2008 war with Russia, several NATO members are concerned that Georgia’s membership could present a serious security risk. As one Eastern European diplomat put it: “If a country such as Georgia joins NATO, we have to be ready to defend it.” In many respects Georgia would be an excellent addition to NATO, but because of its volatile history with Russia and the very real possibility that it could invoke NATO’s Article V in defense against Russia, membership appears unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Russia’s Potential Reaction to Enlargement

Any further enlargement must consider how Russia would respond. At play is the classic security dilemma – as one party takes steps to make itself more secure (NATO), the other (Russia) interprets those steps as provocative, leading to the possibility of war. Russia has been unequivocal in saying that it opposes any further NATO enlargement.  Precisely how it would respond is unclear, however. Responding directly to Sweden’s consideration to joining NATO, Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, said that Russia would adopt “countermeasures…Putin pointed out that there will be consequences, that Russia will have to resort to a response of the military kind and re-orientate our troops and missiles. The country that joins NATO needs to be aware of the risks it is exposing itself to.” Moreover, Russia’s envoy to NATO, Alexander Grushko, expressed the same view with respect to eastward expansion, saying there would be “catastrophic consequences” and “[a]ny political game concerning NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine is filled with the most serious, most profound geopolitical consequences for all of Europe.” NATO, therefore, faces the extraordinary challenge of shoring-up its security, while avoiding direct military confrontation with Russia.

NATO’s Systemic Problems

As the Alliance contemplates further enlargement it must view the strategic value of doing so, along with Russia’s possible responses, through the prism of its existing systemic problems. Simply stated – there are serious questions surrounding NATO’s ability to provide collective defense for its existing 28 members. Spending has fallen to dangerous levels as only 5 members are reaching the 2% of GDP spending target on defense.  This does not portray a complete picture, however. Belgium spends about 1.1% of GDP on defense, with nearly three-quarters going to personnel costs, a quarter going to operating expenses, and barely 1% to acquiring new equipment and modernization. Elsewhere in NATO, whole divisions and weapons systems have been eliminated over the past few decades. This has led to serious interoperability problems as many NATO members are increasingly unable to operate with U.S. forces, the latter being decades ahead of many European counterparts in defense technology.

Additionally, there is perhaps no greater fundamental problem besetting NATO than a lack of common vision among its members on how to address threats confronting the Alliance. Instead, there is a growing consensus within some member states that is deeply troubling. A recent Pew study exposed potentially deep fissures within NATO. It revealed that “at least half of Germans, French and Italians say their country should not use military force to defend a NATO ally if attacked by Russia.” This is arguably the root cause of NATO’s systemic problems and the reason why the Alliance should not undertake further enlargement for the foreseeable future. Admitting new members to an alliance lacking a common vision and anything less than a full commitment to collective defense would further weaken an increasingly overstretched NATO.         

John Gennace is a Transatlantic Security and Global Governance Analyst at the Streit Council. Photo credit: NATO

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