Nord Stream 2: Strategic Implications for the European Union

August 8, 2016

by Robert Swanson

Nord Stream 2

The proposed “Nord Stream 2” natural gas pipeline is one of the most controversial projects of post-Cold War Europe. Since the start of the project’s study phase in 2011, it has divided the EU between north and south, and east and west. It reveals the tenuous position of the EU following the resurgence of Russian intransigence under President Vladimir Putin: a beacon of political liberalism forced by necessity to rely on energy from an illiberal, increasingly hostile, and authoritarian state.


Nord Stream 2 would mirror the existing “Nord Stream” pipeline, commissioned in 2011, almost exactly. The two proposed landfall points in Russia are the Soikinsky and Kurgalsky Peninsulas, both of which are close to the Estonian border. The German landfall for the expansion would be in the Bay of Greifswald, the same location as Nord Stream. The pipeline’s Baltic Sea route would traverse the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and/or the territorial waters of Finland, Denmark, Germany, and Sweden, which would need to give permission for the project’s construction.

Nord Stream AG, the Gazprom-dominated consortium that operates the existing Nord Stream infrastructure, proposed the expansion project in 2011. It noted the EU’s current and future needs for natural gas and claimed the expansion would increase the annual capacity of the infrastructure to 110 billion cubic meters – double the current 55 billion cubic meters capacity of Nord Stream. The project was cancelled in January 2015 due to EU concerns about Gazprom gaining a more dominant position over supply and infrastructure in Europe’s gas markets. After a June 2015 agreement brought multiple Western gas companies on board, including Royal Dutch Shell, OMV, and E. ON, the project was revived.

As few EU member states have large supplies of natural gas, geography and economic necessity allow Russian energy giant Gazprom to enjoy a dominant market position. In the Baltic states, Bulgaria, and the Visegrad nations (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), it holds dominant positions in gas supply even though efforts directed at diversification are starting to alter this picture. In Western Europe, pipeline routes from Scandinavia, Britain, and North Africa, as well as local supply in Germany, ensure that there is more diversity of supply. But among Western Europe’s largest economies, Germany and Italy import significant portions of their supply from Gazprom – 45% and 35% respectively.

The main natural gas pipelines in Europe, moreover, are owned and operated by Gazprom, either directly or through consortiums. Approximately 19.5% of total EU natural gas imports, or almost 50% of all natural gas it imports from Russia, flows first through the Gazprom-owned Soyuz and Brotherhood pipelines in Ukraine, with the remainder going through its Nord Stream, Yamal-Europe, and Bluestream pipelines.

As the majority of Gazprom’s shareholders are entities of the Russian government, Gazprom is effectively an economic and political tool of the Kremlin. As a result, all EU foreign policy positions concerning Russia, including but not limited to sanctions – other forms of economic pressure, political pressure, and continued EU expansion – are complicated by the fact that Russia holds significant leverage over the economy and livelihood of the EU. While this leverage has diminished due to the EU’s construction of pipeline interconnectors with reverse-flow capability, historically low gas prices, and Gazprom’s inability to access the Chinese market until 2018, it remains potent.


Aside from Gazprom and its co-investors, the largest source of support for Nord Stream 2 comes from the German government. It has broad support in the Bundestag, and support from Chancellor Merkel and former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The latter is now the chairman of the board of Gazprom. Chancellor Merkel publically defended the project on multiple occasions, calling it a “commercial project” of “private investors,” suggesting that it should be off the table when discussing European energy security.


Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has spoken out against Nord Stream 2 on multiple occasions. He noted that the project “does not help diversification, nor would it reduce…energy dependency,” and called on the EU to “confront” Russia’s near monopoly on gas. In the European Parliament, the center-right European Peoples’ Party, the largest bloc in the chamber, recently noted the pipeline’s “detrimental consequences for the gas supply in Central and Eastern Europe” and the danger it poses to the EU’s efforts to reform bordering states through its Eastern Partnership initiative.

Other critics highlight the project’s lack of concrete economic benefits. Maroš Šef?ovi?, the European Commissioner for Energy Union, pointed out that Nord Stream runs at only 50% capacity. The U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs, Amos Hochstein, called Nord Stream 2 a project with little real economic significance that only enhances “the Russian narrative completely from all aspects…and it creates just the chasm [the Russians] want in the middle of Europe.”

A large point of contention is Germany’s embrace of Nord Stream 2 at the expense of the cancelled South Stream project. The cancelled pipeline would have run under the Black Sea from Dzhubga on the Russian coast and through Bulgaria and the Balkans, ultimately terminating in Austria and Italy. It would have increased gas deliveries to Central and Southeastern Europe, but was ultimately cancelled by Russia after the EU expressed concerns about the monopolistic control of supply and infrastructure by Gazprom. While Nord Stream 2 was cancelled because of the EU’s opposition on similar grounds, Gazprom’s partners seem to have partly overcome these concerns. Pro-Putin and anti-Putin politicians alike have found common ground to criticize the EU for its indecision on the project.

Strategic Implications for the EU

While Nord Stream 2 would increase natural gas deliveries to the EU, the likely motives behind the project would negate any medium or long-term benefits. Gazprom, and by extension the Russian government, would gain two new and valuable forms of leverage over the EU with the completion of the project.

First, the project would breed dissent within Europe on geographical fault lines. Only Germany stands to gain from the project with the increased supply capacity. Central and Eastern Europe would lose transit fees, and potentially experience  decreases in supply, as Gazprom would likely shift vast amounts of natural gas from current continental routes to the Baltic. These developments could prompt these states to strike energy deals with Russia on their own, further undercutting the solidarity of the EU.

Also at stake for Germany is its commitment, through NATO, to Eastern Europe. Germany’s commitment to uphold NATO’s Article 5 collective defense provision is already shaky with 58% of the German public opposed to using military force to defend allies. If Germany should push forward with the pipeline, it would further diminish the credibility of its commitment to the alliance. With Eastern Europe facing Russian military pressure in the east, and German ambivalence to the west, the cohesion and future of NATO would be undermined.

Second, the project would serve Russia’s strategic objectives in Ukraine, and possibly other transit countries. With the “hot” aspect of the war in an effective stalemate, Russia would gain the means to weaken Ukraine’s government and its ability to resist Russian influence. Ukraine is currently embroiled in a pricing dispute with Gazprom, and previously diverted gas illegally from the pipelines in response to Gazprom crackdowns. Should Russia find another conduit for transporting gas to the EU, this limited leverage over Russia and $2 billion in transit fees would disappear.

Nord Stream 2 imperils the very core of the EU’s legitimacy as a common institution. Its economic contributions to the EU at-large would be negligible and likely amounts to a thinly disguised geopolitical calculation by Moscow to divide the EU, diminish the security afforded to it by NATO, and attain greater influence over Ukraine. By removing the prospect of Russian infiltration via natural gas, the EU would sustain its already limited ability to oppose Russian aggression from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus.

Robert Swanson is a Transatlantic Security Analyst at the Streit Council. Photo credit: Nord Stream 2

The EU and NATO’s Southern Flanks: Five Years After the Arab Spring

February 22, 2016

by Mark D. Ducasse


From piracy to ungoverned spaces, to illicit networks and Islamic extremists, the situation in the Mediterranean littoral requires a smarter investment of existing resources, a shared and coordinated multilateral response capability, and increased cooperative security engagement between regional security stakeholders: states that border the Mediterranean littoral and interested regional organizations. The events that comprised the 2011 Arab Spring, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) subsequent military operation over Libya – Operation Unified Protector – and the current torrent of refugees into the European Union (EU) highlight the need for deeper engagement between Mediterranean littoral nations and regional security stakeholders such as NATO and the EU.

While many had hoped the Arab Spring would bring in new governments that would deliver political reform and social justice, five years on the reality is more war and violence in the Maghreb and the Levant. NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept explains how “[c]rises and conflicts beyond NATO’s borders can pose a direct threat to the security of Alliance territory and populations,” adding “NATO will therefore engage, where possible and when necessary, to prevent crises, manage crises, stabilize post-conflict situations and support reconstruction.” The European Commission recently adopted a series of cross-border cooperation programs totaling €1 billion ($1.1 billion) to support social and economic development in regions on both sides of the EU’s external borders.

The continued transition in the Maghreb and Levant should not become a missed opportunity for establishing enduring partnerships, assisting with regional security and stability, and fomenting lasting change which, in turn, will increase the security of both NATO and EU members. Specifically, what follows focuses on the four Mediterranean littoral states most affected by the Arab Spring: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria.

Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began in December 2010, has been the most successful of the Mediterranean littoral states in its transition to democracy and implementing security reforms. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted and his government was overthrown in January 2011. Though Tunisia’s transition has not been smooth, Tunisian civil society did not allow extremism and polarization to undermine the goal of reform and the establishment of democratic governance.

Egypt, on the other hand, remains repressive. President Hosni Mubarak was ousted and the government overthrown in February 2011 with a fanfare of change. However, a military coup led by many of Mubarak’s former cronies took place in July 2013, overthrowing Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s elected president, just a year after he took office. Today Egyptian security services routinely arrest journalists and critics of the government. Egyptian authorities have also taken advantage of a pro-Islamic State (IS) insurgency known as the Sinai Province (SP), which they have been battling since February 2011. Since July 2013, Egyptian authorities have been using the SP insurgency as a pretext for a violent crackdown on members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they now classify as a terrorist organization.

Of the four Mediterranean littoral states examined here, Libya and Syria have fared the worst. In Libya, over four decades of authoritarian rule by Muammar Qadhafi left little space for democratic institutions to flourish or for civil society groups to develop. Though elections did take place in July 2012, Libya now has two different factions claiming to be the legitimate government: in the east of Libya, a government in Beida, which is aligned with Qadhafi loyalists and military forces; and in the west, another government in Tripoli, which is backed by Islamists and independent militias from western coastal cities. It was recently reported that IS has at least 5,000 fighters now stationed in Libya, clearly taking advantage of the chaos that has ensued.

EU policy currently aims to assist Libya in its efforts to establish a democratic, stable and prosperous state. This involves promoting a democratic transition based on an inclusive constitution; the emergence of strong, transparent and accountable institutions; an alert civil society; and a vibrant private sector. The EU’s total program in Libya now stands at €108 million ($119 million). The Maghreb is strategically important to Europe in terms of energy security, territorial security, trade, resources and overseas investment. For example, 60 percent of exports from the Maghreb go to the EU, and 80 percent of total direct investment in the Maghreb comes from the EU.

In Syria, the failed uprising against President Bashar al-Assad evolved first into a civil war, but has now morphed into a proxy war with violence and chaos also fueling the rise of IS in the Levant region (viz., ISIL). In May 2011, the EU responded to the use of violence by Syrian military and security forces against peaceful protestors by suspending cooperation with the Syrian Government under the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), and gradually extended sanctions and other restrictive measures to pressure the Syrian government into ending the violence. The war in Syria is now in its fifth year with an estimated 4.1 million refugees who have fled the country, more than 7 million internally displaced persons, and 470,000 people dead. The EU and its member states are leading the international response. As the largest donor, they have mobilized over €5 billion ($5.5 billion) in humanitarian aid as well as stabilization and development assistance since the conflict began. That funding has gone to those affected by the conflict inside Syria and refugees and host communities in neighboring countries, especially Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

NATO and the EU’s southern borders are clearly more vulnerable now than at any other time in recent decades. From the Levant, the influx of refugees from Syria via Turkey (a NATO member) has significantly challenged NATO and the EU, with both organizations coming under criticism for lacking coherent and effective policies. “This is a two-headed issue that we will deal with,” Gen. Philip M. Breedlove – NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and Commander of the United States’ European Command (USEUCOM) – outlined late last year in an interview with Stars and Stripes: “The problem in the south is more about ungoverned spaces, unresponsive governments creating [a] massive flow of migrants and a large battlefield just south of one of our great allies, Turkey.” The rise of the IS along Turkey’s southern borders has also become a destabilizing factor and a grave security concern.

Since Syria’s civil war began four years ago, Turkey has maintained an official open door policy for the victims of the Syrian conflict, absorbing about 2.5 million refugees and spending nearly €9 billion ($9.9 billion) in the process. In November 2015, Turkey agreed to help fight smuggling networks with the EU and to curb irregular migration to the EU. In return, the EU pledged €3 billion ($3.3 billion) to help improve the condition of refugees in Turkey, and to grant political concessions to the Turkish government – including an easing of visa restrictions and fast-tracking its EU membership process.

From the Maghreb, spillover from the Libyan conflict is still causing mass migration to Southern Europe with Italy and Greece (both members of NATO and the EU) bearing the brunt of this influx. IS is also operating in Libya, posing a threat to the whole of Europe. During a recent BBC Radio 4 interview, Sir Peter Ricketts, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s former national security adviser, described Libya as a vast ungoverned space: “It is a threat to all of us in Europe because [IS] is moving in so there is a case to do everything we can to help them produce stability in Libya, but they have got to do it. The likelihood of British combat forces being deployed seems to me very remote, but supporting the Libyans to do a more effective job in governing their own space, I can certainly see a case for that.” The number of IS fighters in Libya is reported to number around 5,000. The group currently holds the port of Sirte, and is trying to move into Libyan oilfields.

European leaders have repeatedly declared their intention to place greater emphasis on human security, democratic reform, security sector reform, and economic development in Mediterranean littoral. NATO and EU partners should continue to focus on issues such as security sector reform and the establishment and maintenance of good governance across these territories. The EU and NATO, and their partners, can help shape the path of the Mediterranean littoral’s transitioning states through carefully designed engagement policies and programs using existing assets and political infrastructure. This would help stabilize the region by supporting institutions for good governance and security sector reform, and would create a cadre of better connected and capable Maghrebian and Levantian security partners for the future.

Consider creating a regional joint task force combing elements of the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the EU (FRONTEX), the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS), and NATO assets such as Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) and Alliance/national Search and Rescue (SAR) assistance as an extension of NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour. The objective of this joint task force would be to establish a balanced regional component comprising both hard and soft power elements sourced from regional security stakeholders. Sourcing assets from regional organizations like NATO and the EU, and directly from their border members and partners, would ensure the endurance of this joint task force while offering top cover from associated organizations.

Mark D. Ducasse is a Transatlantic Security Analyst at the Streit Council. Photo credit: Pan Chaoyue

The Northern Question and the United States: Does Climate Change Herald a New Era for Arctic Security?

December 4, 2015

by Andrew Blinkinsop


While many in the American political establishment continue to publicly deny the reality of climate change, its effects are increasingly felt across the globe and pose unprecedented humanitarian and geopolitical challenges to states large and small. From rising sea levels that potentially forcing millions from their homes to droughts that drive conflict and instability, climate change adds an unpredictable and powerful variable to equations of global security. One region of the world – the Arctic – is experiencing more dramatic changes than any other, and it is an area of special importance for several NATO countries. According to a 2014 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and some predict that summers will see the Arctic ice-free by 2030.

A widely cited effect of melting Arctic sea ice is the potential unlocking of large quantities of oil and natural gas as the region holds 22% of the world’s untapped conventional hydrocarbon resources, the burning of which will only intensify climate change. As a result, some point to the Arctic as a potential global flashpoint; the site of a destabilizing and intense competition for resources between powerful northern states. Actions such as Russia planting its flag on the seabed at the North Pole in 2007 generate media attention and reasonable fear in neighboring countries. However, resource competition is not the only factor in the Arctic, and opportunities and a real will for rule-based cooperation exists at the international level. Besides hydrocarbon extraction, potentially lucrative trade routes and military buildups are two issues that shape the Arctic’s geopolitical space, and the dynamics of all three hinge on various territorial claims. To respond to these three challenges, U.S. Arctic policy should seek to shore up relevant aspects of international law, discuss emerging security concerns openly in international fora, and resolve existing bilateral territorial disputes before the inevitable opening of the Arctic occurs.

UNCLOS, EEZs, and the CLCS

Despite the perception of the Arctic as a “legal no-man’s land,” there are in fact international treaties and associations that bear on Arctic issues, the most important of which is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS gives countries sovereign rights to living and non-living resources in their “Exclusive Economic Zones” (EEZs), defined as the area stretching up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline.

For the most part, EEZs are clear in the Arctic. The sticking point comes in the issue of “continental shelves,” a contentious geographical term that gives countries additional resource rights beyond their EEZ if they can prove that a continental shelf represents a natural extension of their dry-land territory. As it stands, Russia, Denmark and Canada have conflicting claims about the extension of their shelves, and their petitions await additional research and a ruling by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). Russia’s flag planting was related to its own research mission in support of its CLCS claim.

However, there is little reason to be alarmed at these territorial disputes. It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of hydrocarbon reserves lie within the accepted and well-established EEZ lines. One report estimated that the disputed area Russia claims as its extended continental shelf contains less than 3 percent of undiscovered Arctic oil and gas. And because the disputes are over territory in the extreme far north, the relatively small reserves that exist there might be economically prohibitive to extract. As a result, Arctic countries’ fundamental energy interests do not hinge on the CLCS territorial disputes; the EEZ framework defined by UNCLOS already guarantees states access to the bulk of oil and gas in the Arctic.

Skeptics of the constraints imposed by international law may question the efficacy of treaties like UNCLOS and point to Russia’s recent aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere to highlight its willingness to break rules that do not suit it. However, at the moment at least, all northern countries’ interests are served by a stable legal regime in the Arctic, and Arctic powers have consistently signaled their desire for rule-based cooperation. The five coastal Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S.) signed the Ilulissat Declaration in 2008, in which they reaffirmed their commitment to international law pertaining to the Arctic. Indeed, Russia’s agreement with Norway in 2010 over disputed territory and its submission to the CLCS in August demonstrate its intention to adhere to rules in this policy area.

The biggest challenge for UNCLOS is a detail that afflicts several other useful UN treaties, including conventions on the rights of women and children and prohibitions against torture: the U.S. never ratified it. Despite decades of broad support for UNCLOS in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and both Republican and Democratic administrations’ recognition of U.S. interests in ratification, opposition from part of the Senate has blocked the move. The arguments against ratification, which rely on a narrow definition of sovereignty and the assumption that the U.S. navy is so capable that the U.S. needs no legal guarantees of its rights, do not recognize the ongoing shift toward a multipolar security environment.

An Effective Diplomatic Toolkit

For the U.S., ratifying UNCLOS would be a first step toward establishing a defensible diplomatic position to deal with problems that may arise. A second step would be to end the gag rule on security discussions at the Arctic Council, which consists of the aforementioned coastal Arctic states in addition to Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Russia’s reopening of several Arctic bases, addition of ships to its northern fleet, and restoration of its Soviet-era Arctic infrastructure, have raised fears among the other council members. In response, Canada and the U.S. are both looking to add icebreakers to their small Arctic fleets. These are necessary moves, but ones that should be cast as practical means to building infrastructure for transportation and research in the Arctic rather than the start of an arms race. The Arctic Council should be equipped to deal with security concerns openly as they emerge.

Finally, there remain divisions among Western allies that should be resolved before they are exploited by less friendly actors. Most important is the ongoing U.S.-Canadian dispute over the status of waters in the Canadian Arctic archipelago, through which a lucrative “Northwest Passage” trade route could run as ice continues to melt. Canada insists these waters are “internal” while the U.S. calls them “international.” So far, the dispute remains subdued as the passage is still blocked by large amounts of ice, and the two sides have essentially agreed to disagree. But this position is untenable and creates space for a wedge between the two allies. As some have pointed out, a hypothetical Russian flyover of Canada’s claimed “internal waters” could force the U.S. to decide between defending its position on the passage or supporting its ally. Given the frequency with which Russian planes have violated NATO airspace in the north, this is a plausible scenario. The U.S. and Canada should resolve this dispute bilaterally before such a wedge can be driven.

A New Era?

Whether the Arctic’s inevitable opening will be defined by cooperation or competition remains to be seen. But the assumption that the Arctic will bring unprecedented security challenges is unwarranted at this time. The Arctic is likely to mirror the broader geopolitical context rather than define it. If relations between Russia and the West continue to deteriorate, the prospects for cooperation will suffer accordingly. For the U.S., shoring up all the diplomatic tools available to head off such an outcome, while bringing Western Arctic powers closer together by resolving ongoing disputes, is the best course of action.

Andrew Blinkinsop is a Transatlantic Security and Community Analyst at the Streit Council. Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

NATO Expansion: Strategic Opportunities and Risks

October 27, 2015

by John Gennace

North Atlantic Council

When 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

Keeping Cool: A Policy of Restraint in Syria

October 13, 2015

by Andrew Blinkinsop

Obama and Putin

Depending on which headlines one has been reading the last few weeks, one could be excused for thinking that NATO is already in the middle of a new Cold War, that a revanchist Russia poses an existential threat to the U.S. and its European allies, and that Russia’s escalation of force in Syria is the latest chapter in a story of Western decline and authoritarian resurgence. The narrative is ominous, yet appealing in its simplicity and familiarity. It is also appealing to those like Senator John McCain, who bemoan what they perceive as a power vacuum caused by the apparentabdication of American leadership by the Obama Administration. At an even higher fever pitch, some recent analyses warn in dire terms of “new era of global geopolitics” and “a new Russian flank against NATO.” While the proponents of these views stop short of calling for coalition boots on the ground, there is a general feeling that NATO needs to “do something” or “be tougher” in its response to Russian actions in Syria.

On the contrary, a sober assessment of the timing and character of Russia’s recent military buildup in Syria, as well as current realities within both Russia and Syria, reveal a much different picture. Putin’s Syria gambit is best viewed as a short-term tactic given limited options, and one that does not leave Russia in an improved security situation vis-à-vis the West. Recognizing Russia’s weakness in this move is key to formulating an appropriate response. A policy of restraint, coordination, and a continued focus on Ukraine is the way forward that best defends NATO’s core security interests.

A major geopolitical inflection point?

Putin’s stated intention to join an anti-ISIS coalition of Western and Gulf powers is belied by the initial selection of targets for Russian bombing. While the Russian media does not distinguish between ISIS and the variety of rebel groups opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian bombers have been focusing on the latter, which pose the more direct threat to the Syrian regime at the moment. It seems clear that Russia has no near-term intention of cooperating with the West in Syria. But its move to prop up Assad does not portend thecoming defeat of NATO,” or even a “major geopolitical inflection” point, as a recent Institute for the Study of War report claims.

It is worth taking a step back to judge the current military and economic realities of both Russia and NATO. By the last officially reported totals, NATO’s total combined military vehicles outnumber Russia’s 61,000 to 28,000. NATO countries have three times Russia’s active-duty manpower. Overall, the balance of power has shifted remarkably to NATO over the last 25 years, and despite hand-wringing about boosting NATO’s defense spending and breathless warnings of the Russian threat, these facts have not changed.

The economic situation presents an even more unbalanced picture of Russia and NATO’s relative strengths. While the U.S. and Europe have recovered their GDP losses after the Great Recession, however unsteadily, Russia’s economy is feeling a tremendous squeeze from U.S.-EU sanctions and a precipitous drop in the price of oil. According to the World Bank’s baseline scenario, the Russian economy will contract by 3.8% in 2015 and continue to shrink in 2016. The Kremlin has been forced to pull from a $60 billion “secret fund” to finance its intervention in Syria. Both former and current Russian finance ministers have called present levels of military spending unaffordable. As early as May, before the recent escalation, one Russian economist predicted that Russia could keep up its current level of defense spending for less than two years before necessity compels it to withdraw from Ukraine to escape sanctions or undergo a “politically dangerous” fiscal rebalancing. Yet another foreign front will shorten this window.

In addition, military adventurism in Syria is unlikely to cause a bump in domestic approval as Russia’s policy in Ukraine has. While Putin’s approval rating is still at a solid 84%, a recent poll found only 43% of Russians support giving weapons to the Assad regime and 69% oppose direct military intervention. The deteriorating economy and the waning domestic appetite for foreign intervention will constrain Russia’s ability to supply enough force to furnish Assad with any decisive victory. In turn, the longer Russia is embroiled in Syria, the more domestic and elite pressure the Kremlin is likely to face.

Short-term thinking

Given the timing of the buildup and the situation on the ground in Syria, the Russian intervention is best seen as a short-term attempt to keep Assad in power. After a series of territorial losses over the summer, the regime was left in “the most strategically weak position…since 2013,” according to Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Centre. In particular, rebels won victories in Idlib and Homs provinces, which are precisely the areas Russia targeted during its first week of bombing. There are several reasons why Russia wants Assad to stay in power, from the maintenance of the only reliable client state Russia has in the region, to the Kremlin’s oft-stated ideological preference for dictators over “chaos.” The important point here is the reactive nature of Russia’s intervention.

Further, since the timing of the bombing overlapped perfectly with the UN General Assembly meeting last week, manipulation of the media cycle should not be discounted as a possible motive for Russia’s intervention. Indeed, despite Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s strident, passionate speech at the UN denouncing Russian aggression against his country, the news cycle has been dominated by events in Syria.

Additional symbolic motives have been proposed for Russia’s recent moves. For example, Putin may be trying to embarrass the West by appearing more decisive, tostick it to the Americansas one commentator suggested, or to boost Russia’s international prestige (although a coalition with such international pariahs as Assad and Iran is a strange way to boost prestige). While any of these motives may factor into Russia’s tactics in Syria, we must rate their seriousness before making policy. Soft notions of “embarrassment” and “prestige,” coupled as they are with attractively simple narratives of Putin and Obama’s respective images, should not provoke an overreaction.

A measured response

The conception of grand strategist Putin outfoxing a timid, flummoxed Obama plays well in U.S. politics at the moment, and the narrative of a looming Russian threat well serves those politicians who have long wanted a more muscular Western response to the Syrian crisis. The reality, though, is that the core security interests of the U.S. and NATO are not threatened by the current Russian presence in Syria. Considering the overall balance of forces between NATO and Russia, and the precarious state of the Russian economy, policymakers should be unmoved by this development as it is best characterized as a short-term tactic borne of a weak geopolitical position.

An overreaction such as the no-fly zone called for by McCain would both needlessly escalate the situation in Syria and deepen Western involvement in a messy, intractable conflict. There are not enough true U.S. security interests in Syria to warrant such a strategy. Rather, the U.S. should coordinate with the Russian military to avoid accidents and miscommunications in Syrian airspace. Furthermore, the U.S. and its European allies should keep the situation in Ukraine decoupled from developments in Syria. Unlike Syria, the future of Ukraine is of core importance to the security concerns of NATO countries, and the West should not allow Russia’s position in Syria to influence steps toward a peaceful resolution that recognizes Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.

Andrew Blinkinsop is a Transatlantic Security and Community Analyst at the Streit Council. Photo credit: The White House

Can NATO Reassure its Eastern Members and Deter Putin?

September 23, 2015

by John Gennace

100415a-HQ28-001 NATO Headquarters Brussels.

September 14th marked the start of Russia’s largest military exercise this year – Center 2015 – in which 95,000 Russian military personnel conducted war games designed to test the readiness of forces to “contain an international armed conflict.” The exercise, which took place in the immense region between the Urals and Siberia, came on the heels of a very active year for the Russian military. In August alone, it held 79 drills. For NATO’s concerned eastern members, and the Alliance as a whole, the message is clear – the eastern flank of the Alliance requires more robust reassurance and deterrence against an increasingly aggressive Russian military.

There remains, however, a disconnect between NATO’s strong rhetoric condemning Russian actions in Ukraine and how the Alliance’s actions are perceived on the ground.  While in Berlin this past June, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stressed that “as Russia aggressively modernizes its military capabilities and warfighting doctrine, it’s also actively seeking to undermine NATO….”  He went on to emphasize that although the United States does not seek conflict with Russia, it “will defend…[its] allies, the rules-based international order, and…stand up to Russia’s actions and their attempts to reestablish a Soviet-era sphere of influence.” A similar view was conveyed almost three weeks earlier by NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg when he argued that “[w]hat we see is more unpredictability, more insecurity, more unrest…[however] I believe we don’t see any immediate threat against any NATO country from the east.” Even so, NATO’s eastern member states – from Estonia to Bulgaria – are lobbying hard for permanent NATO bases on their territories as a deterrent against further Russian adventurism. This is a plan that Germany and some other NATO members oppose on the grounds that it violates a 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia known as the Founding Act, which obliges NATO not to place “substantial combat forces” in Central and Eastern Europe.

Although NATO has significantly increased the frequency of its exercises in an attempt to supplement its rhetorical reassurances and deterrence, their size and scope pale in comparison to Russia’s war gaming.  While Russian exercises routinely include tens of thousands of personnel mobilized in as little as 48-72 hours from all branches of its armed forces, recent NATO exercises are minuscule by comparison, sometimes involving only a few thousand troops and as little as a few hundred. For instance, the NATO exercise Allied Spirit II was conducted August 4th-24th with 1,600 troops from Canada, Hungary, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. The exercise Saber Guardian/Rapid Trident 15, which went from July 20th-31st, was a “regional command post exercise and field training exercise that focused on peacekeeping and stability operations” and was conducted with 1,800 troops from 18 countries. These exercises fall short of reassuring NATO’s eastern members and deterring the threat posed by Russia – a threat that the newly appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, emphatically described as “the greatest threat to…[U.S.] national security.”  While NATO is scheduled to kick-off Trident Juncture 15, its largest exercise in a decade involving 36,000 troops, it will take place in Western Europe, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea – quite far from Eastern Europe, where a strong NATO presence would reassure concerned member states and is arguably more fitting.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to NATO effectively reassuring its members and deterring future Russian aggression is disagreement over the threat itself. Member states on NATO’s eastern flank are singularly focused on Russia as memories of Soviet domination inform their views on collective defense. Meanwhile, member states to the south and west are fixated on ISIS and the unfolding refugee and migrant crisis. A recent Pew study found potentially deep divisions within NATO, revealing 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.” Yet “coalitions of the willing” risk undermining NATO’s cohesiveness and, by extension, its reassurance and deterrence value.

Be that as it may, the near-term Russian threat remains and the U.S. must be the driving force within NATO to assume an appropriate reassurance and deterrence posture in the east.  While the U.S. has moved additional heavy weapons and equipment into the region, more should be done. The U.S. should provide Ukraine with defensive weapons in order to a) deter further Russian intervention and b) if deterrence fails, to inflict upon Russian forces such severe damage that it will reconsider its Ukraine policy and seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.  Additionally, as has been argued by some, NATO should revive the Long-Term Defense Plan (LTDP) with a particular emphasis on Eastern Europe’s security. An updated LTDP would support several workable concepts such as the prepositioning of weapons and material, the creation of a U.S. Corps headquarters based in Poland, and standardizing Eastern European forces with U.S. weapons and communications systems for optimal interoperability with U.S. and other NATO forces.

For many, the notion that Russia could pose a serious military threat to Europe seemed fantastic prior to its incursion into Ukraine in February 2014. Had the Alliance more accurately interpreted Russian intentions in the months leading up to its annexation of Crimea, it could have strengthened its deterrence posture toward Russia by taking steps such as deploying forces along its eastern flank.  As we see yet again with the “surprise” of Russia’s military deployment to Syria, Putin possesses the will to move aggressively on states bordering NATO. Therefore, it is time for NATO to boost its reassurance and deterrence value or risk more unpleasant surprises from Putin elsewhere on its periphery or on Alliance territory.

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

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