Just two weeks after Britain voted to abandon the European Union, shaking confidence in one pillar of the transatlantic alliance, leaders from the members of North Atlantic Treaty Organization gather Friday for a show of unity in the face of a resurgent Russia.
At the two-day meeting in Warsaw, NATO will announce troop deployments to reassure its easternmost members that its committed to defend them. What the summit wont do is reduce the threat of conflict with Russia, according to military analysts and former diplomats. Thats because the alliances moves will do too little to deter a potential assault by Russia, but too much for Russia to be appeased, these people said.
NATOs 28 members will dispatch four brigades to the Baltic states and Poland to bolster defenses in the eastern part. Theyll also welcome Montenegro as a soon-to-be member and improve ties with the ex-Soviet countries of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. At the same day, NATO is nearing completion of an anti-ballistic-missile system in the region.
Every single thing that has irritated the relationship over the last 15 years will be on display at the summit, said Andrew Monaghan, a British former consultant to NATO on Russia, who now is an analyst at the London-based think tank, Chatham House.
Every time NATO thinks about a deployment, what it should be thinking is: What are the Russian plans for dealing with that? Instead, the alliance negotiates with itself, and then considers what the Kremlin might do, he said. Were neither here nor there with Russia.
For all of the alliances talk of unity, NATO members are divided over how to resolve this neither here nor there problem. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier lately accused NATO of saber-rattling for holding military exercises in members close to Russia. Eastern European leaders, by contrast, want NATO to do more.
What I see is NATO belatedly moving in the right direction, but it shouldnt be our last word, said former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, in a phone interview. These things wouldnt be happening if Putin hadnt started invading places. It is President Putin who changed NATO.
Russia reacted harshly even before NATO finalized its plans. In May, the defense ministry announced the deployment of three new divisions in European Russia, quoting NATO actions. Last week, President Vladimir Putin told a gathering of his ambassadors that the alliance is not only trying in Russias behavior justification for its own legitimacy and existence but also is taking truly confrontational steps against us. He pledged to respond appropriately.
Also last week, the EU extended sanctions against Russia imposed over the Ukraine crisis until January, despite growing bellows within the bloc for easing them. The U.S ., too, has kept its kerbs in place.
The challenge in the East wont be the only agenda item for the NATO summit, which also will discuss the alliances work to stem the flow of Syrian refugees across the Aegean Sea and its continued presence in Afghanistan. While Eastern European members are concerned largely about Russia, those in the south are more worried about threats from the Middle East.
NATO says its planned forces in Poland and the Baltic nations will function merely as a tripwire in the event of Russian attack. The four multi-national brigades are designed to reassure the alliances ex-Soviet and ex-Warsaw Pact members that if ever they should be attacked, NATO would come to their aid. With about 4,000 troops in total, theyre about half the size of just one of the three new divisions Russia plans to deploy.
Russian officials consider more of security threats. When they look, they watch NATO forces-out deployed a two-hour drive from St. Petersburg, said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
A U.K. parliament report published Tuesday summed up the dilemma before NATO leaders on Friday, concluding that Russia would interpret a hesitant response as weakness, but that facing Russia down may worsen antagonism.
More worrying to Moscow than NATOs relatively small planned troop deployments in the Baltics are its missile-defense schemes, which got a boost this spring when the alliance proclaimed the first part of the system, based in Romania, operational. A second base in Poland is under construction.
The Kremlins concern, said Pavel Felgenhauer, a veteran Moscow military analyst, is that the launchers could be loaded with cruise missile able to reach Putins residency in Sochi in a few minutes.
The belief of the general staff is that this is just covering, that the basis are there for a first ten-strike, intended to kill Putin, said Felgenhauer.
The U.S. and NATO say the basis are designed to protect against any possible nuclear attack by rascal states and pose no menace to Russias vast nuclear arsenal.
Russias military isnt convinced, Felgenhauer said. The generals who dominate strategic thinking in the Kremlin have zero trust in NATOs good intents and a healthy respect for U.S. technological prowess, fueling their feelings of insecurity.
Open conflict between Russia and the alliance remains unlikely, but so is any kind of broader settlement between them, according to Felgenhauer and others. There has been a growing number of near-misses between airplanes and ships, particularly in the Baltic.
Even those who favor a tough response to Russia believe much stronger routine contacts are needed, from technological military levels up to the very highest, to avoid unintended escalation. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he hoped to convene a conference of the NATO-Russia Council after the summit, but thats unlikely to be enough, analysts said.
Most of the people involved cant remember the Cold War, said Harvard University professor Graham Allison, who advised the Pentagon in the 1980 s. In copes with the Russians, you are always simply one step away from a game of chicken.
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