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Faced with Russian threat, NATO must stop differentiating between old and new member states

It is time to call a spade a spade. By annexing Crimea, supplying separatists with weapons and personnel, and now directly intervening in Ukraine, Russia has broken the rules-based system in Eastern Europe and has undermined international laws and norms, writes Michal Baranowski.

This has profoundly changed the security situation for Europe as a whole, but especially for the eastern-most NATO members. Western leaders meeting in Newport, Wales, for the NATO Summit have to meet this challenge head on.

When visiting Poland in June, US President Barack Obama talked about his country’s unwavering commitment to Eastern Europe’s security. During her recent visit to Riga, Chancellor Angela Markel also reconfirmed Germany’s commitment to NATO’s Article 5, which sanctions collective defense. But the Alliance must not only be willing but also able to defend all of its members. While some allies — such as Poland, with its fast-growing defense budget and large military modernisation program — are doing their part, NATO as a whole is not currently well-prepared to defend against the threat posed by Russia.

The lack of preparedness relates to the divide between old and new NATO allies enshrined in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Through that agreement, which codified relations between NATO and Russia in the post-Cold War era, NATO committed to not having a significant presence in countries that joined the Alliance after 1999. But the Act was premised on the notion that Russia would be a partner of the West, and that Moscow would not undermine the security of Europe. Russia’s recent actions mean that both of these assumptions are now clearly obsolete. The document itself needs not to be thrown out. But European leaders, particularly in Germany, need to stop referring to it as a basis for NATO’s restraint. Poland and the Baltic states see such references as undermining NATO unity, by respecting obligations to Russia over those to treaty allies. It is time, then, to erase the line between new and old NATO member states. The Wales Summit presents a perfect opportunity to do so.

What would that mean in practice? Among other things, it would mean permanently stationing NATO assets, including troops and bases, where the threat is most acute in northeastern Europe. Such a presence on Europe’s eastern periphery would not only enable an effective defense in case of an attack, but would serve as clear sign of the Alliance’s resolve in deterring any potential aggression. Over time, this would also help lead to the de-escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. Russia is more likely to respond to a show of strength rather than to weakness.

Yet NATO is unlikely to make such a decision at the upcoming summit because of political divisions and budget constraints. The alternative would be to improve the Alliance’s readiness and enhance its ability to mobilise quickly. This would help to counter Russia’s ability to mobilise large numbers of troops, turn military exercises into an invading force, embed military forces with local militias, and employ a sophisticated propaganda machine.

The Alliance also needs to upgrade the readiness of the NATO Response Force. In a welcome development, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently confirmed that the Wales Summit will result in a readiness action plan, with forces committed for an immediate deployment. Such forces will need logistical support on the ground, so NATO needs to be ready to pre-position materiel and at least some personnel in Poland, the Baltic states, and Romania. NATO also needs to update and upgrade its current contingency plans, make them more specific, and acknowledge the sources of potential threats. Finally, more frequent and more useful exercises are necessary in eastern NATO member states in order to ensure both the interoperability of NATO forces and demonstrate the resolve and strength of the alliance.

The summit in Wales is unlikely to meet all expectations. At this moment, NATO is still too divided to do what is truly necessary to defend all its member states and effectively deter Russia. But the Summit needs to serve as a key step in this broad direction. The artificial line between old and new NATO member states must be erased, and the taboo of dealing with Russia as a threat and not just as a partner must be addressed head on.

Michal Baranowski is the director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @M_BaranowskiThe GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series.

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