At the start of 2015, NATO finds itself facing three of the most difficult security challenges since the beginning of the post-Cold War world: the Ukrainian conflict and rising tensions in the East, the threat posed by European foreign fighters in Syria and the stability of NATO’s southern borders, and NATO funding in the age of austerity.
Against the backdrop of these worrying trends in European security, the Atlantic Council in partnership with the Norwegian Ministry of Defense convened a group of leading transatlantic security experts to analyze NATO’s ability to manage the many threats it faces. The discussion focused on NATO’s ability to counter Russia’s hybrid warfare. NATO’s lack of one-for-one counters to aggressive Russian actions, particularly with regard to its Baltic military drills and altered strategic doctrine, was viewed as another hindrance to NATO’s effectiveness at containing Russian aggression. The discussion also explored NATO’s nonconventional deterrence option, including a matching of tactical nuclear land capabilities, investing in increased naval deterrence by upgrading submarine-launched cruise missiles, and building treaties with Russia to reduce tactical nuclear deployment. Deterrence with conventional capabilities was also a major discussion point, with options focusing on building up NATO’s eastern frontier: developing forward headquarters in the region, upgrading the equipment of Eastern members, incorporating pilots from Poland and other Eastern European NATO member states into DCA, and providing counter information.
Experts noted the success of sanctions, as evidenced by the plummeting ruble, but also predicted that Russia’s Ukraine policy will become more aggressive should the Russian economy worsen. Consequently, just as sanction pressures must correlate with Russian aggression, so too should a lessening of sanctions correlate with signs of Russian cooperation. Experts recognized that, before any question of Ukrainian membership in the EU and NATO is approached, Ukraine must achieve economic, political, diplomatic, and security goals. Both the transatlantic community and Russia are component to this stability and recognized the importance of maintaining a long-term goal of developing the transatlantic partnership with Russia as a member and not an adversary of the community.
NATO’s southern flank poses an entirely separate threat to transatlantic security, including the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and the new generation of terrorists these conflicts will create. Experts evaluated trends in the security threat presented by returning fighters. Hindering counterterrorism efforts are a deficiency in intelligence sharing, a Mediterranean border overwhelmed by migrants coming from North Africa, and an insufficient focus on addressing al Qaeda and ISIS sleeper cells in Europe. Experts came to the conclusion that hardening soft targets and increasing border security were only marginally effective, with increased intelligence cooperation between counterterrorism partners, including Russia, proving critical in confronting the rise in aspiring and returning foreign fighters.
Experts also addressed the implications of the US defense budget to European security. Currently, sixty-seven billion dollars from the US defense budget goes toward forces in Europe, with $1 billion allotted to the European Reassurance Initiative. Experts noted that the ERI, which aims to boost the response capabilities of US forces in Europe, is a slight reversal of the policy emplaced in 2012 on a reduction of forces in Europe. Even so, the Obama administration and the following administration will likely not substantially reverse the policy, even if European defense budgets continue to slide. In the context of moderating tensions in the east, the ERI roll out is predicted to be of limited provocation toward Russia. The concern of some experts is that the reduction in troop strength in 2012 and any reductions in the future will have lasting impacts on alliance cohesion.