Is NATO Ready for Putin?

Political hurdles hold NATO back — how convenient for Russian tactics.

By: /
4 May, 2015
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses an audience at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, Dec. 14, 2015. REUTERS/Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Vladimir Putin has challenged the United States and its allies over the past year. The annexation of Crimea and then the intervention in Ukraine have been very difficult as Russia has far more at stake in these places than does the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]. That changes quite dramatically if we move slightly west and consider Poland and the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These countries are members of NATO, so NATO must respond if Putin tries anything serious.

But NATO is not ready for Putin. While the stories of defense budget cuts do not help, NATO continues to have enough military capability to hold its own and then some in a fight with Russia. The real problem is a political one—that NATO members disagree about what is necessary to deal with Russia’s threats. Yes, a key output of the NATO summit last fall in Wales was the development a new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force that would move quickly during a crisis. This new NATO unit could move east to deal with Russia or south/southeast to deal with threats in North Africa or the Mideast.

However, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force is crippled by two political realities. First, most of the countries lined up to lead the first few rotations are precisely those that were handcuffed in Afghanistan by caveats—restrictions on what their troops could and could not do—Germany, Spain and Italy. Second, in a crisis, the NATO commander, General Phillip Breedlove, would not have authority to deploy the NATO force. He would have to wait until the decision-making body of NATO, the North Atlantic Council, agreed that to release the force.

During the cold war, because of the threat of a surprise attack, the NATO commander had the authority under specific circumstances to take the steps he saw as necessary to deal with Soviet aggression. While we are not yet in a new cold war, the hybrid war tactics used by Putin—the little green men, the interrupting of telecommunications, and the rest aimed to present a fait accompli—work best when the opponent cannot make quick decisions and where ambiguity stymies a collective response. Right now, various allies are opposed to granting General Breedlove this kind of authority.

There is another way. General Breedlove not only commands NATO but also happens to be the commander of all U.S. forces in Europe. Using that authority, he can move American troops around Europe as he sees fit as long as the President and Secretary of Defense do not mind. Of course, this means that the U.S. needs to keep significant capabilities in Europe so that this general has some resources to deploy as things heat up. Recent stories of moving Apache helicopters out of Europe and back to North America due to budget cuts are exactly what we do not need.

The point here is not to win a war with the Russians, but to avoid one.

The point here is not to win a war with the Russians, but to avoid one. Putin has consistently been looking for and taken advantage of weakness. He does not want World War III, but he does seem to want to break NATO. Presenting difficult choices is his primary strategy. It is time that we make his decision-making harder by making clearer, stronger commitments to our Eastern allies. If NATO as a collective organization is slow to respond, then individual countries, such as the U.S. and Canada, can and must respond.

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