Easy, there.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

NATO Can Reduce the Threat of Escalation With Russia

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit starting in Warsaw on Friday will probably lead to increased -- and unnecessary -- tension between NATO and Russia. Yet it may also yield good results: Acknowledging the increased hostility might make it possible for the two sides to ensure there are fewer dangerous incidents. 

The most imminent threat to NATO countries today has little to do with Russia. Rather, it’s instability in the Middle East -- the chaos that has created the refugee crisis and spawned well-funded human-trafficking networks. This threat is killing people right now, in Syria and Iraq but also in the West, in terrorist attacks and in leaky boats on the Aegean Sea. Yet NATO is doing little to counter these threats. As an organization, it is not involved in operations against Islamic State, and though it’s dispatched a maritime force to the Aegean, it’s not playing a particularly active role there. 

Instead, NATO is finding it easy to leave behind the times when it had to “go out of area or out of business” and concentrate again on its Cold War-era goal of confronting Russia. That will be the central team of the Warsaw summit.

Though Ukraine -- where people are also dying right now in a Russian-instigated conflict -- will get some attention at the summit, NATO won’t get too involved there, either. In 2015, it only allocated 5.3 million euros ($5.9 million) to helping Ukraine, and the order of magnitude is unlikely to change this year, given the absence of political will in Washington.

So the Russia-related discussion will focus on the Baltic region, where Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are feeling threatened, and neutral Sweden and Finland worry about a growing number of close encounters with increasingly aggressive Russian forces.

Whether or not that makes sense is debatable. It’s not clear why Russia would attack the Baltics the way it attacked Ukraine. From the Kremlin’s perspective, a coup in Kiev had threatened Russia’s cherished navy base in Crimea, so Russia moved in to occupy it. It’s hard to imagine a Baltic analogy.

On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been too predictable or open about his plans, and it would be wrong to ignore the concerns of militarily exposed member countries -- especially since they’re now making an effort to raise their military spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product, as NATO requires. Latvia has committed to getting there by 2018, and Lithuania by 2020. Tiny Estonia is already at the prescribed level.

It is known in advance that NATO will deploy “four robust and multinational battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, on a rotational basis.” To the Baltics, this is chickenfeed. As Jorge Benitez of the Atlantic Council wrote recently:

Four battalions deployed in NATO’s eastern members is not a proportional response. Four battalions (perhaps 4,000 men) do not come close to deterring the approximately 250,000 troops Russia has in its Western Military District (WMD) bordering NATO. In fact, four NATO battalions are not even a proportional response to the 3 new divisions (roughly 30,000 troops) Russia announced in January that it is creating in the WMD. At best, the deployment of four NATO battalions is an incremental step to strengthen deterrence that falls short of changing the calculus in Moscow. At worst, they are evidence to Putin that NATO is so weak and divided, the allies can only muster consensus on tepid action, such as the deployment of battalion-sized speed bumps for his Spetsnaz as they trample over Article 5.

Even this move, however, has the Kremlin worried. Putin is also concerned that NATO is trying to pull in Finland and Sweden, which are attending the summit to discuss cooperation in the face of growing Russian assertiveness and perhaps even in case of an attack. The probability of a disproportional Russian reaction is high, judging by Putin’s remarks on a visit to Finland earlier this month:

It’s been announced that the NATO contingent in the Baltic nations will be boosted. Troop movements in our own territory are described as elements of aggressive behavior but NATO military exercises at out borders are not regarded as such for some reason. We consider this absolutely unfair and inconsistent with reality. What are we supposed to do in response to an increase in NATO presence at our borders?

The sides, then, appear to be locked into an escalation game. Each says it’s reacting to moves by the other, and tension increases regardless of who’s right.

Russia and NATO have already been there. Recently declassified documents tell the story of NATO’s Able Archer exercise in 1983, which the Soviet Union nearly mistook for the beginning of a nuclear war. Such a major scare is all but impossible now, yet any number of incidents could trigger a dangerous response.

Putin is not making things easier. During the Finnish visit, he asserted Russia had moved its troops “1,500 kilometers away” from the Finnish border to be friendly -- a nonsense claim, as Moscow is only 900 kilometers from Helsinki. So when he agreed with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that military flights above the Baltic Sea with transponders off should be banned, he could have been dissembling, too. 

Yet it should be clear to NATO members that they had been wrong to suspend the so-called Cooperative Airspace Initiative (CAI) with Russia at the previous summit two years ago. The CAI was about the joint monitoring of airspace, mainly to prevent terrorist threats. It can also be used to make Russia and NATO’s shared area safer, though: The technical capability has existed since 2011. It won’t be easy to agree on how to use it, since the Baltic states would be wary of any information-sharing between Russia and NATO, but the inevitable escalation makes it necessary to set up reliable security protocols. 

NATO and Russia will hold a high-level meeting in Brussels after the Warsaw summit to discuss these arrangements, and, despite Putin’s unpredictability, this could be the most positive result of this weekend’s discussions. If NATO is going to concentrate on a theoretical threat in the Baltic region rather than the existing deadly threats elsewhere, it certainly makes sense to take every precaution to stop theory from turning inadvertently into practice and symbolic deterrence from growing into a real war.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net