Editorial Board

NATO Doesn't Need a European Rival

A plan to create a non-NATO military bureaucracy would only play into Vladimir Putin's hands.

A force to be reckoned with.

Photographer: Marit Hommedal/AFP/Getty Images

After years of focusing on the Russian military threat to its eastern border, Europe is now awakening to the grand scope of Vladimir Putin's expansionist dreams. It's a welcome, if belated, realization.

The threat from Russia was the dominant topic of a recent meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. Two proposals -- rejuvenating the alliance's naval command in the Atlantic and creating a new logistics command -- make a lot of sense. A third, establishing a new non-NATO "permanent structured cooperation" body among European Union nations, would simply duplicate (or worse, compete with) the alliance's existing command structure.

The heightened concern over the North Atlantic stems from recent provocations by Russian naval forces in the so-called GIUK Gap (the waters between Greenland, Iceland and the U.K.). This passage is the gateway through which North American ships would have to pass in the event of a war in Europe. Conversely, it is also the chokepoint through which Russia's huge Northern Fleet would have to pass to enter the Atlantic or head to the Mediterranean.

Patrols of the area by Russia's fast-growing submarine fleets are at post-Cold War highs, including the stealthy passage in October 2016 of two nuclear submarines on their way to the Mediterranean to support Russian troops in Syria. Even if a full-on war against Moscow seems improbable, the area is vulnerable to the sorts of sabotage central to Russia's "hybrid" style of combat: It is crisscrossed by pipelines, communications cables, oil rigs and fishing fleets.

The proposed new North Atlantic command would have full operational authority and greater independence than the alliance's current Atlantic naval headquarters in the U.K. It would also have its own standing maritime force. Possible locations other than Britain might be the Netherlands, Norway or Portugal.

The need for a new logistics command, meanwhile, became evident during last summer's Saber Guardian exercise, in which troops and equipment were moved from Western to Eastern Europe. It was a comedy of errors, with convoys held up by bridge weight limits, local ordinances and border bureaucracies. The new command's first job would be to create “military Schengen Zone,” modeled on the European Union agreement allowing unhindered travel across borders. Given that many of these problems occurred where old Iron Curtain fell -- among other things, most rail traffic switches to different gauges there -- Poland might be the most sensible location for the new headquarters.

The practicality of these two proposals is in stark contrast to the idea of establishing a standing EU military bureaucracy, dubbed Pesco. Yes, the U.S. has rightly urged its European partners to do more for NATO, including meeting the requirement to spend 2 percent of their budgets on the military. But it's hard to imagine Pesco would be anything but duplicative of NATO's existing command structure. If allowed to go forward, Pesco would simply put needless pressure on the trans-Atlantic alliance. You know who would love that? Vladimir Putin. 

    --Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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