Nato meet to tackle security fears over Russia

Nato meet to tackle security fears over Russia
British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) holds a bi-lateral meeting with the NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the Celtic Manor Resort on September 3, 2014.

Faced with their most acute security challenge since the end of the Cold War, the heads of state and government attending the Nato summit, which starts today in Britain, are expected to be on their best behaviour.

Secluded behind high-security fences in a glitzy holiday resort in Newport, Wales, the leaders of Nato's 28 member-states will go out of their way to show that they are united. Jets from various alliance nations will stage a fly-past, and the British hosts, masters at pomp and ceremony, are guaranteeing that this summit, the biggest in the United States-led military alliance's 65-year history, will also be the best.

Yet no clever stage management can paper over the fact that, although Nato is united in identifying Russia as a re-emerging security threat to Europe, its member-states remain divided about what should or could be done.

The biggest division lines are over the question of whether in the wake of Russia's actions in Ukraine, the alliance should create new and permanent bases in eastern Europe, closer to Europe's borders with Russia. All the permanent bases are now in the western part of the continent, with 68,000 US troops stationed mainly in Germany, Italy and Britain.

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia, one of Nato's smallest and most vulnerable states, is leading demands for repositioning troops farther east. Not to do so, he argued on the eve of the summit, would be "a wrong signal to send to the potential aggressor".

Poland has gone even further, asking that "tens of thousands" of allied troops be positioned on its soil.

US President Barack Obama and other key European leaders attending the summit will reject these demands, partly because of the costs involved, but also because under a 1997 accord that Nato signed with Russia, the alliance promised to avoid "additional permanent stationing of substantial forces" in eastern Europe.

Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is hoping to finesse the dispute by claiming that, given Europe's changing security landscape, rapid reaction forces which could be deployed in eastern Europe are a better solution than permanent bases.

A new spearhead "very high readiness" force with 30,000 troops will be unveiled at the summit and be operational by the end of the year. It "will travel light, yet strike hard", Mr Rasmussen claims. This will be reassuring for the east Europeans.

Still, the military compromise forged at the summit will not alleviate lingering fears among the former communist nations of eastern Europe about Nato's determination to face a resurgent Russia.

In a toughly worded newspaper column on the eve of the summit, the top foreign policy security adviser to Poland's President warned its western counterparts, and particularly Germany, not "to become paralysed" by the threat of a future confrontation with Russia "in the same way that a snake paralyses a rabbit".

Another dispute overshadowing the summit is the question of how much member-states spend on their militaries. The Nato guideline for allied defence spending is 2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), but few nations have ever met this target, despite entreaties from the US, which now accounts for no less than 80 per cent of all Nato military assets.

The British, who also spend more on their military than the European average, are quietly confident that, by the time the summit ends tomorrow, up to nine more member-states would have formally committed themselves to hitting the 2 per cent threshold.

But British diplomats also privately acknowledge that, with most of Europe now facing the risk of a double-dip recession, extra defence spending is hard to justify. A draft summit compromise would entail extracting a pledge from member-states to at least stop cutting their defence budgets and eventually raise them towards the 2 per cent over a decade.

"If we can't agree on ceilings for defence budgets, perhaps we can at least agree on a floor," a British official briefed The Straits Times on condition of anonymity.

However, even this compromise may be difficult for some. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to use an example, is a staunch supporter of Nato, but his government spends only 1.1 per cent of GDP on the military. Promising to virtually double this amount even over a decade will be domestically controversial.

Still, the summit's British hosts refuse to be daunted. They hope that the Nato gathering will be deemed a success if only because it will convey to Russia a sense of common purpose.

And they also pray that rain won't drench the summiteers.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

This article was published on Sept 4 in The Straits Times.

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