NATO turns its gaze to the Baltic region

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Anna Wieslander

Sweden should make wise use of NATO’s benevolent attitude to establish closer relations, writes Anna Wieslander.

Anna Wieslander is Deputy Director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

For the first time ever, Sweden and Finland will be meeting with NATO a few weeks from now to discuss security in the Baltic region. The discussion will be the opening shot for a new kind of strategic dialogue.

The ascendance of Jens Stoltenberg to the post of Secretary-General portends a greater focus on the region as one strategic playing field. NATO’s involvement in the area has generally been limited to the crises that pop up every now and then. The new approach has the potential to greatly benefit Sweden and Finland, as well as the other Nordic and Baltic countries.

New preparedness plan is of the essence

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March took NATO by surprise. All eyes are again on deterrence and military preparedness as NATO recalibrates to its primary task—collective defence in view of more urgent security concerns on both its southern and eastern borders.

After several decades of focusing on international, out-of-area, initiatives, cobbling together the details of the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) adopted by the Cardiff Summit in September is an immediate priority ahead of the meeting of NATO defence ministers this coming February.

The summit also offered Sweden the chance to participate in an Enhanced Opportunities Program (EOP). However, the specific design of the program may be put on the back burner as NATO shifts its attention to setting up a new spearhead force, command structure and cost allocation scheme.

The organisation has a good deal of ground to make up in that respect. As a senior NATO official put it after the summit, “This organization has muscle memory and we are back in the gym.”

For a number of years, NATO members have been taking advantage of the opportunity to cut defence spending while it has restructured in favour of multilateral peacekeeping forces around the world.

Rapid response and flexibility to the east

Russia’s increasingly aggressive and authoritarian policies pose new challenges. But there is no consensus on the best long-term response.

The annexation of Crimea made it clear that Russia is prepared to seize the offensive and is capable of mobilizing impressive military resources within 48 hours. NATO needs a credible strategy for turning back such provocations.

Despite passionate appeals, neither the Baltic countries nor Poland have yet convinced NATO to station permanent forces within their borders. Germany and the Netherlands are particularly reluctant.

The current plan is to rotate the forces of the various members by means of regular exercises to the east while being able to add extra manpower as needed. The lynchpin of the strategy is a new spearhead force that provides superior preparedness.

NATO’s command structure must also be optimised. What kinds of authority does the Supreme Allied Commander over Armed Forces in Europe (SACEUR) need to have? Should he be able to deploy forces automatically as was the case during the Cold War in order to ensure 48-hour preparedness, or must he rely on the slow, tortuous process of policy decision making?

Relations with Russia spark controversy

Coming up with a long-term approach to deal with Russia hangs in the balance. NATO is engaged in a fierce, internal debate. One question is whether the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations is relevant any longer. The agreement addresses the issue of stationing permanent forces within the borders of new members.

While NATO froze its practical cooperation with Russia last spring, some countries have been advocating for a normalisation of the relationship as soon as possible. The deterioration of the situation in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s ongoing involvement in the hostilities there throws serious doubt on that possibility.

The 2008 crisis in Georgia casts a dark shadow over the discussion. Many observers are highly critical of the alacrity with which NATO re-established normal relations with Russia in the matter of only a few months.

The organisation should have demonstrated more unequivocally that such behaviour was unacceptable and drawn appropriate conclusions for the future. “We must not make that mistake twice,” a senior NATO official says.

EOP needs to be fleshed out

Sweden felt the impact when NATO began to refocus on collective defence last spring. NATO headquarters abruptly closed its doors to non-members.

Sweden, which has participated in NATO-led international missions under UN auspices ever since the Yugoslav Wars, possesses collaboration capabilities on a par with many members.

Thanks to nimble footwork in NATO corridors, Sweden and Finland have the opportunity to participate more directly under the EOP.

Sweden has a lot to say at the moment about exactly how the program is going to work. Coordination with Finland represents the most promising way forward. Given that NATO has its hands full with RAP, Sweden needs to keep up the pressure if it wants the program to get off the ground.

The essence of the program is for Sweden and Finland to be automatically involved whenever the organisation discusses new initiatives, take part in advanced exercises in surrounding countries and engage in regular policy consultations on regional security, including at the ministerial level.

Another potential area for fruitful cooperation is more direct involvement with the new preparedness structure whose regional base is in Szczecin.

Not all members are equally enthusiastic about encouraging greater involvement of partner countries for fear that it will undermine collective defence pursuant to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. In other words, Sweden should make wise use of the organisation’s benevolent attitude to establish closer relations in a way that also strengthens its own defence capabilities within the framework of a more dangerous and uncertain geopolitical climate.


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