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NATO Moves Trigger Russian Response
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By Jefferson Morley

In response to Russian intervention in Ukraine, NATO countries agreed last month to create a rapid reaction force, endorse new economic sanctions against Russia, and boost defense spending. Russian President Vladimir Putin countered by ordering a major military exercise and repeating previous declarations that his country would fortify its conventional and nuclear forces. 

“Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine have fundamentally challenged our vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace,” the NATO countries declared at the end of their Sept. 3-5 summit meeting in Wales. 

According to the Associated Press, Putin responded by saying, “We have warned many times that we would have to take corresponding countermeasures to ensure our security.” In Sept. 11 comments, Putin said Russia’s weapons modernization program over the next decade would focus on building a new array of offensive weapons to provide a “guaranteed nuclear deterrent,” rearming its air force, and developing high-precision conventional weapons. 

The actions marked a further worsening of relations between Russia and NATO over Ukraine and a setback for arms control efforts, according to regional experts. 

The 28 member countries of NATO agreed to create a 4,000-person “spearhead” force, capable of deploying anywhere within the territory of alliance members on 48 hours’ notice.

NATO already has a response force, but several days are required to place those troops on the ground at a target destination. The new force will include ground troops with air and maritime support, as well as special operations forces to confront the type of paramilitary forces now fighting in eastern Ukraine. 

The creation of the new force “sends a message to the Baltic states and the Poles and Romanians and others that as far as NATO as a whole [is] concerned, their territory is as important to [NATO] as any other piece of territory, and that they can count on not only America’s commitment, but NATO’s commitment to their collective defense,” Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said during a Sept. 3 press call. 

“[T]hat, in turn, is meant to send a signal to Vladimir Putin and to Moscow that basically says, ‘Don’t even think about doing what you’re doing in Ukraine on NATO territory because we will react swiftly, quickly, rapidly, and with maximum force to make sure that you do not succeed,’” Daalder said.

The Western allies expect to have “an initial capacity with this much more rapid response time in less than a year,” NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow said in a Sept 18 speech in Poland. “It won’t be all finished, but we recognize that the threats are here, [and] we can’t put this on the slow track.”

The new sanctions target Russian state-owned financial, defense, and energy companies. They strengthen measures that the United States and the European Union instituted in late July to target key engines of the Russian economy after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine.

France Suspends Deal 

Under pressure from Western allies, France announced on the eve of the NATO summit that it was suspending the scheduled delivery to Russia of a French-made Mistral helicopter carrier ship for two months. 

“Russia’s recent actions in the east of Ukraine contravene the fundamental principles of European security,” said a statement from the office of President François Hollande. According to the statement, Hollande “has concluded that despite the prospect of [a] ceasefire [in Ukraine], which has yet to be confirmed and put in place[,] the conditions under which France could authorise the delivery of the first helicopter carrier are not in place.” 

In a press conference at the NATO summit, Hollande said he would review the suspension in late October and that he had two conditions for delivery of the ship: a cease-fire in Ukraine and a political settlement that resolves the country’s crisis. 

The NATO countries pledged during the summit to reverse a trend of declining defense budgets by committing to move toward spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. In 2012, only the United States (4.5 percent), United Kingdom (2.5 percent), Greece (2.3 percent), and Estonia (2.0 percent) spent at the levels NATO now seeks, according to the NATO secretary-general’s 2013 annual report. 

Saber Rattling

NATO acted after Putin made a pointed speech Aug. 29 declaring, “I want to remind you that Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words.”

Nonetheless, the NATO actions stopped short of violating a nonbinding U.S. pledge made in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, Lee Feinstein, former U.S. ambassador to Poland, said in a Sept. 17 interview. 

In the agreement, NATO promised to carry out its collective defense mission without “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces,” a provision that Russian President Boris Yeltsin interpreted as a binding commitment by NATO that the alliance would not permanently deploy combat forces near Russia. NATO took care to emphasize that the new force would not be permanently stationed close to Russia, said Feinstein, now dean of the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University.

“NATO wants to leave open the possibility of a diplomatic solution,” he said. “This is not a return to the Cold War, but it is very destabilizing when Russia engages in nuclear saber rattling.” 

At the NATO summit two years ago in Chicago, the allies debated and turned down a German proposal to reduce nuclear weapons in Europe, said Jorge Benitez, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, in a Sept. 18 interview.

“With recent Russian aggression, the consensus to stick with the status quo has only been strengthened,” he said. “Now it would be much harder to reduce NATO’s nuclear deterrent.”