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NATO can adjust its plans and policies accordingly

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As the war in Ukraine enters its fourth month, NATO leaders will gather in Madrid for their annual conference from June 28-30 to discuss key security issues facing the military alliance, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the growing influence of China. NATO also announced its decision to accelerate Sweden’s and Finland’s previously neutral membership applications at this ‘historic’ summit.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has described this year’s summit in Madrid from June 28-30, which will bring together the leaders of NATO’s 30 member states and key partners, as “historic” as the alliance’s largest defense operation prepared since the Cold War. This includes significantly increasing the number of troops that can be deployed in an instant, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and formally offering accelerated membership to previously neutral Finland and Sweden, following talks between Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and leaders of the two. The Scandinavian countries had addressed Turkey’s concerns. Ankara had initially declined to support their bid on the grounds that they allegedly harbored Kurdish armed groups that have waged guerrilla warfare against Turkey since 1984 and their ban on arms sales to Turkey. Ankara says it will try to extradite 33 “terror suspects” from Sweden and Finland in exchange for its support.

Other key topics under discussion include China’s growing influence and NATO’s next one Strategic concepta document updated approximately every 10 years to reflect the most pressing security challenges for the military alliance and to outline how NATO plans to address them.

FRANCE 24 spoke to William Alberque, Director of Strategy, Technology and Weapons Control at The International Institute of Strategic Studies on the historical significance of the top of Madrid.

FRANCE 24: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said the alliance is meeting in Madrid “amid the most serious security crisis we have endured since World War II”. What impact has the war in Ukraine had on NATO?

William Alberque: Both Russian invasions of Ukraine have had major consequences for NATO. In 2013, the alliance drifted to the top of Wales with no apparent results — perhaps a declaration of victory in Afghanistan (remember?) — but militarily the alliance hoped it would remain viable if it held exercises. Instead, the alliance initiated a process that led to it becoming significantly stronger between 2014-2021. This included the introduction of forward implemented tripwires (the enhanced Forward Presence or eFP) [used in booby traps and defence tactics], improved Baltic Air Policing and permanent logistics teams in the territory of the Eastern Allies (NATO Force Integration Units). In addition, defense spending of most allies was in free fall in the period 1990-2013 and NATO forces in Europe became rare. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 put an end to those reductions.

The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has resulted in another sharp change in the alliance, with Finland and Sweden (finally) making progress in membership, about 16 of the forthcoming 32 allies meeting their 2 percent pledge within two years, and a huge increase in permanent stationing in the east. Also, four more eFP troops (Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria) will be deployed, as well as upgrades to existing eFP for each brigade, with an assigned home division, division headquarters and enablers, and a massive increase in the US presence in Poland. The German Zeitenwende promises to be the biggest change in German defense policy since the Cold War and even the Netherlands will hit 2 percent of GDP. This is an incredible change.

Last month, Russia threatened “retaliation” if NATO accepted Finland and Sweden’s applications for NATO membership. What could this mean for the bloc and the ongoing war in Ukraine, now that NATO has agreed to accelerate their applications at this historic summit in Madrid? Is there a risk that the war will be extended to Eastern Europe?

No, the Finnish and Swedish membership of NATO greatly reduces the chance of war in the east. Finland enters alliance with the 2nd or 3rd Europe’s largest artillery force (after Russia and Ukraine), a new fleet of F-35 fighters and an excellent defense system capable of delivering more than 200,000 troops in the event of war. Sweden is adding maritime and air capabilities that have now, with NATO, transformed Baltic and Nordic security (and secured the whole of the Baltic), reducing the chances of any Russian adventurism to apocryphal. They would lose, and lose heavily, if they tried to approach Estonia, for example because of the Finnish long-range HIMARS [a light multiple rocket launcher developed in the late 1990s for the US army.] The Russian Baltic fleet would be sunk by the combined NATO, Finnish, Swedish anti-ship missiles and so on.

The Russian retaliatory measures likely include increasing the number of nuclear weapons stationed in the Kaliningrad, St. Petersburg and Pskov regions, likely some Bastion missile systems on the Karelian Peninsula [neighbouring Finland], and some Soviet-style “ghost” units – that is, units with commanders who have some equipment, but no troops. I say this because firstly, they frankly don’t have the troops to man substantial new bases in the region, and probably won’t have for some time if this war continues, and secondly, the Russians have rolled back the Soviet practice, because they reduced the number of General Officer posts, because they would probably never need those units. They can probably be restored – the theory behind it is that in wartime they could muster tens of thousands of recruits to man the ghost units and go into battle.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, hosting this week’s NATO summit, has said Russia – previously considered a strategic partner – will now be identified as NATO’s “main threat”. What is the significance of this new terminology, given that NATO was created to, in its words, “ensure collective security against the Soviet Union”?

The previous Strategic Concept 2010 called Russia a partner. Allies – mainly but not only Germany – have resisted calls to label Russia as an adversary over the years. This has complicated defense planning at NATO, because how can you make military plans to defend yourself against a partner? How can you use missile defense to defend allies from a partner’s cruise missiles? Seeing it now as a threat means that the eastern allies have won the argument and NATO can adjust its plans and policies accordingly to defend against what is, in reality, NATO’s greatest threat.

China will also be discussed at this NATO summit in Madrid, as it “presents a challenge to our values, our interest and our security”. For the first time, the leaders of Japan and South Korea will attend this summit as observers. What is the significance of this and for the future of this traditional Western bloc?

They’ve been close before! Japan and ROK [Republic of Korea] have attended previous lower level summits, for example to participate in the Afghanistan meeting in Warsaw [in 2016]† And [Japan’s prime minister] Shinzo Abe attended the G7 in Brussels immediately after the NATO special summit there. Their ministers also attended a NATO ministerial [meeting] for the first time in 2020. But this is the first time the political leaders are present. It really shows that NATO recognizes that its security depends on peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Some allies have direct interests in that region (eg France, US, Canada), and all allies recognize the security interests of NATO’s key partners in the region – Japan, South Korea and Australia. So this is a historic moment as the Euro-Atlantic family meets with its Asian friends and partners to discuss common interests, especially with regard to China and Russia.

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