A chorus of voices across Nato is warning that the alliance cannot defend Europe’s eastern border against an increasingly aggressive Russia.
In a report due to be published on Friday by the Atlantic Council, six defence experts — including former secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, deputy supreme commander Sir Richard Shirreff and former Italian defence minister and Nato military committee chair Giampaolo di Paola — warn of a grave “lack of progress” in the alliance’s plans to reinforce itself in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2013.
It is the third serious caution for Nato from members of the western defence establishment in a month.
Many of the alliance’s key members are still dogged by “chronic underfunding” and “critical deficiencies” in their “hollowed out” militaries, says the Atlantic Council report. Of the German Bundeswehr’s 31 Tiger helicopters, for example, only 10 are usable — and just 280 of its 406 Marder armoured infantry vehicles. Others in the alliance simply have not done enough to shift their defence posture eastward.
For the UK “the deployment of a brigade, let alone a division at credible readiness, would be a major challenge”, says Sir Richard — previously chief of staff for Britain’s Land Command.
One of Nato’s set piece military exercises in Europe last year, Sir Richard notes, required the retrieval of tanks used for training in western Canada, “because the serviceability and spares situation in the UK’s fleet was so dire”.
Some of the other technical assessments of Nato’s posture versus Moscow have been even more critical in their conclusions.
A RAND corporation paper modelling dozens of war game scenarios in consultation with the Pentagon and published in late January, found that Russia’s forces would overrun Nato in the Baltic, and capture Tallinn and Riga, in a maximum of 60 hours, with a “catastrophic” defeat for defending alliance forces.
The European Leadership network published a report on February 8 which meanwhile warned of the dangers of sleepwalking into conflict with Russia. Russia is unlikely to “halt or reverse its rearmament . . . in the vicinity of Nato,” it said, suggesting the alliance should make sure it places “persistent” deployments of troops from the US and major western states in border countries to deter risky behaviour from Moscow, with its overwhelming conventional military superiority.
“Non-credible defence efforts will not impress Putin,” says François Heisbourg, former French government defence adviser and now chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Putin only takes symbolic moves seriously if the symbolism has a weight of its own,” Nato’s current plans, Mr Heisbourg said, do not appear to have any such gravity.
Nato’s greatly increased range and pace of military war-games, for example, still pales in comparison to Russia’s now routine “snap” and sprawling, planned military drills. Last year’s centrepiece for Nato, dubbed Noble Jump— the alliance’s largest war game in years — involved a core of 5,000 men, with 10,000 involved in affiliated exercises elsewhere and 300 or so tanks. Russia’s “centre 2015” drill in September mobilised 95,000 troops and 7,000 tanks and artillery.
The danger of a strategic miscalculation by Moscow are higher so long as Nato’s posture is seen to be uncertain, Mr Heisbourg added. “It has to be about soldiers being permanently present there and rather more equipment than is currently planned . . . we need a tripwire force like we had in West Germany during the cold war.”
It is still unclear just how far the alliance will go in its package of measures due this year.
After a meeting of defence ministers this month Nato agreed an “enhanced forward presence” for its members, said alliance spokesperson Oana Lungescu. “This will be multinational, rotational and supported by a programme of exercises. It will also be complemented by the necessary logistics and infrastructure to support pre-positioning and facilitate rapid reinforcement.”
In the coming weeks, Nato planners will formalise their advice on the exact scale such a presence must take, Ms Lungescu added.
Many members of the alliance have already pledged significant numbers of troops and resources, she said. “We are making sure that our deterrence and defence is flexible and tailored. This will enable us to respond to the full spectrum of threats, from any direction.”
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