Polish F-16 fighter jet flies over north Poland on June 10 during Nato's 10-day Anaconda manoeuvres exercise
Polish F-16 fighter jet flies over north Poland on June 10 during Nato's 10-day Anaconda manoeuvres exercise © AFP

The Nato summit that convenes in Warsaw on July 8 was always going to be unusually important because of the recent sharp deterioration in the west’s relationship with Russia. Now, following Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the Warsaw summit is shaping up as a crucial test of the coherence of the western alliance — which must follow through on tough and potentially divisive decisions, intended to strengthen western deterrence of Russia.

In Warsaw, Nato is set to confirm its decision to deploy four multinational battalions, of roughly 1,000 troops each, in Poland and the Baltic states. The alliance is also going to preposition more tanks and artillery in the area. These deployments are intended to send a strong message, after Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Military analysts have little doubt that Russia could successfully overrun these new battalions and occupy the Baltic states, if it chose to go on the offensive. But Nato’s deployments are meant to serve as a “tripwire” — pushing home the message that, if the Russians were to invade, they would be involved in a full-scale conflict with the entire alliance. The military logic is uncomfortably and unavoidably reminiscent of the cold war.

Russia’s reaction to the enhancement of Nato’s military presence in the Baltic states has already been tough. The Putin government has deployed nuclear-capable missiles, tanks and fresh troops in Kaliningrad — the Russian exclave that borders Poland and Lithuania. Nato governments are now worried that Russia may deploy short-range nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, after the Warsaw summit.

As a result, the Warsaw meeting and its aftermath will pose a serious test of the nerve of the western alliance.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, will doubtless be eager to demonstrate that the UK remains an outward-looking power that is determined to carry its share of the burden of western defence. Britain’s commitment to lead one of the four Nato battalions that are being deployed in the Baltic states and Poland certainly sends an important message.

Nonetheless, there is a legitimate concern that the Brexit vote reflects an increasingly inward-looking mood among UK voters. What is more, if Britain now faces a sharp slowdown in the economy or a recession, it may be hard to maintain public spending on defence at current levels.

The commitments of Germany and the US to a strong Nato will also need to be underlined. The Obama administration has been widely accused of washing its hands of the Middle East and of generally scaling back its commitment to global security. The rise of Donald Trump has also raised concerns about incipient American isolationism. In this context, the White House’s promise to spend considerably more money on defence in eastern Europe is very welcome. By contrast, recent remarks by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, deploring Nato “sabre-rattling” in eastern Europe sent the wrong message of western doubt.

The Russian government knows that many of the key western leaders who will meet in Warsaw are on their way out. By this time next year, David Cameron and Barack Obama of the US will certainly have left office — and François Hollande will also probably have left the presidency of France. Even Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is looking less politically secure than for some years.

Against this backdrop of political and strategic uncertainty, it is crucial that the Nato summit demonstrates the unity, coherence and confidence of the west.

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