Alphen, Netherlands. 6 February. On Tuesday a senior Russian from Moscow’s Academy of Sciences told me somewhat chillingly that Ukraine should “…focus on the future and not on territory”. That was as clear a statement as yet of Russian strategy; to confirm the gains made in eastern Ukraine and avoid any debate over the status of Crimea. As Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande (Prime Minister Cameron???) jet to Moscow I think the phrase President Putin will be preparing will be succinct: fait accompli! "We hold what we have". Forget all the talk about implementing last September’s Minsk Agreement the current pro-Russian offensive is all about Russian strategy and the central role Moscow now accords its developing military capability in creating an unstable ‘buffer zone’ around and along Russia’s western borders. So, what is NATO going to do about it?
The same day as my Russian colleague proposed his fait accompli in Ukraine I put a direct question to NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow; what if forward deterrence failed, the unthinkable happened and Russian military adventurism entered the Baltic States? The reason for my question was not that I am expecting a Russian military incursion into the Baltic States tomorrow. However, I am worried. The Putin regime is fast becoming increasingly idiosyncratic, opportunistic and unstable. Moreover, with the US increasingly over-stretched the correlation of forces between NATO and Russian forces could reach a point in which Russia calculates that short of a nuclear war on European soil there is nothing NATO could do to prevent such an incursion. The start of wars are always all about 'the moment'. At such a moment a Moscow faced with growing popular discontent at home may, just may, be tempted to attack.
Yesterday in Brussels Alliance Defence Ministers met to discuss precisely this scenario and how best to strengthen NATO collective defence. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the decision to enhance the NATO Response Force and confirm the so-called Spearhead Force would “ensure that we have the right forces, in the right place at the right time”. Really?
According to US think-tank CSIS between 2001 and 2011 NATO Europeans cut their respective armed forces on average by 18%. Between 2012 and 2014 twelve of the world’s top twenty defence cutters were in NATO Europe. Driven by sequestration by 2020 the US plans to cut its armed forces by a sum greater than Europe’s entire defence investment. And yet according to the Washington Post an increasingly militarised Russia plans to inject some $775bn into creating the more professionalised armed forces apparent in Ukraine. Notably, Russia is investing particularly heavily in SAS-type Special Operations Forces (Little Green Men) that can underpin the kind of disinformation-led hybrid/ambiguous warfare all-too-apparent in Ukraine.
Cue Brussels. The problem with yesterday’s declaration by NATO defence ministers is that I have heard it all before; it is defence pretence. Yes, at the NATO Wales Summit the nations agreed to stop cutting defence budgets and start moving towards meeting the NATO guideline of 2% GDP on defence within a decade). Frankly (and I have been digging), even that extremely limited commitment is not worth the rather cheap toilet paper my Dutch wife insists on buying and upon which such a ‘commitment’ seems to have been written.
When in doubt pretend! That seems to be the mantra of many European leaders when it comes to defence. For years I was told defence was not being cut when it patently was. Now I am being told Europeans are spending more on defence when they are patently not. It is something straight out of Monty Python - "run away".
Take my own country Britain. Yesterday, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon made much of the fact that Britain will take a lead by committing 1000 troops to the new Spearhead Force alongside France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain. The same day the House of Commons Defence Select Committee slammed the Ministry of Defence for its “strikingly modest” contribution of the British armed forces to the fight against Islamic State. This week it has also emerged that plans are afoot to cut and to partially merge the very spearhead formations NATO’s new force will be reliant upon – 3 Commando Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade – under the guise of a ‘new’ joint rapid reaction force. Critically, the all-important ‘enablers’ (the key structures and kit that gets a force into action and supports it) will also be cut. If true this is madness and will critically undermine not only Britain’s defence but NATO too at this pivotal moment in European history and stability.
The second, paperback edition of my book Little Britain? Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power, which considers British national and defence strategy in the round, is out next week (www.amazon.com). In the book I call for a radical British future force that will look much like the US Marines Corps. A core force that is able to lead and support Alliance coalitions built on firm principles of ‘deep jointness’ between the Navy, Army and Air Force. However, a central contention of the book is that to create such a core force the British must turn all of its now very small army and marines into a spearhead force not turn the spearhead force into a kind of peacekeeping militia simply to save money.
The reason for this nonsense is that British and other European leaders still see the defence budget as a welfare reserve to be raided whenever long-term strategy is to be sacrificed for short-term politics. Sadly, this obsession with cutting armed forces at whastever the cost can take place only because leaders like David Cameron steadfastly refuse to look at what is happening in the world, most notably what is happening on Europe’s borders some two hours flying time from London.
The bottom-line is this; NATO cannot go on creating ever more acronyms with ever less forces. The irony of the ‘new’ force NATO is proposing is that it looks very much like the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF) proposed amidst much fanfare back at the December 1999 EU Helsinki Summit. Some sixteen years on that force still exists only as a political fantasy within the Brussels beltway and which if called upon might just make Antwerp within sixty days. Creating such as force as policy is not the same as creating such a force as fact. Too often European leaders are happy to make grand declarations and then simply not follow through.
Europe and the world is getting far too dangerous for defence pretence. Worse, such political folly is actively destabilising Europe for it is encouraging Russian adventurism. It is time to end defence pretence, before defence pretence ends NATO.