The heads of state and government of the North Atlantic Organization’s (NATO) 30 member countries held a summit at the Alliance’s Brussels headquarters on June 14. NATO summits usually take two days. This year’s vast agenda—reflected in an unusually long communiqué—clearly would have needed the accustomed two days for deliberation.
United States President Joseph Biden’s first-time participation concentrated much of the attention at this NATO summit. Biden was the only participating head of state to hold a press conference at the summit’s conclusion, during which he adopted a notably cautious tone vis-à-vis Russia. He went on to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin two days later in Geneva (June 16), at Biden’s solicitation. As part of its preparations for that meeting (see EDM, June 14), the White House made several concessions to Russia ahead of the NATO and Biden-Putin summits. The concessions include (inter alia) greenlighting Gazprom’s Nord Stream Two pipeline project and retreating from the accustomed US support to Ukraine-NATO and Georgia-NATO Membership Action Plans (MAP) (see below, and Part Two), affecting a number of allied and partner countries along the Alliance’s eastern “flank” (Baltic to Black Sea). The term “flank,” hitherto the norm at NATO—and itself a euphemism for the eastern frontline, which is how the countries concerned see it—has now been replaced by the term “eastern part of the alliance” in this summit’s communiqué.
Biden’s overtures to Russia notwithstanding, the NATO summit’s communiqué is more strongly worded than ever in addressing the threats from Russia (Nato.int, June 14).
The current “threats to Euro-Atlantic security” are listed in this order: Russia, terrorism, “instability beyond our borders contributing to irregular migration,” China, “cyber and other hybrid and asymmetric threats including disinformation,” threats from the space domain, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the erosion of arms control (Communiqué, paragraph 3). Russia not only tops the list but is also associated with most of the other threats down the list.
Cataloguing Russia’s dangerous advances in military modernization and its repertoire of hybrid tactics, the communiqué unusually acknowledges Russia’s potential to achieve “intimidation” and “coercion” vis-à-vis NATO and its member countries (paras. 11–13). Furthermore, NATO openly declares its mistrust in Russia’s word: “Russia continues to breach the values, principles, trust, and commitments outlined in the agreed documents that underpin the NATO-Russia relationship” (para. 9). NATO remains conditionally open to dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council, in which case “the conflict in [sic] and around Ukraine is the first topic on our agenda” (para. 15).
NATO is prepared to broaden the applicability of its Article 5 collective defense clause to a range of nonmilitary or below-the-threshold conflict scenarios. The Alliance could decide to assist a member country targeted by hybrid warfare or a cyber warfare campaign, up to invoking Article 5 by decision of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) on a case-by-case basis (paras. 31, 32). Such a decision would, however, notoriously require instant unanimity among the NAC’s 30 countries.
In a closely related context, NATO is moving from the definition of resilience as a national responsibility toward a more integrated approach to resilience. The change apparently involves Alliance-wide procedures to guide nationally developed resilience plans. This summit has agreed on a “Strengthened Resilience Commitment,” based on a set of NATO Baseline Requirements for national resilience (paras. 6 and 30). NATO member countries on the eastern frontline abutting on Russia are undoubtedly more exposed than other allies to those types of hybrid and cyber attacks testing their resilience.
The Biden administration’s recent go-ahead to Gazprom’s Nord Stream Two pipeline project inevitably affected this summit’s atmosphere. Although this is not technically a NATO issue, the White House’s decision runs counter to the interests and the national strategies of a number of loyal allies in Central-Eastern Europe as well as partner Ukraine (see EDM, June 10). Conversely, it is a bonanza to Germany, a derelict country on defense spending and preparedness. As an aggravating circumstance, the White House finalized its Nord Stream concession with Russia in mind. It changed its tune at the point in time when Biden solicited a meeting with Putin (April 13) and announced its decision officially on the same day when Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Reykjavik to prepare the Biden-Putin summit (see EDM, May 24, 27, June 1). The White House made its decision unilaterally, contrary to its “multilateralism” dogma, and notwithstanding its esteem for the European Union, which actually opposed Nord Stream Two but lost out to the German-Russian tandem.
NATO’s position on energy security, as per the Summit’s communiqué, calls for a “diversification of routes and suppliers […] to ensure that the members of the Alliance are not vulnerable to political or coercive manipulation of energy” (para. 59). This is, in a nutshell, the European Union’s position and the grounds on which the EU had opposed the Nord Stream expansion project. Instead of diversification, Nord Stream Two concentrates both the supply and the transit in Russian hands.
NATO’s rotational presence with three reinforced battalions in the three Baltic States is known to be adequate merely for a tripwire but not for deterrence. This summit has again fallen short of rectifying the situation. “We continue to improve our enhanced forward presence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland […] by ensuring the ability of the four combat-ready battlegroups to operate with national defense forces” (para. 37). This suggests no increase in the rotational presence in the Baltic States.
Poland’s situation is different, relying as it does on US forces on rotational presence under bilateral US-Polish arrangements (see EDM, December 9, 2020). Similarly, Romania hosts US ground and air force units under bilateral, not NATO arrangements. NATO’s “tailored forward presence” in Romania consists mainly of headquarters. According to the Alliance communiqué, regarding the tailored forward presence, “we remain committed to its full implementation” (para. 34)—an oblique acknowledgement that the program, for all its modesty, remains incompletely realized.
NATO’s next summit will be held in 2022, in Spain, and will probably focus on the Alliance’s southern neighborhood. The summit after that (year unspecified) will be held in Lithuania, a good chance for the Baltic States and perhaps Poland to be allocated more NATO troops on their territories. Romania has long campaigned for NATO “coherence,” i.e. bringing the Baltic region and the Black Sea region into balance in terms of security, viewing NATO’s eastern “flank” as one whole. NATO has yet to achieve such coherence in its “eastern part.”