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Is NATO’s 360-degree approach enough to keep focus on the Eastern flank?

Nowhere should NATO’s 360-degree approach to security be more vigilant than on the Alliance’s Eastern flank. It stems both from Russia’s aggressive behaviour towards NATO and from the size and geographical proximity of the Russian troops deployed near the member states’ borders. This does not mean that NATO should not look elsewhere for possible threats. It just means that at present the threat in the Eastern flank is the most formidable one.

June 22, 2021 - Wojciech Michnik - All Quiet on the Eastern Flank?Issue 4 2021Magazine

French marines hold a position during mechanized infantry manoeuvres in Ādaži, Latvia. Photo courtesy of NATO

The concept of a 360-degree Alliance is one NATO officials often use when referring to the ability of the Alliance to deal with threats coming from various directions. In June 2015, halfway between the NATO Newport and Warsaw Summits, amidst tensions with Russia on the Eastern flank, a growing terrorist threat from ISIS and the migration crisis on the Southern Flank, NATO’s defence ministers reminded us that “to address all these challenges to the East and to the South, NATO continues to provide a 360-degree approach to deter threats and, if necessary, defend Allies against any adversary”. Given the recent deployment of the Russian Federation’s military troops near the Ukrainian border, its naval display of power in the Black Sea and its aggressive posturing against NATO member states, it would seem that the security of the Eastern flank should be on the top of NATO’s agenda in 2021. Yet, the question remains whether NATO, in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be able to formulate a clear, coherent policy towards Russia while upholding the core objectives of deterrence and defence? It is time to adopt the 360-degree approach and refocus NATO’s efforts towards the Eastern flank.

Imperfect compromise?

Since its creation, NATO has been no stranger to the divergent security priorities among its member states. Yet it has been only in the last decade that the Alliance has witnessed a growing challenge to accommodate different priorities between southern and eastern allies. While member states located on the European Southern flank pointed towards the challenges of terrorism, mass migration and instability in the Middle East and North Africa; allies in the East kept voicing their concerns over Russia’s assertive behaviour towards NATO member states and its allies in Eastern Europe.

After Russia’s aggression on Ukraine in 2014 and the 2015 migration crisis, these intra-alliance debates not only intensified but turned into a tug-of-war contest on which threats were more imminent to NATO’s stability. As solidarity and cohesion among NATO’s 29 member states became more unsteady, the Alliance decided not only to reassure equal commitment to the Southern and Eastern flank, but adopted a 360-degree approach to deterrence and defence. This move signalled the growing need to address threats in a more comprehensive way, pointing to a geographical all-around readiness to defend itself, whether in the Eastern and Southern flanks or the high North. More importantly, it underlined a wide-ranging defensive posture that goes beyond individual member states’ current interests.

From this perspective, the NATO 360-degree approach to security could be seen in two dimensions: first, as a catchy expression to the underline strategic complexities of the current challenges to transatlantic security; and second as a public diplomacy tool to communicate cohesion and an equal readiness of to address threats to their security. Yet, creating a perfect balance has proven to be an impossible task, as the scope and type of threats varies across regions. Some even argue that not all threats are created equal, as the Alliance is prepared to address non-military challenges.

In a somewhat harsh, yet mostly justified, critique, Georgetown University professor Paul D. Miller described NATO as watering itself down by taking “on ever more missions, including cyber defence, counter-piracy and peacekeeping, and weakened by uneven burden-sharing in out-of-area operations in Afghanistan and Libya”. His call for the Alliance to refocus on its main task, which is European defence, seems like a sensible proposition in a time of austerity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

NATO in the COVID-19 world

Yet the pandemic has again raised the question of NATO’s usefulness in addressing non-military threats while simultaneously questioning the one-sided approach that narrowed the Alliance to the role of a military “hammer”. The pandemic has been dangerous for the transatlantic community not because it has challenged the Alliance’s ability to project security in the transatlantic realm (which it has not), but because NATO has not been created to address such non-military and non-traditional threats. Some of the consequences of the pandemic on transatlantic security include: an severe economic crisis (of an unknown magnitude) that will surely affect transatlantic security as NATO member states will struggle to maintain their military budgets they originally agreed upon; and a growing need to balance military readiness with a way to address non-military threats, including public health security. It is expected that nationalistic and populist sentiments will increase as societies severely hit by the pandemic will focus more on domestic issues. Consequently, debates about threat perception and coherence of the Alliance will only be intensified as a result of COVID-19. As the individual security is getting more attention, the traditional approach to military security might be challenged further by politicians and voters in NATO member states.

Notably, the health and economic crisis that has affected the entire globe, has forced many state and non-state actors to rethink their international stance. A good example of this is the Euro-Atlantic partnership. As one pillar of NATO firmly stands in Europe, it would be essential for the well-being of the Alliance to tighten its co-operation with the European Union, specifically in the area of non-military threats. As NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană pointed out in October 2020, “NATO-EU co-operation makes the world safer, and that NATO and the EU need to continue to complement each other”. In the post-COVID-19 world it seems that these two institutions could finally find a way to a more comprehensive partnership. After all, with limited resources the question of how to do more with less needs to be addressed. And even though “doing more with less” sounds like a misnomer in this context, it clearly points towards the long-awaited partnership of NATO and the EU. If these two cannot work closely together in the face of the COVID-19 fallout, it is unlikely they ever will.

This partnership could definitely fall under the umbrella of the 360-degree approach, as the uncertainties that NATO and the transatlantic community have faced before the outbreak of COVID-19 have only deepened in the midst of the pandemic. Examples of this have been already visible with the backlash against western liberal democracy; the continued popularity of populist ideas on both sides of the Atlantic; Russia’s aggressive foreign policy; the assertive rise of China; and the instability of European neighbourhoods in the east and south. Subsequently, the challenges to transatlantic security have become more daunting whether they come from state or non-state actors or whether they stem from internal fatigue within the Alliance. The key question is whether a transatlantic community will be able to address these threats while simultaneously dealing with the domestic and international consequences of the pandemic. This is not only a question about how strong transatlantic ties remain but whether they are strong enough to guarantee NATO’s security initiatives in the future.

90 degrees of escalation

The recent military mobilisation along the border of Ukraine has proven again that the Russian Federation will continue to use different tactics to keep the security situation in Ukraine, and hence in Europe, unstable. Additionally, the Kremlin has adopted its strategy of military provocations and disruptions against NATO member states, so it is kept below the threshold for an Article 5 response (which stipulates an attack on one country is an attack on all NATO countries – editor’s note). This calls for the Alliance’s careful and calibrated reaction on the Eastern flank, a reaction that would not only maintain deterrence but improve defence plans in case Russia miscalculates the risks of potential aggression.

Russian assertiveness will not go away if it is not properly addressed. How to deal with Russia and its constant threat to Ukrainian security seems to constitute a crucial question for NATO. The consistent and persistent response on the Eastern flank has been a good start of the Alliance. NATO’s response, spearheaded by the presence and deterrence of Russia, did not stop Moscow from continuous harassment of NATO’s member states and its partners in Eastern Europe.

Therefore, it is likely that the seven-year-old standoff between NATO and Russia will continue. This will require patience and a firm posture against Russian attempts to divide and play member states against each other. NATO will need to remain unified against Russia’s attempts to break it by tempting member states with closer co-operation (i.e. selling weapon systems to Turkey; finalising the Nord Stream 2 deal with Germany; offering vaccines to Hungary and Slovakia). Finally, as it seems that Russia has been increasingly developing non-military means to challenge NATO and the West, the Alliance would need to develop its own capabilities to fight disinformation, disruption and cyberattacks as the lines between peace and war have become ever more blurred.

In the light of the above, one further point is worth underlining: Nowhere should NATO’s 360-degree approach to security be more important than on the Alliance’s Eastern flank. It stems both from Russia’s aggressive behaviour towards NATO and from the size and geographical proximity of its troops deployed near the member states’ borders. This does not mean that NATO should not look elsewhere for potential threats. It just means that at present the threat in the Eastern flank is the most alarming one. From NATO’s standpoint, the Russian attack on Ukraine in 2014 provided additional energy and cohesiveness to the Alliance. The Kremlin’s aggressive behaviour reinforces NATO on the path it has taken for more than seven years now.

Therefore, NATO should use this momentum to recalibrate and refocus on its most daunting challenges at hand. Currently, they lie on the Eastern flank as Russia’s aggressive policy simply puts European security in danger. It would be challenging to find any other state or non-state actor that matches the Kremlin’s ability to keep Europe off-balance. It should not be overlooked that the Eastern flank is not all about Russia and its impact on the NATO member states but also about the stability and security of Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and other countries bordering the Alliance eastward on the continent. Hence, in a longer perspective, the European security is indivisible, and to expect that either NATO or the European Union could remain well off while its eastern neighbourhood continues to be unstable, is a fantasy. Subsequently, the problems NATO faces elsewhere should not be neglected, just aptly prioritised as reflected within the 360-degree framework.

The NATO strategic reflection process started before the COVID-19 pandemic in December 2019, with leaders meeting in London and continued through 2020. When the Secretary General launched the “NATO 2030” initiative in June 2020 the above-mentioned efforts are likely to be crowned by the implementation of the NATO’s New Strategic Concept. In the meantime, the coming NATO Brussels Summit in June this year should be a good indicator of how the Alliance is going to frame existing and future threats into its multidimensional strategy.

Wojciech Michnik is an assistant professor of International Relations and Security Studies at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations of the Jagiellonian University. He is also a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe.

This article is part of a wider project called “All Quiet on the Eastern Flank?” which is conducted by New Eastern Europe and supported by a grant from NATO Public Diplomacy.

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