Events in Ukraine and northern Iraq dramatically increased the significance of NATO's September summit. It marked a turning point for the Alliance, as combat operations in Afghanistan drew to a close and members renewed their commitment to collective defence.

NATO leaders have decided on enhancements to military capabilities, reaffirmed the transatlantic bond and agreed on cooperative steps both among allies and with partner nations. A principal goal of the summit held in Wales on 4–5 September was to reassure members – and remind Russia – about the mutual defence pledge that lies at the heart of the Alliance. Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, declared that it was ‘a special summit at a particular time’.

Until a few months ago, the meeting had been expected to be largely administrative and to follow a script decided a year ago. The Alliance would mark the end of its combat operations in Afghanistan and agree measures to improve cooperation both among allies and with partners, so as to maintain NATO’s ability to respond to future crises. The slogan was in place: NATO would move from being deployed to being prepared.

However, events in Ukraine and, later, northern Iraq dramatically increased the gathering’s significance. Any hopes that leaders might have had of a post-Afghanistan strategic holiday for NATO suddenly evaporated. With the Alliance’s eastern and southern flanks in turmoil, many member governments felt that a fundamental challenge was being posed to the order and principles that underpinned their security. The negotiating process on the summit communiqué became dynamic and fast-moving.

Higher readiness

The Wales summit declaration does not mince words in citing Russia’s ‘aggressive actions against Ukraine’ as the main reason for the new measures taken to strengthen NATO’s posture and capabilities. In the last 15 years, NATO has focused on crisis management and cooperative security, two of its three core tasks. On this occasion, however, leaders placed greater emphasis on collective defence, which is the essence of the 28-member Alliance. They said: ‘No one should doubt NATO’s resolve if the security of any of its members were to be threatened. NATO will maintain the full range of capabilities necessary to deter and defend against any threat to the safety and security of our populations, wherever it should arise.’

This assurance to eastern European members – especially those with significant ethnic-Russian populations, such as the Baltic states – was bolstered by a Readiness Action Plan under which NATO forces will establish a schedule of rotation so that there will be a ‘continuous air, land, and maritime presence and meaningful military activity in the eastern part of the Alliance’.

In addition, NATO’s ability to respond quickly to events will be increased by the formation of a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). Some 4,000–6,000 troops will be available to be deployed at two to five days’ notice, much more rapidly than the existing NATO Response Force, which has hardly been used. The precise size, composition and command arrangements are yet to be worked out – a report is due to be delivered by February 2015 – but the VJTF will bring together land, air, maritime elements and special-operations forces. NATO will preposition equipment and invest in infrastructure so that the VJTF will have host-nation support if deployed. Denmark, Germany and Poland jointly announced that they would provide additional staff to the Multinational Corps Northeast, in Szczecin, Poland, the only NATO headquarters in a post-Cold War member state, in order to raise its status from lower readiness (180 days’ notice) to high readiness (30 days’ notice).

NATO will regularly test its forces through exercises that may be announced at short notice – just as Russia has made rapid deployments of troops to areas near its border with Ukraine and has ordered them to take part in snap exercises. Officials made clear, however, that NATO has no intention of taking military action in Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. One senior official said: ‘NATO is not going to go to war for eastern Ukraine.’

Also on the theme of collective defence, leaders expanded the scope of the Article 5 mutual-defence commitment – under which an attack on one ally is considered an attack on all – to include cyber attacks. The declaration said that ‘cyber defence is part of NATO’s core task of collective defence. A decision as to when a cyber attack would lead to the invocation of Article 5 would be taken by the North Atlantic Council on a case-by-case basis.’

Cooperation and spending

Since NATO’s last summit in Chicago in 2012, the Alliance has tried to foster closer cooperation among member states through its Smart Defence programme and the Connected Forces Initiative. The purpose of such efforts is to achieve greater military effectiveness in spite of cuts in defence budgets. A further step in this direction was agreed in Wales with the endorsement of the Framework Nations Concept (FNC), a German idea under which groups of allies will work together to develop capabilities needed by the Alliance, making use of the experience of one ‘framework’ nation, an approach already employed by NATO nations on overseas operations.

Three groupings were announced under the FNC banner. The first, led by Germany which is joined by nine allies, will focus on capability development in logistics support, protection from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, deployable headquarters, and delivery of firepower. A second group of seven, led by the United Kingdom, will establish a Joint Expeditionary Force for full-spectrum operations. The third group brings together six allies under Italy’s leadership to work on capabilities for stabilisation and reconstruction. In each case, the framework nation will facilitate the work and provide the bulk of the assets.

These initiatives were coupled with an effort by NATO leaders to reduce the steady decline in European defence spending. For the first time, they made explicit reference to a goal of 2% of GDP for defence budgets, with 20% of defence expenditure directed towards equipment purchases, as well as research and development. However, the language was not strong: the 24 allies currently below this level would ‘aim to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade’.

In the run-up to the summit, some NATO governments were seeking a binding commitment to 2%. They did not carry the day, but did at least win an undertaking from each nation to halt any decline. This was cast as an important change of direction – one which outgoing Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had been seeking throughout his five-year term. The language of the Wales declaration was as much as could be achieved on this front, but did not signify that events in Ukraine and the Middle East have caused a sea-change in NATO members’ strategic thinking.

Relations with Russia

During the previous two decades, Russia was courted by Western governments as a strategic partner, to be engaged in the solution of regional and global security challenges. But NATO members have had to accept during 2014 that this approach has failed. The summit declaration said that Russia ‘has breached its commitments, as well as violated international law, thus breaking the trust at the core of our cooperation … We regret that the conditions for [partnership] do not currently exist’. Several NATO governments were ready to abandon the 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act, which provided the framework for cooperation between Russia and the Alliance. However, some leaders, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been the West’s principal interlocutor with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Ukraine crisis, pushed through a more restrained line. This was based on the assumption that there was still value in keeping political channels open and that Russia should not be given the satisfaction of NATO’s withdrawal from the agreement.

However, all practical cooperation between Russia and NATO remains suspended, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was promised funding and cooperation in the areas of command, control and communications, logistics, cyber defence and strategic communications.

Meeting new security challenges

A priority for NATO was to be able to counter future asymmetric tactics such as those employed by Russia in Ukraine – a combination of the insertion of special forces, use of the local population, subversion and information operations. The Russian doctrine had been described in 2013 by Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov as ‘non-linear warfare’ – though it has also been called ‘hybrid’ or ‘ambiguous’ warfare. The Wales declaration defines hybrid warfare as an approach ‘where a wide range of overt or covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures are employed in a highly integrated design’. The events leading to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and to the insurgency in eastern Ukraine left the West struggling to offer an effective response. In Wales, therefore, leaders discussed the need both to deter such tactics and to improve the agility of Alliance forces. The creation of higher readiness forces is an important part of their answer, as well as more frequent exercises and a closer focus on improved information sharing and strategic communication. But this year’s events are likely to prompt longer-term discussion on the nature and effectiveness of deterrence.

The three-year-old Syrian civil war and the sudden spillover of violent extremists – including fighters from NATO nations – from Syria into northern Iraq have further heightened Western countries’ awareness of the need to have effective responses at their disposal. Hence the summit declaration’s reference to partnership with the Iraqi government, as well as with Jordan. This forms part of a new NATO project, the Defence and Related Security Capacity Building Initiative, under which specific partner countries will be given help to improve their military capacities and institutions. This is seen as a means of staving off the need for NATO in the future to deploy large numbers of combat forces as it did in Afghanistan. United States President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron also used the gathering to help build a coalition, including Gulf states, intended to drive back the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham by a combination of political, diplomatic and military means. In doing so, they were acutely aware of the threat that regional events pose to Turkey, a NATO member.

The summit marked a turning point for NATO, with the combat operation in Afghanistan almost over, even though the nature and size of the follow-on mission must await resolution of the dispute over the Afghan presidential election. Its return to collective defence was an important change of direction. But Norway’s former prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, who becomes secretary-general in October, will take responsibility for an Alliance that knows it must be more flexible and convincing in deterring and responding to present-day dangers, but may continue to have difficulty in finding the necessary resources and in maintaining unity of resolve.

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