Russian President Vladimir Putin has masterfully played off the regional divisions within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during his slow-rolled invasion of eastern Ukraine. But this week, the 28-member security alliance will finally settle on a unified response to Russia’s blatant incursions: a rapid response military unit capable of deploying quickly to Eastern Europe.
The plan, announced by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Monday, does not go as far as some Baltic states wanted but does represent the strongest response yet from the alliance since Moscow annexed Crimea in March. According to Western diplomats, the plan is the result of an internal push led by Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and Canada, with the blessing of the United States.
"The necessity of having units capable of reacting almost immediately in case of a crisis should let us make NATO more responsive and ready," Ryszard Schnepf, Polish ambassador to the U.S., told Foreign Policy. "Although the discussion existed already earlier, the recent events in Europe have shown how much justified this idea is."
The new force will include 4,000 troops trained to move on 48 hours’ notice to hotspots in any NATO-member state. The forces will benefit from equipment and logistics facilities pre-positioned in Eastern European countries, but the troops will not be permanently stationed in Eastern Europe, which Baltic NATO members had been jockeying for.
"The Baltics would like us to have a permanent presence in their countries," said one Western diplomat. "The rest of us aren’t there yet."
A key concern among Western NATO members is violating the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which stated that NATO would avoid the "additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces" near Russia’s border.
Though many concede that Russia’s incursions in Ukraine have violated a whole host of international laws, in particular, its annexation of Crimea, there is a reluctance to fight fire with fire.
"We and a number of allies don’t want to lower ourselves to Russian levels," said one Western diplomat. "We continue to support the Act, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have a robust and large presence in Eastern Europe … We can have basing there that allows for the basing of logistics and equipment."
According to Rasmussen, allies will provide several thousand troops by Christmas, and when in place, those personnel will cycle in on a rotating basis. They will also benefit from a command-and-control center that is periodically operated by a different NATO-member country. At the outset, the rapid response troops will only be deployable inside NATO territory.
After being caught off guard by Russia’s fast deployment of troops to Crimea earlier this year, many NATO members saw a need for an agile fighting force. "It’s a recognition of the evolving nature of modern threats to Europe," said a Western diplomat, noting that it would address a range of threats, including hybrid warfare, terrorism, and cyber security. Official agreement by all NATO members on the rapid response plan is expected be the main event of the NATO leaders’ summit in Wales on Thursday and Friday.