The NATO Summit’s Winners and Losers

Defense contractors and Eastern Europeans went home happy. Germans, Ukrainians, and Georgians, not so much.

Soldiers walk at the national stadium where the NATO summit takes place in Warsaw, Poland on July 9, 2016.
The Polish capital hosts a two-day NATO summit, the first time ever that it hosts a top-level meeting of the Western military alliance which it joined in 1999. / AFP / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN        (Photo credit should read STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Soldiers walk at the national stadium where the NATO summit takes place in Warsaw, Poland on July 9, 2016. The Polish capital hosts a two-day NATO summit, the first time ever that it hosts a top-level meeting of the Western military alliance which it joined in 1999. / AFP / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN (Photo credit should read STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Every two years, the heads of state and government of the venerable NATO convene to deal with the crucial issues facing the 28-member organization. These NATO summits are always important, and they always produce both winners and losers. The recently concluded event in Warsaw, Poland, has been no exception.

In typical fashion, the outcome was a mixed bag, one that will neither fully satisfy proponents of a more assertive NATO, or opponents — like President Vladimir Putin of Russia. But it’s still worth examining how the chips fell.

At the top of the winner’s list in Warsaw are the Eastern European members of the organization. For at least six years, they have constantly chided NATO for failing to provide more protection “on the ground” within their borders. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland will now permanently host a full multinational battalion comprised of 1,000 NATO troops from countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada. While not enough to actually blunt a full-on Russian invasion, the additional forces will increase deterrence significantly.

In addition to the Eastern European nations, the tiny Balkan country of Montenegro emerged a winner by receiving what some have called the “golden security ticket” that is NATO membership. The small nation of some 650,000 souls was formally invited to join the organization, thus continuing the work of consolidating the Balkans in the trans-Atlantic community. While not militarily significant, the invitation is a key political signal that NATO maintains its open membership policy as stipulated in its founding treaty.

In addition to the Eastern Europeans, another entity in the winner’s circle is clearly the troubled nation of Afghanistan. Despite a plan three years ago by NATO to drop its in-country forces to essentially zero by 2017, the alliance has firmly recommitted to maintaining a significant level of troops (probably 13,000 or more) for the foreseeable future. Equally important for the struggling government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, NATO members have committed to continued funding for the Afghan National Security Forces, a bill of roughly $4 billion to $5 billion annually.

Finally, the defense industries of the West, especially those in Europe, come away a winner. With NATO members each agreeing to spend 2 percent of their national GDP on defense by 2020, the recent slide in European defense spending should be arrested and hopefully will begin to rise. NATO has signaled that certain areas are likely to receive increased funding, including cybersecurity (a glaring vulnerability for NATO); Special Forces (The alliance is in need of a standing operational headquarters for these forces); and unmanned vehicles (building on the now operational NATO Global Hawks in Sicily).

On the losing side of the ledger, Putin tops the list. Given that his overarching goal remains weakening or breaking the NATO alliance, the continuing unity demonstrated by the nations in Warsaw is a setback. Even worse for Putin is NATO’s decision to deploy troops on Russia’s borders, which the Russian president will find difficult to explain to his constituents back home. And, finally, the potential increase in defense spending will mean that Russia may feel compelled to increase defense expenditures as well — a difficult move to make given the ongoing sanctions levied on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, as well as flat oil and gas prices.

Other losers coming out of Warsaw are the two nations that aspire to NATO membership — Ukraine and Georgia. Both have been invaded by the Russian Federation (Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008), and the Russians continue to occupy significant chunks of their territory (Crimea and arguably parts of southeastern Ukraine; and the tiny regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia taken from Georgia). Given these disputes with Russia, the likelihood of full membership seems quite distant, and the Warsaw summit did not offer much in the way of hope for their goals. While the alliance provided platitudes about an “open-door” policy and pledged continued military cooperation, there is not much of a glimmer of actual membership.

Another loser coming out of the summit was the Islamic State. NATO is clearly beginning to wake up to the need to confront the Islamic State along the Turkish border, and indeed to go directly at the threat in Iraq and Syria. NATO will begin flying additional Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), which can help with airspace deconfliction, intelligence gathering, and command and control. NATO will also explore providing a training mission to support the fragile Iraqi Security Forces. (NATO had such a training mission in Baghdad while I was supreme allied commander several years ago, but closed it in a dispute with the Iraqis about the Status of Forces Agreement.) Clearly NATO will be taking a more direct hand in the fight in Iraq and Syria, and that is bad news over time for the Islamic State.

Finally, the Warsaw summit was not a positive experience for the strongest European nation overall — Germany. No nation within NATO has a stronger desire generally for better relations with Russia given trade ties, historical worries, and an aversion to more defense spending. Over 80 percent of Germans favor better ties with Russia, and many German politicians are categorically opposed to NATO’s move to the Russian border. So given the continuing fraught state of relations with Russia, Germany came away from the summit dissatisfied with NATO’s trajectory and generally unhappy with the organization.

The bottom line is that this was an important but not a seminal summit. The key takeaways — more deterrence against Russia, engagement with the Islamic State, improvements on defense spending levels, increased cybersecurity, and the invitation to Montenegro to join NATO — are all significant but incremental steps. For a bigger and bolder NATO, we’ll have to wait for the effects of the presidential election in the United States and the as-yet unclear impact of Brexit to play out over the next couple of years. Putin will certainly be staying tuned, and we would all be wise to do the same.

Photo credit: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/Getty Images

 Twitter: @stavridisj

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