NATO defense ministers gathered in Brussels to follow up on the decisions taken at the Warsaw Summit in July. The core issue will be again Russia and its assertive military moves in Europe and beyond. In light of the continued meddling of Russia in the Eastern Ukrainian conflict, the deployment of Iskander missiles to Kalinigrad, the provocative military maneuvers from the Baltics to the English Channel and its heavy military engagement in Syria, NATO-Russia relations are not about to improve drastically any time soon.
The United States has taken the lead in the formation of a response by the alliance by providing the core strength of four battle groups to be deployed in the Baltics and in Poland. Germany, Britain and Canada have already made the commitment to lead a battlegroup as a framework nation, and it is expected that France, Denmark, Italy and other allies will offer military contributions at the current ministerial Summit. Strengthening NATO’s readiness and demonstrating solidarity is of course vital for the Alliance, however, in today’s security environment not enough.
From Russia’s hybrid warfare to increasing cybersecurity challenges to widespread transnational threats and challenges – such as illegal migration - in the Mediterranean security challenges outside the realm of traditional defense matters are rising. The lines between military and other types of security challenges are becoming ever more blurred, hence battling them requires comprehensive responses, including building partnerships with organizations better equipped to deal with the challenges.
Of course in a way this is phenomena is not new, new security challenges were already emerging in the post cold war era, and NATO took notice, building partnerships with multiple stakeholders, from individual countries to international organizations, including the EU. The partnership with ‘the other institution’ in town has never been smooth, with well known obstacles such as US and British objections to an independent EU military structure or the Cyprus issue standing in the way of a strategic cooperation.
However, above all the increasing pressures in the Mediterranean emanating from the MENA region are forcing the EU and NATO closer together. In a joint session of NATO ministers with EU foreign policy chief Frederica Morgerini and other non-NATO member EU defense ministers a decision was made to continue NATO’s maritime mission in the East Aegean tackling human trafficking and to launch a similar mission, Operation Sea Guardian in the Central Mediterranean to support EU’s Operation Sophia. Deepening cooperation on countering hybrid threats, cyber defense and exercises were also on the table.
These tactical steps are to be warmly welcome by both organizations and each member state. The scope and the nature of the challenges suggest that only joint and coordinated efforts will deliver long term solutions or at least mitigate the negative effects of the crises in Europe’s vicinity. However, without proper harmonization of objectives and efforts at the strategic political level, they will remain ineffective.
Both institutions have to recognize, that non of the major security challenges could be dealt with effectively without the other organization, including the challenge posed by Russia. The latter could achieve some success in recent years because of its swift and decisive use of multiple elements of power and statecraft. In the end both NATO and the EU are multinational frameworks to better coordinate and allocate resources for the common good of its members and in order to project power. NATO’s military power and the EU’s political, economic and financial power should complement and mutually reinforce the effectiveness of the other.
Political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should start by avoiding to deepen the challenges ahead. Here are some suggestions:
Demonstrating solidarity and resolve towards Russia is necessary, but keeping channels of communications towards Moscow open is vital. It takes two to tango, and one cannot push all the blame on Russia for the current hostile relationship.
Align rhetoric and stated political objectives with realistic goals and levels of commitment in the Middle East. It is tough to confront with it and partly against our sense of justice, but fostering stability should be the top priority in the current environment. This means above all helping the fight against terrorist groups by assisting local partners and allies and supporting a political resolution of the war in Syria.
As for the refugee and migration crisis, the priority should be saving lives, that is to stop the illegal flow of people through the Mediterranean. The way forward should be to help to establish stability in Libya and in neighboring countries, strengthen maritime and land border protection and discourage people from trying to reach Europe illegally. Yes, European states should help people in imminent danger, help provide their basic needs, help protect them, but offering them the prospect of ‘a la carte’ the social benefits of Europe and without limits in terms of numbers is a completely different story.