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NATO balancing act between Russia and Islamic State

Written by Sten Rynning, Head of Center

Few will have overlooked NATO allies’ agreement at their Welsh summit, September 4-5, to counter Russia. The allies launched a Readiness Action Plan that will sharpen the “spear” of NATO’s force structure and involve the permanent rotation of Western troops to Eastern allies for training and exercise as well as the prepositioning of gear at bases in the East.

In Russia's orbit 

They also offered advanced partnerships to a select group of countries, including Georgia and Montenegro, countries that Russia is courting or wanting to keep within its orbit, as well as direct aid to Ukraine. And they confirmed the suspension of the 1997 partnership with Russia, stating that it can be reactivated only if Russia stops bullying its neighbors.

This might give the impression that NATO is back to where it once was – back to regional defense and deterrence along an East-West axis. Nothing could be further from the truth. President Obama had barely left the summit and touched American ground before he was caught in the whirlwind of responding to Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East.

Degrade and destroy 

This is the headline grabber in the United States; not NATO vis-à-vis Russia. President Obama had prior to the summit engaged his country in a bombing campaign and promised to “degrade and destroy” IS, and on September 10 he will lay out a plan for doing so that could entail a military engagement in the region for up to 36 months.

The NATO summit’s most remarkable decision was therefore not a NATO decision at all but the decision of 10 countries to form a “core coalition” to fight IS. Nine of these are NATO countries (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Italy, Poland, and Denmark) and one is a NATO partner (Australia). This core will not be fighting on their own, of course: they want countries in the region to join in, and they surely expect the support of their allies in one form or another.

Core coalitions

NATO will once again have to demonstrate flexibility. Fortunately – and this is no coincidence, obviously – the Readiness Action Plan strengthens NATO’s capacity to react quickly in several geographical directions. Moreover, all the interoperationability that comes out of the enhanced rotation and training can be utilized wherever needed, and partners such as Australia are fully integrated in these activities.

NATO thus confirms its character as a critically important institution that prepares and enables core coalitions and therefore gains the coherence to deter aggression against itself. Russia may have grabbed all the headlines but it is this balancing act between the collective and the selective that defines NATO’s condition.