In Search of New Answers for NATO

by Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Radek Sikorski 

Published: Wall Street Journal, 28 September 2015


Boosting deployments and revamping outdated strategies are necessary to counter Russian threats.

Next year’s NATO summit in Warsaw requires new answers to familiar questions. As in the Cold War, the alliance is again facing the difficulty of defending its frontline states against an adversary that has stronger conventional forces and stronger nerves. In military parlance, Russia has “escalation dominance”— Vladimir Putin, the country’s sole decision maker, can raise the stakes fast if he wishes. NATO, which makes decisions based on the consent of all its 28 democratic governments, could react too late.

NATO is moving in the right direction. Its air-policing mission in the Baltic states flies frequent sorties to keep Russian warplanes out of NATO air space. It has better contingency plans to reinforce the region in the event of a crisis, and rehearses these and other eventualities with exercises of unprecedented scale and frequency.

NATO’s Very Rapid Reaction Force, and the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force, show that the alliance is putting real muscle into its core mission of territorial defence. The Obama administration, criticized for a lack of interest in Europe, has returned U.S. heavy armor to the Continent and briefly deployed advanced F-22 warplanes to Poland.

But this is not enough. Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as well as its military build-up and threatening words and behavior in the Baltic Sea region, show that we have not yet fully communicated to the Kremlin that it should back off.

The Warsaw summit is NATO’s best chance yet to step up its efforts and send a clear signal to Russia, and we will be discussing the road-map to Warsaw this week at the annual Strategy Forum organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. Latvia and Poland are well-placed to participate in this effort. Our countries are security providers, not takers, having willingly deployed our forces to NATO missions overseas.

From our vantage point, we see five priorities for NATO:

• The deployment of serious forces by other NATO countries in the Baltic states and Poland. The NATO-Russian founding act of 1997 was meant to cement trust, not hobble our defenses. Now Russia has destroyed this trust and must be safeguarded against. We aren’t asking other alliance members to exceed the act’s threshold of “substantial forces.” But stockpiling fuel, munitions and heavy equipment in the region most threatened by Russia makes sense. Not to do so would be a sign of weakness.

We also wish to see the persistent deployment of military forces from our NATO allies in our region—not just for exercises, but in rotations of many months, long enough for them to gain familiarity with the terrain that they may have to defend.

• A standing defense plan. It doesn’t make sense for NATO to try to defend the Baltic states or Poland in isolation. If Russia attacks NATO, it attacks all NATO members. And it should therefore fear a response from all NATO members against all its territory. There should be no room in Mr. Putin’s strategic calculus for a limited, low-risk operation in the Baltic region. Any provocation in our region should mean the instant and determined deployment of the alliance’s military, economic, political and other assets.

• Political preauthorization. When the air-policing mission scrambles from its bases in Estonia and Lithuania, it doesn’t wait for a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s main decision-making body. It responds to military necessity. We need the same with regard to other NATO forces in our region, whether they are dealing with provocations on air, sea, land or over the Internet.

• NATO needs to move beyond its old war-fighting doctrines. A strong conventional (and nuclear) posture will deter Russian military might, but our countries face other threats too. We need tighter cooperation on dealing with Russian propaganda, subversion, espionage, energy blackmail and political corruption.

These are in large part new tasks for NATO. They will require unprecedented close cooperation with national governments, with the European Union, and with other international bodies.

• The Warsaw summit should mark an intensified partnership with Sweden and Finland. We strongly hope that these two friends will join the alliance soon. But there remains huge scope for intensified security cooperation. NATO shouldn’t hesitate to change any rules that hamper this. We cannot defend the Baltic Sea region’s security without the fullest possible participation of the countries that have stakes in it.


The rules-based international order in Europe has been gravely damaged by the Russian attack on Crimea, the internal stresses of the eurozone crises and the unprecedented influx of migrants. It can still be salvaged, and the Warsaw summit offers us the best chance to do so. We in the frontline states will be the first to reintegrate Russia back into the international community if the Kremlin shows willingness to abide by our laws and norms.

If we fail, Mr. Putin’s revanchist, vengeful Russia will be the winner in the new age of instability, in which big countries do the deals that they can, and small countries accept the terms that they must. Europe has tried that in the past, and the costs have been huge, both for the Continent itself and for its friends overseas.

Mr. Sikorski is former foreign minister of Poland. Ms. Vīķe-Freiberga is the former president of Latvia.

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