The NATO foreign ministers met in Berlin on Thursday (April 14)to determine the objectives of the alliance’s intervention in Libya. The conclusions were relatively tepid, with the meeting essentially reaffirming that forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had to stop all attacks against civilians, permit unhindered humanitarian access to the country and withdraw from the cities they had “forcibly entered, occupied or besieged throughout all of Libya.”
The meeting’s show of unity among the 28 member states belied the reality of the last couple of weeks. The military intervention in Libya has not found support in Germany or the alliance’s newer East/Central European members, while in the last few days, France and the United Kingdom have launched criticism against the alliance for not moving aggressively enough on the ground. Furthermore, while the meeting on Thursday said nothing of regime change, French, British and U.S. leaders penned an op-ed to appear in Friday’s press that reaffirms regime change as the goal of the intervention. That is a considerable lack of clarity on whether NATO is unified on that issue or not.
“Libya, however, is not a spark for NATO disunity or a glimmer into future discord. Rather, it is a symptom of a well-progressed disorder that has afflicted the alliance for several years.”
While the NATO meeting on Libya dominated the news on Thursday, we found comments of the Russian permanent representative to the alliance, Dmitri Rogozin, to be far more important. While Rogozin generally criticized NATO’s intervention in Libya, it was his comments on the proposed European ballistic missile defense (BMD) system that attracted our attention.
Rogozin suggested two things. First, in the run-up to the meeting, he said that Russia expected “real guarantees” that the BMD would never be aimed against Russia. Second, he said Europeans should establish a group of “wise men” to “support official talks, first between the U.S. and Russia, and then between Russia and NATO” regarding the BMD.
The first comment, regarding the guarantees, has to do with Moscow’s suggestion for the European BMD project to be a single system with full-scale interoperability. Most NATO member states are fully committed to the U.S. proposal that the BMD system should have two independent systems that exchange information and that Russia’s system not be integrated into Europe. The most vociferous opponents of the Russian single-system proposal are the post-Soviet sphere Central/East European NATO member states like the Baltic States and Poland. For them, the BMD system is about a tangible alliance with the United States, and not so much about preventing ballistic missiles from Tehran hitting Tallinn or Warsaw. Russia, on the other hand, realizes this and is trying to prevent the system from being the pretext used to bring U.S. boots to its former sphere of influence. It therefore wants a single system that it will be able to mold in developmental stages.
The second comment, about creating a European “wise men” group to referee U.S.-Russia talks on the two versions of the BMD, has to do with the fact that NATO is, at this moment, as disunited as it has ever been. Russia is betting that not all Europeans are as committed to the two-systems version as NATO ambassadors and officials indicate. Russia hopes to sow seeds of discord by getting West European diplomats (certainly, Rogozin did not mean wise men from the Baltics) to see Central/East Europeans’ demands for excluding Russia as unreasonable and excessive.
Russian probing of NATO unity comes at a time when the alliance is showing its discord over Libya. Germany, France and the United Kingdom are also split, with Berlin seeing London and Paris going off on a 19th century-style colonial expedition. Germany has few interests in the Mediterranean and it has been vocal about this in the past. Meanwhile, France is trying to prove that it is a leader in Europe and if it can no longer be the political and economic leader that Germany now has become, it will be a military one. At the same time, Italy is standing on the sidelines, angered that France and the United Kingdom have threatened its national security (because Rome has far more at stake than anyone) by upending a favorable set of arrangements that Rome had with Gadhafi.
Quite possibly, never before has NATO’s soil been as fertile for such seeds of doubt as today. Central/East Europeans are irked about yet another “out of theater” operation in Libya. For them, the theater of NATO’s concern should be Europe, focused on the security threat posed by a resurgent Russia. Seeing NATO’s main security guarantor, Washington, dragged into a third Middle East military operation by France and the United Kingdom is disconcerting.
Libya, however, is not a spark for NATO disunity or a glimmer into future discord. Rather, it is a symptom of a well-progressed disorder that has afflicted the alliance for several years. Bottom line is that the interests of the alliance are no longer compatible. The alliance has not had a common enemy since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But what is different today, 20 years after the end of the Cold War, is that a powerful Germany is thinking for itself and one of its most cherished new-found signs of independence is a policy toward Russia that is fundamentally incompatible, with security fears of the NATO member states living in the shadow of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
The Kremlin senses this disunity and plans to act on it – and it did not need Libya to understand it.