Baltics to Black Sea: NATO unity may be tested by next challenge

JULY 10, 2016

The NATO  28 alliance members as they face multiple threats and uncertainties, from Islamic State to Russia to Brexit. In that, they appeared to succeed.

The seeds of discord, however, were also evident, as leaders wait to discover what Russia’s response to the decisions made at the Warsaw summit will be.

For Poland and the Baltic states, the 4,000 troops that NATO members agreed to deploy across four countries may not be the end of what’s required, depending on Russia’s actions. At NATO’s last summit just two years ago, leaders announced a smaller rapid reaction force for the Baltic states, to similar fanfare.

Further south, Romania and the U.S. are now looking to shift attention to beefing up defenses in the Black Sea region. Saturday’s communique upgraded the Black Sea to an area of “strategic importance” for the alliance. Member governments were given until a meeting of defense ministers in the fall to produce proposals on how to strengthen security there.

French concerns
For France, however, according to a senior French official, it’s now time for NATO to pause. “We don’t want NATO to do anymore,” he said.

One concern for France and some other alliance members is that they want to avoid forcing Russia into a corner, triggering an escalation. Like other NATO leaders, President Francois Hollande called for dialog with Russia and stressed that the alliance’s deployments were purely defensive.

Russia, however, has already said it will respond to NATO’s plans by deploying three divisions in its western and southern military districts, a force that would dwarf NATO’s “tripwire.” On Saturday, Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, often a more moderate Russian voice, as saying that “the rhetoric in Warsaw just yells of a desire almost to declare war on Russia. They only talk about defense, but actually are preparing for offensive operations.”

The Black Sea may prove even more contentious than the Baltic, should NATO decide to develop a land, sea and air defense capacity in a region bordered by Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. The security outlook has transformed since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. It has since built up its fleet and created what security analysts describe as an air exclusion bubble, which could turn the sea into a Russian-controlled lake.

“Look at where the main challenges from Russia have been,” Romanian Foreign Minister Lazar Comanescu said in an interview as the summit ended. “Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transdnistria in Moldova — these are all in the southern part of NATO’s eastern flank.”

Securing agreement to form a NATO fleet in the Black Sea could also be more complicated than deploying troops in the Baltic states. Romania is a keen proponent, but Bulgaria, a NATO member with strong economic and historical ties to Russia, has expressed opposition. In June, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov warned it would “turn the Black Sea into a territory of war.”

Turkey, too, has mixed feelings about the idea, due to sensitivities over its relations with Russia as well as over the international treaty that controls access through the Bosporus strait, according to Ahmet Unal Cevikoz, a former Turkish ambassador to Azerbaijan and Iraq, attending a summit conference.

This week’s drive for unity seems to have papered over those differences for now, but that may not last for long. As Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said: “It’s going to need clear vision and serious U.S.