Those who expect revelations from the new Strategic Concept will be disappointed. Experts will be able to discuss the meaning of individual paragraphs, and compare them with previous versions. Nevertheless, the further course of NATO will be determined by the development of the international situation, and not by the provisions that the authors of the much-touted document forced out, writes Valdai Club expert Igor Istomin.
The format of high-level meetings has, for a long time, resembled a ritualized affair. International summits look like carefully staged performances with a predictable ending. Final documents are agreed upon in advance, their provisions are honed during exhausting meetings at the working level. The diplomatic machinery, in an effort to provide a beautiful picture, reduces improvisation to a minimum. The task of the leaders of states is to consecrate, with their personal presence, the repeatedly rechecked formulas.
The forthcoming NATO summit in Madrid on June 28-30 may, however, deviate from the usual plot. On the eve of the event, unanswered questions remain, the solutions to which will have to be found in the presence of leaders. At the same time, plots that until recently were positioned as central fade into the background. And on some agenda items, compromises on the eve of the summit are not visible at all. Participants will have to come to terms with the fact that the unresolved issues will continue to undermine the image of indestructible transatlantic unity.
Questions regarding the results make the upcoming summit uncommon, highlighting it against the background of the usual diplomatic routes. At the same time, the substantive results are likely to be drowned in the standard victorious reports. Trivial platitudes, and real breakthroughs, and probable failures will be mixed in the array of adopted documents (as is often the case, NATO declarations tend to lengthen from summit to summit). In this regard, it is useful to set the bar of expectations in advance regarding the outcome of the meeting.
The Open Secret: A New Strategic Concept
Long before Russia's special military operation in Ukraine, the summit in Madrid was presented by Brussels as a landmark, even a milestone, in the development of NATO. Its historical significance was linked to the adoption of a new strategic concept for the alliance to replace the one adopted in 2010. It was stated that the document will determine the development of the bloc for many years to come. Stirring up the intrigue, a special page has been created on the official NATO website announcing the release of the Strategic Concept immediately after its approval by the heads of state.
Despite massive publicity, the content of the future document seems to be one of the most predictable and least significant products of the summit. Its possible provisions have been tested at dozens of expert events over the past years. Even before February 2022, it was known that the new Strategic Concept would define Russia as an adversary, not a partner, that the rise of China would be regarded as a source of challenges, and that a significant place would be given to ensuring technological superiority.
The document will contain a lot of words about deterrence and defence, about the diversity of threats and protecting values, about strengthening global partnerships and capacity-building commitments. As a product of 30 participating countries with different interests, the Strategic Concept seeks to include something for each of them, bypassing problematic corners with streamlined phraseology. Past experience shows that such documents are not so much a programme for the future as a codification of what NATO is already doing.
It’s worth mentioning the 2010 Strategic Concept, which was adopted in the context of the war in Afghanistan and the “reset” with Russia. As a result, it consolidated the orientation of the alliance towards a global role and partnership with Moscow. It is not surprising that it soon became irrelevant amid the Ukrainian conflict, the reduction of the alliance’s expeditionary activities, and the prioritization of territorial defence. Despite the “return of NATO to Europe” that has taken place, the document, with its anachronistic wording, continues to be officially valid to this day.
Those who expect revelations from the new Strategic Concept will be disappointed. Experts will be able to discuss the meaning of individual paragraphs, and compare them with previous versions. Nevertheless, the further course of NATO will be determined by the development of the international situation, and not by the provisions that the authors of the much-touted document forced out. At best, they will remain a set of dogmatic platitudes; at worst, as soon as the text of the document comes into conflict with reality, they will prefer to forget it.
The Billion Dollar Question: Force Deployment Scenarios
More debatable is the discussion of the future configuration of NATO’s military presence near Russia’s borders. Amid the aggravation of relations between Moscow and the West, a number of serious changes have already been outlined in recent months. The previously-deployed four battalion tactical groups in Poland and the Baltic countries have been doubled or more. In addition, four additional groups were formed – in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
The number of NATO troops in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe has increased from the initial 4,000 to 40,000 (not counting the national forces of the local participating countries, which together reach 300,000). At the same time, the American contingent in Europe approached 100,000 (of which 10,000 are in Poland, 2,500 thousand in Romania and 2,000 in the Baltic countries). The other military leaders of the bloc, Britain and France, are also significantly expanding their presence on the eastern flank of the alliance.
Even such a serious build-up is assessed by many in NATO as insufficient. The transition from the previous model of “forward presence” to “forward defence” is discussed. The contingents formed in Central and Eastern Europe after 2016 were not designed for a large-scale conflict scenario. Their multinational composition primarily acted as a guarantee of the involvement of NATO member countries that do not have borders with Russia, in the event of its implementation. At the same time, the calculation was made for the deployment of additional troops after the onset of the crisis.
On the eve of the summit, the participating countries disagree on the issue of reconfiguring forces on the eastern flank. The Baltic States take a maximalist position, demanding that the Allies replace the current battalion groups with larger formations, up to divisions. Meanwhile, Britain and Germany have offered to allocate a brigade each to protect Estonia and Lithuania. But their plans assume that most of these forces will remain in the places of their current deployment, and only advanced units will be deployed near the borders of Russia.
Such a reservation of troops for specific allies does not differ much from the previous logic of forward presence. Moreover, it could pose risks to NATO cohesion, meaning that the deployment of forces other than those agreed upon in advance is not guaranteed. Other options for expanding the alliance’s infrastructure on the eastern flank focus on the storage of military equipment and ammunition, as well as the deployment of headquarters structures, anti-aircraft assets and aircraft, without a significant increase in ground forces.
The dilemma between maintaining the current rotational presence and the deployment of forces in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe on a permanent basis may also be discussed at the summit. The first format allows more troops to become familiar with a potential theatre of operations, as well as save on infrastructure. At the same time, the rotated units do not have enough time to master new conditions. In this regard, the issue of creating full-fledged bases in the Baltic countries and Poland is being raised.
The discussion of these issues comes up against the need to take into account not only military, but also economic and political aspects. In this regard, it is advisable to raise them to the level of leaders, even if the clarification of specific details will subsequently be lowered to the level of technical specialists. In view of the differences in capabilities, interests and assessment of the situation among the allies, finding a common denominator on such a sensitive subject will be one of the most difficult tasks of the summit.
Expected Failure: Finnish and Swedish Bids
Along with the adoption of a new Strategic Concept, another highlight of the meeting was to include Finland and Sweden in the bloc. Since 2014, both countries have significantly increased the level of both political and military cooperation with NATO. They are already integrated into the Euro-Atlantic community through EU membership. Not surprisingly, after the filing of formal bids in mid-May, the expansion of the alliance was seen as a done deal. Observers cited the Madrid summit as the latest date for their approval.
Optimistic expectations ran into opposition from Turkey, which put forward a long list of claims against Finland and Sweden. They cover the policy of the northern countries on the issue of terrorism, the Kurdish issue, the attitude towards the PKK, as well as supporters of the opposition Turkish preacher Fethulah Gülen. Despite several rounds of meetings between the parties, Stockholm and Helsinki failed to overcome Ankara’s veto (the application for NATO membership must be approved by all participating countries, including Turkey).
Just before the Madrid summit, there will be one last rendezvous between the Turkish leader and his Finnish and Swedish counterparts. If, as a result, Ankara removes its objections, this will be a major victory for the alliance. But such a scenario remains unlikely, which means a delay in the process of Finland and Sweden joining NATO. The hitch has few practical consequences – the belonging of both countries to the “collective West” is beyond doubt. They are closely involved both in sanctions against Russia and in sending military supplies to Ukraine.
However, the opportunity that has arisen contradicts the notorious “open door policy” that promises every European country the opportunity to join the alliance. The latter contributed a lot to the aggravation of the Ukrainian problem. The diplomatic rhetoric of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg regarding the need to take into account Turkish concerns indicates the readiness of the bloc to move away from dogmatism in the face of clear opposition from significant participants.
In order to reduce the negative impact of the delay in the approval of applications, it is expected that Finland and Sweden will take part in the summit as “guest countries”. Most predictions agree that they will eventually become part of the alliance. Nevertheless, the issue, apparently, will remain unresolved at the upcoming meeting, spoiling the impression of a common party. In contrast to the search for a configuration of forces on the eastern flank acceptable to all participating countries, the contradictions on this topic cannot yet be resolved, even by the personal participation of the leaders.
NATO in the Space of the ‘Collective West’
Amid the confrontation with Russia, voices are growing louder about the return of NATO to a Cold War mode. Meanwhile, there have been a number of differences in comparison with the confrontation of the second half of the 20th century. These include the emergence of additional Western formats of military-political interaction. For example, since 2015, the member countries of the alliance from Central and Eastern Europe have been coordinated within the framework of the Bucharest Nine. In early 2022, the UK, Poland and Ukraine also launched a joint pact.
It is significant that the process of coordinating military assistance to Ukraine after the start of the Russian special operation was initiated outside the institutional framework of NATO. This choice is understandable, given that not all of the arms supplier countries are members of the alliance. Once again, we see demonstrated that today the Western bloc is not limited to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
It is difficult to expect contradictions in this part of the programme. Even despite some differences, all participating countries are interested in maintaining the reputation of the alliance. You can be sure that with all the intensity of the upcoming negotiations, the theatrical side of the meeting of the heads of state and government will be on top.