The core of its so-called Readiness Action Plan was a new rapid reaction force, cumbersomely named Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) but widely known as ‘Spearhead’. It is supposed by 2016 to spearhead the existing NATO Response Force (NRF) created in 2002, and to be more agile and more quickly deployable in eastern Europe to cope with Russia's growing capabilities.
Although NATO governments have praised the VJTF, critics have voiced serious doubts. NATO has often seemed better at coining new buzzwords than in implementing the concepts behind them. ‘Smart Defence’, the term for improving defence co-operation to save scarce resources, and the ‘Comprehensive Approach’, meaning military and civil co-ordination of crisis management, are examples of the limited results of high-flown NATO announcements.
Why, ask the critics, should the VJTF be any more successful than its “mother”, the NATO Response Force (NRF) that in 12 years has never been used? They also question where the money to finance such a costly military “fire brigade” is coming from, seeing that thanks to the Afghanistan war almost all NATO members’ defence forces seem worn-out and under-funded?
"That sort of readiness level is very costly. Large numbers of military personnel have to be kept on alert, and a great deal of equipment has to be stored in eastern European NATO countries"
To be fair, the NRF was never meant to be just a rapid reaction capability. It was primarily seen as a tool for military transformation, providing a model for NATO members to adapt to the requirements of the post-9/11 world. If used at all, it was intended for crisis management in military interventions far beyond NATO's borders.
The genesis of the VJTF, by contrast, has been a very specific political situation in Ukraine, and is an answer to an identifiable threat to NATO's territorial integrity. Its area of operation is that it can be deployed swiftly in the Baltic States to counter Russian activities comparable to those seen in Crimea or eastern Ukraine. Its rapid reaction capacity would strengthen NATO's deterrence by signalling military readiness and solidarity. And unlike the NRF, the new spearhead force is to be highly visible. An interim force is already under construction, with its first military exercises due to happen soon. Once it is operational, the VJTF will be able to move to any part of NATO’s area within days, in contrast to the NRF’s reaction time – its so-called “notice to move” – of about a month.
That sort of readiness level is very costly. Large numbers of military personnel have to be kept on alert, and a great deal of equipment has to be stored in eastern European NATO countries. As NATO had dismantled its capabilities for redeploying forces from North America to Europe as part of the post-Cold War wind-down, the cost will be all the greater.
The critics nevertheless raise an important point when they ask about NATO members’ defence budgets. They have promised to try to raise their defence spending to 2% of GDP, but only four of the 28 NATO countries at present meet this target. The NATO allies have a long tradition of ignoring such promises, so hopes are not high. That said, many of the allies now appear to realise that deteriorating relations with Russia are not just a spell of bad weather, but represent fundamental climate change. Germany for one looks likely to reverse its defence budget cuts. Other NATO members like Poland are taking a leading role in eastern Europe, and are underpinning this with greater military commitments. That makes the performance of some smaller eastern European allies like Hungary and the Czech Republic all the more disappointing, as they show no signs of ending their free-riding security policies.
The lead-up to NATO’s 2016 summit in Warsaw will show how seriously alliance members take the new situation. It may prove a help that the Putin regime shows no softening of its imperialist policies vis-à-vis neighbouring states, even though the economic consequences of aggression against Ukraine combined with falling oil prices could bring the Russian economy to its knees.
NATO's own political decision-making is likely to be of critical importance in any future crisis with Russia. Sceptics quip that the alliance’s new VJTF could turn out to be a high-readiness force for low-readiness politicians. What would happen, they ask, if Russia were to repeat the Ukraine scenario by concentrating forces close to the Latvian and Estonian borders and infiltrating unidentified military personnel – the “little green men”? The Russian-speaking populations in both countries, stirred up by Moscow’s propaganda, could conceivably launch violent protests that would give the Russian authorities a pretext for invading to protect their supposedly suppressed citizens. “Hybrid warfare” that remains carefully below the level of an outright attack would aim to erode NATO's political will to respond militarily.
"NATO members have promised to try to raise their defence spending to 2% of GDP, but only four of the 28 NATO countries at present meet this target"
In such a scenario, would there be a prompt consensus in all 28 NATO members to send the VJTF into the area concerned? Or would a majority of NATO governments warn against a further escalation of the crisis, and instead open negotiations with Moscow?
The outcome of any Russian aggression in the Baltic region is, of course, hard to predict. The three points to be kept in mind are that, in the first place, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama have made it very clear that the solidarity of NATO is not negotiable.
Second, the Ukrainian crisis is a very special case as Russian forces were legally stationed on the Crimean peninsula, while Ukraine itself lacked the efficient state structures needed to deal with a hybrid scenario. There were no functioning police forces or specially trained units available to deal with covert Russian action and unidentified Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory. Latvia and Estonia, on the other hand, are modern states that are members of NATO and the European Union, and have been upgrading their law enforcement capacities.
Third, although it’s never certain that all NATO members would be ready to fight if one of them were attacked, the crucial question for any aggressor is whether retaliation by NATO can ever be ruled out. The alliance’s new VJTF spearhead will therefore play a decisive role because it raises insecurity for an aggressor by underlining the alliance’s declared policy of resisting any incursion into the territory of a member state. Any move against the borders of NATO could quickly lead to a military exchange with the strongest alliance on the planet.