Following the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’ approval of resolutions condemning Russia’s “military aggression” and “violations of the Open Skies Treaty” the committee heard testimony this morning in a hearing examining the upcoming NATO Warsaw Summit.
The summit will be held from July 8th-9th in Poland, and a number of the topics likely to be on the agenda were brought up over the more than hour and a half long discussion. The chairman of the committee Bob Corker, R-TN, began the proceedings by echoing the committee’s condemnation of Russia with a rebuke towards President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Syria.
“The Russian Federation has repeatedly bombed innocent civilians,” he said.
Mr. Corker introduced a theme that would be discussed in length during the witness testimony that followed, as well as in the questions of more than one Senator. He maintained that the alliance must shift towards “actively deterring aggressors.”
Benjamin L. Cardin, D-MD, who is the ranking member on the committee, called NATO a “critical tool for shaping our relationship with Russia.”
The two witnesses who gave testimony are former members of the Bush and Obama Defense Departments. Ian J. Brzezinski was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO policy from 2001 to 2005, and Derek Chollet was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs between 2012 and 2015.
Mr. Chollet, who is now Counselor and Senior Adviser for Security and Defense Policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a private Atlanticist think tank, described the present NATO situation as “perhaps the most perilous moment in the 25 years since the end of the Cold War.”
He commended the United States’ commitment to Europe by citing the European Reassurance Initiative, which passed the Senate last week as part of Fiscal Year 2017’s National Defense Authorization Act. Significantly, the language in the bill names the program the European Deterrence Initiative. The funding for the initiative is four times more than last year, reflecting the Administration’s budget request. It provides $3.4 Billion to “deter Russian aggression.”
Four battalions are expected to be approved at the summit to provide deterrence on Poland’s border. A battalion consists of 800-1000 troops.
Mr. Chollet also reported in positive terms that Israel is expected to open an office at NATO headquarters this week, and that Montenegro’s membership may be approved at the summit. He urged the Senate to work towards ensuring that authorization of that membership be approved by the United States before the end of the year.
Ian Brzezinski is now the Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security for the Atlantic Council, another organization that promotes trans-Atlantic relations. His testimony was portentous, and when he spoke of planning efforts he recommends they seemed to indicate a belief on his part that conflict with Russia is imminent. He warned that Russia has three distinct advantages, those of proximity, of speed, and of massed firepower.
That speed was emphasized. Mr. Brzezinski said during questioning that he was “not worried about intentional attack against NATO,” but rather Putin’s actions “rais[ing] the likelihood of inadvertent conflict.”
He warned that in the event of an attack there may not be time for North Atlantic deliberation.
“During the Cold War,” Mr. Brzezinski expanded in his written testimony, “NATO’s generals and admirals were entrusted with the authority to deploy forces and engage opponents in analogous scenarios. This trust needs to be returned to the Alliance’s military chain of command.”
The value of NATO was talked up by all involved throughout the hearing. Mr. Cardin set the tone by saying in his opening remarks that “we too often take these organizations for granted.” The second organization he was referring to was the European Union.
Britain held a referendum yesterday on its membership in the EU, and there was talk throughout the hearing on the ramifications of a possible exit by the country which is also a member of NATO. The Leave vote carried the day, an outcome that was not desired by the two witnesses. When asked by Cory Gardner, R-CO, what they believed the effect of a Leave vote would be for NATO Mr. Brzezinski said that an EU without the UK would be less Atlanticist.
“To have that Atlanticist orientation diluted cannot be a net gain, it’s actually a net loss,” he said.
Mr. Chollet told Mr. Gardner that a British exit would mean less bandwidth for discussion of NATO in Europe, though he predicted that it might make Britain more eager to take on a larger role in the alliance.
Mr. Cardin laid out some of the facts explaining the exacerbating tensions between Russia and NATO. Saying that “Russia represents a real threat to NATO’s security,” he detailed Russia’s recent exercises along NATO borders with over 80,000 personnel, as well as wargames simulating a Russian attack hosted by Poland this year that boasted 31,000 troops, 14,000 of which were American.
Mr. Cardin touched on another issue that occupies much of the concern of NATO boosters when he mentioned that the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called those exercises “warmongering.” He expressed a worry about the level of unity in the alliance.
Mr. Brzezinski concurred.
“While we do have some unity, I’m not sure we have sufficient unity.”
Mr. Corker, in emphatic terms, indicated his disgust with what he thinks is insufficient commitment to the treaty by some members.
“I find it to be highly offensive,” he said of that fact that Germany spends only 1.18% of their GDP on NATO. The United States has pushed for member nations to comply with the provision that they put a minimum of 2% of their GDP towards defense spending for the alliance.
“We are the provider of security services,” Corker continued, referencing the fact that US contributions account for roughly 75% of the NATO budget. “They are the consumer of the security services.”
Mr. Corker then put his feelings into more certain terms, calling Germany “laggards, they’re being laggards in regard to NATO.”
Chris Murphy, D-CT, asked Mr. Brzezinski whether he thought ISIL or Russia was a greater threat to NATO.
“Russia,” Mr. Brzezinski responded, adding darkly “I’m talking about nuclear threats.”
Mr. Chollet and Mr. Brzezinski were in near total accord on every issue. When Mr. Gardner asked them if they agreed that Europe faces blind spots in intelligence gathering the two responded quickly. Mr. Brzezinski said more ISR(Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance) is needed, and Mr. Chollet claimed that NATO has lost some of its “muscle memory” since the end of the Cold War.
Near the end of the hearing the two former Defense Department officials were more frank about the position that they believe NATO needs to take. Bob Menendez, D-NJ, asked “how do we go from defense to deterrence?”
Mr. Chollet replied that presence and posture are the two essential things, especially in Poland and the Baltic states. He noted that this presence should be exhibited in the form of warfighting forces.
Mr Brzezinski was clear in his belief that the United States must lead NATO, and exhibit “steely determination.”
During a press conference in Brussels on June 15th, Defense Secretary Ash Carter was pellucid too in his assessment of the possibility that NATO might have to fight when he described the shift NATO must make as beyond just deterrence.
“We agreed that NATO would further strengthen its posture to deter,” he told reporters,”and if necessary defeat any aggressor across the full spectrum of conflict.”
–by Marlon J. Ettinger