NATO's Putin Conundrum Berlin Considers Its Alliance Options
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has demanded a stronger NATO presence in Eastern Europe. But that makes some in Chancellor Merkel's government uncomfortable. As the alliance moves to reassure eastern allies, Berlin considers its options.
In last Monday's meeting of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leaders in Berlin, the Angela Merkel spoke extensively about war and peace, including a detailed look at the Ukraine crisis. The chancellor also focused on her telephone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as the role played by US President Barack Obama. When she then turned her attention to NATO, many expected a mild rebuke for Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen.
With her comments published in SPIEGEL a week ago, in which she urged NATO to show a greater presence on the alliance's external borders, von der Leyen dominated the German news cycle that weekend. Many interpreted her demand as a rhetorical escalation in the ongoing standoff with Russia and there was plenty of criticism, including from Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).
But rather than censuring her defense minister, Merkel praised her instead, even lauding von der Leyen's performance in a Sunday talk show, saying she appeared competent and in control. The message to von der Leyen's critics was clear: She is right; NATO has to show a greater presence. In an alliance, that means soldiers and equipment.
The conflict surrounding Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia earlier this month, is entering a new phase. Early this week, NATO is expected to send an initial military signal designed to send a stronger message than the rather limited political and economic sanctions the European Union has levied. "Many allies view Russia's course of action as an historical turning point and the beginning of a new era for the Euro-Atlantic security architecture," German NATO Ambassador Martin Erdmann writes in a classified report. "We are being watched closely."
Plenty of Supporters
Within NATO, the leitmotif for current preparations is "reassurance," in particular for Eastern European member states, in the hopes that a clear response will be enough to calm frayed nerves in the region. Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is likewise interested in taking a step back in the interests of de-escalation remains unclear. It also seems unlikely that calm will prevail in German parliament when the first units from the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, are deployed. Already, it has become clear just how skeptical a significant wing of the SPD, Merkel's junior coalition partner, is of the chancellor's Ukraine course. Gabriel's disapproval of von der Leyen's demand for a greater NATO presence in Eastern Europe won't likely be the last expression of opprobrium.
Still, von der Leyen has plenty of supporters across Europe, as will become apparent during the meeting of NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday in Brussels.
One focus of the meeting will be putting a halt to the work of the NATO-Russia Council after suspending "working level cooperation" last week. Furthermore, military cooperation with Ukraine is to be "considerably" expanded, NATO sources say. The alliance is also intent on signaling solidarity with the Baltic states and with Poland, with so-called "air policing" flights -- surveillance missions to guard airspace -- to be at least doubled. Currently, there are two aircraft constantly at the ready or in the air, a number that is expected to be increased to four or six. The airports in Ämari, Estonia and Siauliai, Lithuania are the focus of the Baltic Air Policing program.
In addition, there is to be an increase in the number of AWACS surveillance flights. They are to take place "exclusively over NATO territories," sources say, but such aircraft have the technical ability to monitor events deep within Ukraine. Finally, a NATO naval unit is to conduct maneuvers in the eastern Baltic Sea.
Eastern European alliance members have been requesting such demonstrations of solidarity since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. Only now, though, has the US agreed. Washington was initially skeptical but has now become a driving force of the movement, writes the German NATO ambassador.
He then asks a decisive question: "How will Germany behave in this crisis, which from the viewpoint of Eastern European capitals is an existential one?" The answer will have "tangible effects" on the "German leadership role" in certain areas of the alliance, he writes.
Britain and France have already offered to take on the additional flights necessary for increased air policing in the Baltics. London has pledged to make four jets available immediately. Norway has offered to send a flagship to lead the Baltic Sea maneuver.
Berlin, according to Defense Ministry sources, could imagine taking on one or both of the assignments. Senior military officers recall the words of Defense Minister von der Leyen at the Munich Security Conference in February when she said that indifference is not an option for Berlin. "If you say that," one general said, "you can't stand around empty handed when a mission is pending."
As early as the week before last, the German air force notified Defense Ministry leaders that six Eurofighters could be immediately made available for surveillance flights. But no decision from the government was immediately forthcoming and impatience within the ministry grew. Shortly before the weekend, a partial agreement took shape. "Two things are paramount," German Defense Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told SPIEGEL. "In this extremely difficult situation, NATO must act with a cool head and refrain from pushing us into a spiral of military escalation. At the same time, our partners know that we stand behind alliance solidarity with no ifs or buts, and not just in fair weather."
Steinmeier advisors emphasized that Germany would take part in augmented operations within the alliance where it makes sense. Steinmeier, however, was careful to note that the "Ukraine crisis cannot be solved with military means: That can only be done with diplomatic efforts aimed at de-escalation."
The United States, meanwhile, is moving ahead. It has stationed six F-15C fighters in Lithuania and plans to send 16 F-16s and four C-130 transport planes to Poland. More is likely to come. At the NATO meeting this week, foreign ministers may agree on language requiring all alliance members to provide such bilateral assistance. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is prepared to do so; Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is not.
How long additional units might remain in the Baltics or in other Eastern European states is unclear. But their presence sends a decisive message. Following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the Baltic countries, formerly part of the Eastern Bloc, began preparing to join NATO -- and in 2004, they too became formal members enjoying the protection of Article 5, which treats an attack against any member state as one on the alliance as a whole.
Although the three Baltic states only have small militaries, NATO has thus far refrained from maintaining a constant presence there out of consideration for Russian sensibilities. During the Cold War, the permanent stationing of British, French, American, Belgian, Dutch and Canadian troops in West Germany was meant as a forceful message that NATO was serious about Article 5.
The risk now is that we are returning to that era. It is a situation which could further feed Russian fears of encirclement -- fears that Putin has expertly taken advantage of in the pursuit of his political goals.
NATO is aware of that danger, sources in Brussels have made clear. In his confidential report, German NATO Ambassador Erdmann addresses the current debate, writing: "Different viewpoints clash -- sometimes contentiously -- in the North Atlantic Council." He adds: "Reflections on the strategic effects on the alliance have only just begun."
BY MELANIE AMANN, NIKOLAUS BLOME, MATTHIAS GEBAUER, RALF NEUKIRCH and CHRISTOPH SCHULT
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley
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