‘Ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head.” The words of Euripdes, and just as well because we – the European part of NATO – after years of defence cuts and relying on the United States are a little short of solders. Actually, we don’t seem over-endowed with wise leadership either, which means our ten soldiers won’t go as far as we hope. But as long as they go as Poland, which has long campaigned for a greater NATO presence here, the more permanent the better, the government here will be happy.
And happy it will now be, since at a meeting on NATO defence ministers held in Brussels yesterday it was agreed to deploy some 3,200 NATO troops in four battle groups along the Suwałki Gap on the north-eastern Polish border. The troops could be deployed as early as next year according to Polish deputy Defence Minister Tomasz Szatkowski. The deployment of four battlegroups marks the “biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the cold war”, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said. “This sends a clear message: if any of our allies is attacked, the whole alliance will respond as one.”
The Suwałki Gap is a short stretch of border with Lithuania running between Russian ally Belarus and the Russian Kaliningrad oblast, and is considered to be the Achilles heel of Polish defence. In May, the Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz had said that the Baltic countries’ ability to slow down any attack so as to allow NATO forces supported by the United States and other countries to reach the area would be sufficient, “as long as we can keep the Suwałki Gap.… It is our greatest strength as well as our weakness.”
While not the permanent bases for which Poland had hoped, rotating troops is, according to the US Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, a better choice. One of the key reasons is an opportunity to test US capacity for transferring troops, without incurring the costs of permanent infrastructure and another reason is a lack of the infrastructure needed to house American soldiers and their families in Europe, he said in an interview for Polish news agency PAP.
This comes as some 12,500 US soldiers are taking part in international military exercises being held by NATO in Poland. Over 31,000 soldiers from alliance members and partner countries are participating in the exercises, named Anaconda 16. These are the largest such exercises to have been since the Cold War and take place several weeks ahead of the NATO summit in Warsaw, and during a period of heightened tensions with Russia following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
And speaking of Moscow, just so he wasn’t forgotten in these militarily exciting times, President Putin this week responded to the exercises by ordering a snap inspection of the combat readiness of the Russian armed forces. This will include military arsenals and tactical exercises, running until 22 June, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced.
Jens Stoltenberg said that continuing tension between the West and Moscow has prompted NATO to adopt a multi-pronged approach towards Russia to avoid escalation: “deterrence, defence but also dialogue.” “We have to be able to manage our relationship, avoid incidents, accidents from happening and creating dangerous situations, but also to continue to strive for more constructive and cooperative relations with Russia,” Stoltenberg said in an interview with Polish news agency PAP. Reestablishing good relations with Russia depends on Moscow’s behavior. “Russia is our biggest neighbor (…) and we have to find ways to live with Russia as a neighbor.” To this end, a NATO-Russia Council will convene ahead of the July summit NATO summit in Warsaw, the first since the annexation of Crimea.
There have been some actual incidents. In mid-April, Russian Su-24 bombers flew over guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in international waters in the Baltic Sea – the sort of thing that happens when you let your airspace invade Russian warplanes – while Turkey shot down a Russian bomber on the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015. Interestingly, Turkey was unrepentant and Brother Putin hasn’t tried it again. There’s a lesson there somewhere.
But be that as it may, it’s no good having any amount of kit without the will to use it. Putin’s strength is that he doubts the western politician’s will to defend the west, with no compromise being too great in the interests of a quiet life. He saw that with Crimea, and he sees it again with the way the refugee crisis is being allowed to de-stabilize the EU. As Euripedes reminded us at the outset, even the largest army will fail without leadership, but 3,200 troops?