Towards NATO’s Warsaw summit
The official activation of NATO’s first land-based ballistic missile defense system in Deveselu, a former air base in southern Romania, on May 12, has added another layer to the already strained relationship between Russia and the West. The security assessments for the eastern and southern flanks of NATO have been worsening since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, as well as its military build-up and continuous support for armed rebels in eastern Ukraine, military presence in Syria, and repeated violations of airspaces and territorial waters of NATO member states. Russian aggression seems to be aimed at both reviving its former superpower status and reestablishing its zones of influence beyond its immediate neighborhood.
The system deployed in Romania, called “Aegis Ashore,” consists of two AN/SPY-1 radars and three SM-3 missile interceptors. It will increase the capability of NATO to defend the Euro-Atlantic area against short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The Romanian base, along with the one being built in Poland, is part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) that was announced by U.S. President Barack Obama on Sept. 17, 2009. The four Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Capable Ships based in Spain and the radar system in Kürecik-Malatya in Turkey, opened in January 2012, are also parts of the EPAA and will work in tandem.
The system became operational under NATO in 2012, as agreed in the Lisbon Summit in 2010, but its command and control system is run from a U.S. base in Ramstein, Germany. From the very beginning, Russia has opposed the idea of EPAA by raising concerns about its national security. Although NATO and U.S. officials have consistently emphasized the defensive character of the system and stressed that its main target is the possible ballistic missile threat from Iran and other rogue states, it is clear that the threat posed by Iran to the West does not justify the creation of such and expensive and extensive system. The recent nuclear deal with Iran also undermined such explanation.
Separately, the increasing tension between Russia and the West over the last two years has forced NATO to focus on concrete actions to raise the defense capabilities of its eastern members. Both NATO and individual members have increased the number of military exercises near Russian borders in accordance with the Readiness Action Plan, agreed at the Wales Summit of 2014. The Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, which will be able to deploy within two days in the event of threats against NATO territory and will ease the uneasiness felt by its eastern members, is not yet activated. Without such a joint force, it would be beyond the capabilities of the Baltic countries, for example, to counter a possible Russian attack.
Russia also has been reinforcing its western and southern flanks. Deployment of additional troops and Iskander short-range ballistic missiles to the Kaliningrad enclave, located between Poland and Lithuania, in early 2015 was a direct intimidation of Baltic countries. Similarly, its military build-up in Crimea threatens Eastern Europe and the Black Sea area. What’s more, Russian officials have threatened to take countermeasures against encirclement after the NATO system became operational in Romania. Russian President Vladimir Putin was even clearer when he said Russia will “neutralize emerging threats.”
Thus the Warsaw Summit, to be held on July 8-9, will be a litmus test for the resolve of NATO members in the face of such intimidation. The members should accept that NATO needs bold and concrete steps rather than vague summit promises to increase their deterrent capabilities. The reaffirmation of NATO’s commitment to its vulnerable members with a possible deployment of forces might do the trick.