Deterrence and Defence Discussions in Warsaw

Within the space of just a few months I have had the privilege of being invited to speak at two conferences on nuclear disarmament related issues. The most recent symposium was in Warsaw, a city that I referred to as the “Baltic-Polish regional capital”. The main organisers of both events were the European Leadership Network (ELN), an informal grouping led by former UK Defence Minister Lord Desmond Browne.

ELN is a non partisan group that addresses nuclear dangers by ensuring a broad and inclusive dialogue. For Latvia, participation means using the opportunity to both air our concerns and increase our own expertise on these issues. In Warsaw, where the event was organised on 15th December with the Polish Institute of International Affairs, I spoke on the prospects for the NATO Deterrence and Defence Posture Review which is currently underway. After discussions with colleagues in Latvia’s Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs,  I decided to address three topics – a reminder of what deterrence encompasses; the importance of transparency and reciprocity and; financial implications.

We need to recall that deterrence in the NATO context is not just about nuclear weapons. It also applies to Missile Defence and Conventional Armed Forces. These three strands are separate, deal with their own threats and cannot be traded off one against the other. Talk of nuclear weapons being replaced by Missile Defence needs to be dismissed. But there are two other interesting points on deterrence.

Firstly, planning is an essential element. Indeed NATO Foreign Ministers meeting a couple of years ago agreed that “Allies must broaden deterrence against the range of 21st Century threats, including by conducting contingency plans.” It is precisely because of planning aspects that the Baltic States are linked as a region to Poland within NATO.

Secondly, Allies amongst themselves need to look carefully at how best to promote deterrence. For example, does the sale of modern amphibious assault ships to third countries, even in economically challenging times, help the cause of deterrence or do such sales in fact increase the power projection of NATO’s unpredictable partners?

On transparency and reciprocity, we are essentially talking about dealing with Russia. I strongly reject the idea of any unilateral reduction of nuclear weapons by NATO. Russia would see this as a clear sign of weakness. In any event, Russia wants to retain its nuclear weapons as a form of deterrence and alternative to weak conventional forces. NATO has continually offered ways of increasing transparency in dealing with Russia on these issues, and should continue to do so.“ The lack of transparency is a source of insecurity,” to quote from some ideas promoted by Poland and Norway on the DDRP question. Offers of transparency and cooperation in Missile Defence have regrettably been answered with a negative response by Russia, as mentioned in President Medvedev’s speech of 23rd November. He talked of Iskander rockets being placed next to NATO’s border in Kaliningrad. Despite this statement – clearly not useful for confidence  building in our region- we will need to look more closely at what, if anything, this means from the military threat standpoint. We also need to keep the communication channels open, because this after all, is not yet a situation comparable to the Russian military intervention in Georgia, which warranted a suspension of relations.

On financial matters, it is clear that financial considerations will impact the decisions on DDRP. Times of shrinking defence budgets and financial crises in both Europe and the USA mean that important decisions on nuclear issues should perhaps be delayed beyond the Chicago Summit. This would allow for time to look at other options. But on the other hand, I understand the argument against this, namely, that there is never a good time to deal with these difficult questions.

Of course outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates in his Brussels speech in May  pointed to the gaping differences between the USA and Europe on defence expenditure, and warned about the consequences. Coupled with the drawdown of US conventional forces in Europe, the concerns about a loosening of the Transatlantic link for me are increasing by the day.

In conclusion, I refer to a draft report prepared by Simon Lunn about the DDRP in which he mentions two important factors that will influence the outcome of the discussions. One is the question of cohesion of the Alliance. (When we look at the events of the recent EU Summit, cohesion now takes on a new meaning). NATO members may consider that maintaining cohesion (including the Transatlantic link) is an overriding factor compared to risking divisions on DDPR. But in any event, politics will prevail and be the determining factor. Especially when we recall that the Chicago Summit comes not long before presidential elections in two NATO nuclear member states – France and the USA.

Published 16 December 2011

Author Imants Lieģis