NATO scrambles to prepare for possible Russian aggression

As tens of thousands of Russian troops remain on the border with Ukraine following the annexation of Crimea, NATO commanders are scrambling to plan for the worst: further Russian incursions into neighbouring nations.

NATO has less than 2 weeks to draft 'reassurance package' for members, top commander tells CBC News

NATO leaders condemned Russia's takeover of Crimea at a meeting in Brussels on April 1, 2014. (Richard Devey/CBC)

The large iron sculpture of a star-shaped compass that stands outside the front entrance to NATO’s headquarters near Brussels has been there so long it’s taken on a near iconic status over the years — an enduring emblem of the world’s oldest and most enduring military alliance, however dusty. 

Across the road, a building for a new headquarters is rising, hulking and bunker-like, but big enough to accommodate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 28 member states and offer a physical upgrade to an institution that still seems trapped in the 1960s.

It is a metaphor to go with the times. Moscow’s recent annexation of Crimea and the presence of tens of thousands of Russian troops along Russia’s border with other parts of Ukraine has injected new life into the slumbering military alliance.

Not since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and the Kosovo crisis that followed has there been such frenetic activity in its long, fluorescent lit corridors.

Moscow's murky intentions

NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, has been increasingly outspoken about the significance of the Russian troop build up.

“Let me tell you that this force on the border of Ukraine has the capability to go into Ukraine if it needs to, if it’s tasked to,” he said in an interview this week.  

“So we know the force is capable. We don’t know about the intent.”

Russia’s takeover of Crimea involved a population that included large parts that approved of the Russian move.   Breedlove acknowledges that a Russian invasion of other parts of southeastern Ukraine would be a different matter entirely.

While Breedlove would not concede that NATO was caught off guard by the annexation of Crimea, he told CBC News that the incident raises serious questions about the alliance's current preparedness for action on its eastern front. (Richard Devey/CBC )
“I think it would be clearly,” he said.  “And I’m not sure if that is a part of the calculus.”

The “calculus," according to military thinking at NATO headquarters, could be threefold: a destabilizing presence along Ukraine’s border as a pressure tactic in the lead to parliamentary elections in May; creating a land corridor to secure troop access to Crimea or similar regions, but to allow for a full-fledged run across Ukraine’s southern flank to Moldova and its pro-Russian breakaway enclave.

Breedlove rules nothing out.

“What we do see is the recent history which is just in weeks previous is a force was amassed in the name of an exercise and quickly went into Crimea,” he told CBC News.  

"So if this is any indication of intent, then I think we have causes for concern.”

Reassuring NATO's eastern members

Breedlove’s comments are intended for Moscow’s ears certainly, but also for NATO member states.

He won’t go so far as to say that NATO’s been caught sleeping, but he’s on the record saying that the alliance is unprepared for potential Russian aggression on its eastern front. 

"So this is what we have to think about and this is what we have to deal with. Are our forces ready, positioned and provisioned to take care of that problem?"

We need to have three components: an air component, a naval component which we I think have assembled and is I think sustainable. The tougher piece is what the land component is going to be.-Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove

Breedlove has a little less than two weeks to come up with what he calls a “reassurance package” for NATO’s Baltic member states and other former Eastern Bloc members like Poland and Romania. 

The crisis has thrown into sharp relief the realities involved in three waves of NATO expansion over the past 15 years, those former Russian satellite states are now worried about their own territorial integrity and in a position to demand NATO protection according to its 'all for one, one for all' treaty obligations. 

“In that package, I believe we need to have three components: an air component, a naval component which we I think have assembled and is I think sustainable,” said Breedlove. "The tougher piece is what the land component is going to be.”

'Cold War jousting'

Poland is urging NATO to actually put allied boots on Polish soil permanently. But some NATO diplomats worry that will be too great a provocation for Moscow. The Kremlin has accused NATO of “resorting to cold war jousting” by suspending large parts of its co-operation pact with Russia — a pact put in place to ease Russian worries over NATO expansion to the east. 

Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird says Ottawa would like to see NATO go even further, but stops short of spelling out how.

NATO member countries recently completed war exercises carried out above Poland, Lithuania and in the Baltic Sea. The exercises were planned before the current crisis in Ukraine, but the U.S. decided to send a beefed up force to participate in a show of military strength to Moscow. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)
NATO sources confirm that Canada has been among the most "gung-ho" member states when it comes to sending a message to Moscow. Baird, however, wouldn’t say if Canada approves of a permanent NATO presence in eastern-flank member countries.

“We support providing the assurances that a country like Poland and the Baltics need,” Baird said. 

“Does that require it to be permanent? This is what the military experts here will work with the constituent members of NATO [on].”

Poland and NATO's Baltic states have been urging NATO to pay more attention to Russia’s potential territorial ambitions since the 2008 Georgia crisis.

“The only thing Russia understands is a clear signal that there is a military power ready to engage," Latvia’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said on the sidelines of this week's meeting of NATO foreign ministers.

“Let’s not fool ourselves. This is not going to be resolved in a day or two,” he said.

NATO’s military planners are sitting down to their homework, and NATO souvenir pens and T-shirts are still on sale in the NATO gift shop. 


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.