Monday

18th Feb 2019

No new Nato bases in eastern Europe

  • Nato leaders made a show of solidarity with Poroshenko (top row, centre) at the summit (Photo: nato.int)

Poland has confirmed there will be no new Nato bases in eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression.

The alliance is creating a new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, or “spearhead” force, of some 4,000 troops designed to react if Russia attacks its eastern borders.

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But Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski told press on Thursday (4 September) at a Nato summit in Wales the force will not be physically stationed in the region. The only new facilities will include airfields, vehicle parks, and ammunition depots to help it to deploy more quickly.

He noted that whether there are “permanent bases" is “a matter of semantics, diplomacy - what matters from a defence point of view is how effective the force is”.

But he said a “more visible” deterrent would have made people feel safer. He also voiced concern that eastern countries do not have the same status as old Nato members, several of whom do host bases.

“We expect from all allies that what was considered important for them in the past [hosting bases] should be considered relevant for our security today. So we are a little disturbed by these niceties of whether you can use the word ‘base’ [to describe the spearhead’s facilities]”, he said.

Eastern states are still hoping to host the force’s command centre, with Szczecin, in north-west Poland, mentioned as an option.

Komorowski also said the summit is to designate Russia as Nato's main priority.

Referring to the withdrawal of Nato forces from Afghanistan this year, he said: "The vision of the alliance as an expeditionary force which operates out-of-area is passing into history and its traditional role, of specialising in the defence of its member states, is returning”.

The UK and the US the same day indicated Nato might play a role in stopping the Islamic State in Iraq.

But the spearhead force is just part of broader Russia containment plans.

Nato’s Article V currently speaks of collective defence in case of territorial aggression. But a Nato source told EUobserver the alliance is rethinking what constitutes an Article V attack, in light of Russia’s use of political subversion, cyber warfare and economic warfare against Ukraine.

“The intelligence community is looking very intensely at what is happening in Ukraine right now, so that in future we can spot signs of this new form of hybrid warfare in our own member states”, the Nato source said.

Minsk talks

Russia and Ukraine are to hold peace talks in Minsk on Friday.

But Nato officials painted a grim picture of the situation on the ground ahead of the peace initiative.

A second Nato source said “several thousand” Russian soldiers, including “hundreds of tanks, armoured vehicles, and artillery pieces” are fighting in east and south Ukraine.

“They are fighting as formed units rather than being disseminated among the rebels … their objective appears to be to freeze the conflict, to create a situation like South Ossetia [a Russian stronghold in Georgia], where the rebels are entrenched for the long term”.

For his part, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who attended the Nato event, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the Minsk talks because he must stop Ukrainian citizens being killed.

The Ukrainian leader will co-sign a Nato communique on Friday in a Western show of solidarity.

In practical terms, he said some Nato states promised to send Ukraine “non-lethal and lethal equipment, including high-precision weapons”.

Nato itself pledged €15 million for a new “trust fund” to develop the Ukrainian military’s cyber, command and control, logistical, and medical capabilities.

Scepticism

Nato head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he is sceptical the Minsk talks will succeed.

"What counts is what is happening on the ground … and I have to say that we have seen similar [Russian] statements and [peace] initiatives and they have actually just been a smokescreen”.

He added: "The international community must respond determinedly if Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine, respond through deeper, broader, and tougher economic sanctions".

EU countries will in Brussels on Friday decide how much harder to hit Russia’s banks, oil, and defence firms following the Russian invasion.

But despite the harsh words on Russia at the Nato summit, some European countries are keen to return to business as usual.

France on Wednesday froze the delivery of a warship to Russia due to the Ukraine crisis. But when asked by press in Wales if the deal can be unfrozen, French president Francois Hollande said he will fulfill the contract if Russia and Ukraine agree a “ceasefire and political solution”.

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