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25th Mar 2019

New Nato centres respond to Russia threat

  • Nato forces practice submarine rescues in Mediterranean drill in September (Photo: nato.int)

Nato defence ministers have agreed to create two new command centres in Europe to respond to the growing threat from Russia.

One of them, an Atlantic command, will protect maritime lanes to secure the movement of heavy equipment from the US or Canada to Europe. The other one will be a logistics hub for movement of equipment and troops around Europe.

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  • "Nato has to be able to respond" to Russia, Stoltenberg said (Photo: nato.int)

The move represents a reversal of Nato policy after the Cold War.

The alliance used to have 33 command centres with 33,000 staff during its stand-off with the Soviet Union.

It shut them down one by one after the USSR collapsed in 1991 and Nato changed focus from protection of allied territory to interventions in overseas crises, such as those in the Western Balkans, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and Syria.

The last reduction came in 2011, when it cut the number of command structures from 13 to seven, and from 13,800 staff to 6,800.

But that all changed in the past few years, when Russia invaded Ukraine and began to threaten the Baltic states and other Nato members with military drills, cyber attacks, and propaganda campaigns.

"The security climate, as you know, has become more severe since 2014 [the Ukraine invasion] - 2014 was a watershed year," US defence chief James Mattis said en route from Finland to the Nato ministers' meeting in Brussels on Wednesday (8 November).

Speaking after the meeting, Nato head Jens Stoltenberg said: "We reduced the command structure at the end of the Cold War, because tensions went down … [but] we have seen a Russia which has over many years invested heavily in their military capabilities, modernised their military capabilities, which are exercising not only conventional forces but also nuclear forces, and which has been willing to use military force against a neighbour: Ukraine".

"Nato has to be able to respond to that," he said.

He said the Atlantic command would "ensure that sea lines of communication between Europe and North America remain free and secure."

The logistics command would "improve the movement of military forces across Europe", he said, by making sure there were enough "roads, bridges, railways, runways, and ports" and that national legislation did not create bottlenecks.

"It is about how to move forces across the Atlantic and how to move them across Europe, and we speak also about much heavier equipment, battle tanks, armoured vehicles," Stoltenberg said.

"We want to pull Nato back to Europe, and we want to focus more on Nato's maritime role," Norway's defence minister Frank Bakke-Jensen added, in remarks to the Reuters news agency.

Cyber attacks

The Nato ministers also agreed to create a new Cyber Operations Centre.

This would coordinate the use of national cyber defence assets to protect Nato operations, for instance, by asking the UK or the US to take down hostile servers or websites.

"In any military conflict, cyber will be an integrated part and therefore we need to strengthen our cyber defences," Stoltenberg said.

"It will be national capabilities but they will be integrated into Nato missions," he noted.

The decision on where to locate the new Atlantic and logistics command centres will be taken next year, but Portugal, Spain, and France are keen to host the Atlantic one, while Germany wants to host the logistical hub, diplomats told Reuters.

North Korea

Wednesday's Nato meeting discussed North Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq and Syria alongside Russia.

Stoltenberg urged allies to implement UN sanctions on Pyongyang due to its nuclear weapons programme, saying: "Pressure is required to find the path for peace".

He said Nato would increase the number of military trainers in Afghanistan from 13,000 to 16,000 to help the country fight the Taliban insurgent group.

He also said the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group in Iraq and Syria had lost almost all the territory under its control, but he warned that it would pose an insurgent and terrorist threat for a long time to come.

"We are now very close to totally eradicating the caliphate, the territory they controlled in Iraq and Syria," he said.

"The fight against ISIS [another name for IS] is a generational fight," he said.

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