Friday

25th Sep 2020

'Troubled' Nato reacts to Russia nuclear threat

  • More US-made anti-missile systems in European countries in future? (Photo: nato.int)

Russia's nuclear threat to Europe is getting so alarming, the US might deploy new weapons on land or sea here.

But Cold War déjà vu aside, Western powers are divided on how to handle one of the worst conflicts under their noses - Libya.

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  • US president Donald Trump (c) with Nato ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison (Photo: Whitehouse.gov)

"The reports that we [Nato] are getting are very troubling and we know we need to prepare for ... a much more capable [nuclear] arsenal than we have seen in the past from Russia," the US ambassador to Nato, Kay Bailey Hutchison, told press in Brussels on Tuesday (16 June).

"Will there be [new] capabilities in Europe? Anything that's done [by the US] in Europe will be done with the permission of the countries where there could be a deterrent. Or there could be moveable, mobile deterrents. Or it could be a water-bound deterrent," she said.

The Russia threat will seize Nato defence ministers in video-talks on Wednesday.

It was unclear from diplomatic sources if Bailey Hutchison's choice of words was meant to leave wiggle room for new US nuclear as well as conventional deterrents.

But for his part, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said the same day the West would "not mirror Russia's destabilising behaviour" and had "no intention to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe".

He spoke of buying US-made anti-missile systems and next-generation fighter planes instead.

The US ambassador also said a recent decision to reduce troop numbers in Germany, while putting more American boots on the ground in Poland, was because that was where they might "best serve the ... defence of all of Europe".

The neo-Cold War talk comes amid Nato accusations that Russia broke a 1987 ban on short and mid-range missiles.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin was deploying systems that could strike EU capitals and building "hypersonic" missiles, Stoltenberg said.

Putin also turned back the geopolitical clock when he invaded Ukraine and unleashed an anti-Western propaganda campaign in recent years.

But despite the atomic sabre-rattling, analysts previously told EUobserver that nuclear war was "in the very far corner of the unthinkable" in modern times.

A conventional Nato-Russia clash, in which Putin got a bloody nose and fired a nuclear missile at an empty Arctic island to frighten the West, for instance, was a more realistic worst-case scenario, one expert, Pavel Podvig, from the Prio think-tank in Norway, said.

Meanwhile, the US ambassador and Nato head spoke the same day EU defence ministers held a videoconference on creating a European armed forces on top of Nato.

"With a view to our [the EU's] single set of forces, we need to plan and develop our defence capabilities strategically to be able to act with real operational output," the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, and Spain said in a joint letter ahead of Tuesday's meeting.

"We [the EU] should keep reinforcing military [operations]", such as Irini, a naval mission dealing with Libya, the letter, seen by EUobserver, said.

"We need a greater common strategic understanding of what we want to be able to do as Europeans in security and defence," the ministers added.

EU naval mission impotent to stop suspected arms shipment (Photo: EEAS)

Troubled alliance

The Nato and EU shows of solidarity were belied by the West's handling of the Libyan conflict, however.

And France has set the scene for a clash on Libya with its Nato ally Turkey when the Western defence ministers hold their talks.

France, in Libya, has backed an eastern warlord, Khalifa Haftar, who is now on the retreat, among accusations of war crimes.

Italy, the other main EU power in the crisis, has formally backed the EU and UN-recognised government in Tripoli.

But, at the same time, Italy was selling two warships to another Haftar-axis ally, Egypt, making a mockery of its EU commitments.

And the US, Nato's superpower, was doing nothing on the ground to tame the conflict.

The EU praise of Irini also came after it recently waved through a Turkish naval convoy escorting a suspected arms-smuggling ship from Tanzania to Libya - in violation of a UN embargo.

Irini could not stop them, under its rules of engagement, because the Turkish ships had correctly followed protocol on exchange of signals, EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell tried to explain on Tuesday.

And the naval fiasco pointed to bigger clashes among Western allies.

Turkey, in January, also sent troops to Libya, in order to fight against French ally Haftar.

It now plans to build permanent air force and naval bases there, Turkish officials told the Reuters news agency on Monday.

And that "increasingly aggressive [Turkish] posture" was "unacceptable", the French foreign ministry said.

"Turkey is supposed to be a Nato partner, so this cannot continue," France said.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg (l) in Turkey last year (Photo: nato.int)

Raw nerves

That was the atmosphere Nato defence ministers can expect when they switch on their computer screens on Wednesday.

The pandemic and China's military expansion in the South China Sea have added to the tension.

"The Covid-19 crisis highlighted that the safety and security of European citizens is indeed a global challenge, one that calls for more solidarity, more resilience [among EU nations]," the joint letter, by France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, also said.

"China is increasingly on our [Nato's] radar", as a threat, Kay Hutchinson, the US ambassador, said.

But Europeans need not worry that Americans were turning away from their oldest ally on the world stage to face Pacific Ocean problems, she added.

"Our troops like being there," the diplomat noted, referring to Germany, as an example of European destinations for American soldiers.

"It should not be thought that there's any walking away from Europe," she said.

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