. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO: Wrong Debate

In the past few months, the debate over NATO expansion has flirted with a dramatic reversal of a nearly decade-long trend toward the reduction of military power in Central and Eastern Europe. The current low level of military forces in the region is a result largely of the great political changes that have taken place since 1989, as well as existing arms control agreements and economic constraints. This trend needs nurturing if the region is to lock in these gains and shape future defense decisions on the size and placement of the regional military forces in the interests of stability.

Yet all sides of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization debate discuss military measures and countermeasures, particularly involving tactical nuclear weapons. NATO sees no need for conventional or nuclear deployments in the new member states, but its September 1995 Enlargement Study expresses this in language so bureaucratic that, in the East, it is hard to understand and easy to distort. Last fall, then Polish Defense Minister Zbigniew Okonski signaled Poland's willingness to accept nuclear weapons and foreign forces on Polish soil. Though he clearly meant to send a signal to the West that Poland was not going to pick and choose elements of NATO membership, the signal he sent to the East was of a different character.

Though the Russian military is utterly unprepared for such measures, "unnamed military sources" in the press regularly sketch possible conventional and nuclear countermeasures to NATO expansion. These countermeasures include the deployment of conventional forces in Belarus and the return of tactical nuclear weapons to alert status in Russia, Belarus and on ships in the Baltic Sea. The Ukrainians are nervous about remilitarization of the region, issuing strong warnings against the reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons.

This discussion is lunacy. The demilitarization of the region between Berlin and Moscow is one of the greatest security benefits Poland has enjoyed since regaining its statehood. It is the eastern equivalent of anchoring Germany in NATO and the European Union, yet much less secure than Germany's transformation. NATO is already being tested by expansion. It does not need to have its commitment and resources tested after expansion by having to respond to Russian deployments. Russia itself faces an uncertain emerging security environment to its south and east. It cannot afford to pursue ambitious countermeasures in the West and maintain existing commitments in the Caucasus and Central Asia. It too is compelled to make a more sober assessment of where the genuine threats to Russian security lie.

Yet current suspicions over future military deployments and counterdeployments continue, deepening the rift between Poland and Russia, exacerbating links with other key Eastern neighbors and forcing the expansion debate down the wrong road. While NATO and those wishing to be part of it can do little if Russia is determined to oppose expansion with military countermeasures, they can take steps that make such an outcome less likely.

First, NATO and Poland should state plainly that there will be no alliance nuclear weapons or stationed forces in Poland and that this will be NATO's military posture as long as a similar restraint is exercised by Russia.

Second, Poland and the West must pay attention to the security implications of Russian-Belarussian integration. The West cannot oppose the current Russian-Belarussian military alliance or voluntary moves toward political and economic integration between the two states. After all, NATO and Poland want no similar veto extended to Russia over the alliance's plans. However, Belarus' neighbors do have the right to declare opposition to the return of Russian offensive conventional and nuclear forces to Belarus. The greatest folly would be to see Belarus and Ukraine as Russian compensation for NATO expansion and to be indifferent to security arrangements there. Such indifference will only raise costs of NATO expansion and put great pressure on Poland and the alliance to demonstrate their resolve in concrete and expensive military deployments.

Third, NATO should declare itself ready to compensate Russia under the Conventional Forces in Europe, or CFE, Treaty, in advance, for the conventional forces of Poland and the other likely future members of NATO: Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It should do this whether they become members of the alliance or not. Polish, Czech and Hungarian forces plainly belong on the Western side of the balance sheet. If NATO expands, they will have to be compensated for anyway.

Finally, Poland, Belarus and other states in the region embrace an enhanced military transparency regime. They should offer their neighbors additional inspections beyond those required by CFE and other arms control agreements. Perhaps the states in this part of Europe could agree to early implementation of the Open Skies regime, or to a form of military liaison mission granting broad access and observation to accredited personnel.

These are not difficult steps, but they do lead the alliance and those countries that want to be members in the right direction. They put the benefits Europe already enjoys as a result of the last decade's great military changes back at the center of the security debate. They underscore the desire of NATO and new member states to see the alliance expand without changing the balance of military forces on the ground. They begin the work of negotiating a real NATO-Russian understanding, which, given the current situation in Moscow, must begin in the West if it is to move forward at all. Finally, they send an important signal to countries outside NATO that the alliance and its potential future members are determined to prevent a return to the old military confrontation in Europe, whatever its future political configuration.

Sherman W. Garnett is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This editorial is drawn from a longer article that appeared in Foreign Policy, No. 12, 1995.