Operation Strategic Trolling

NATO reported an “unusual burst of activity” by Russia’s nuclear-capable strategic bombers on its borders this week. While none of the flights violated NATO airspace, they are emblematic of the increasing tensions in Europe over the conflict in Ukraine:

In all, Nato said, its jets intercepted four groups of Russian aircraft in about 24 hours since Tuesday and some were still on manoeuvres late on Wednesday afternoon. “These sizeable Russian flights represent an unusual level of air activity over European air space,” the alliance said. A spokesman stressed there had been no violation of Nato air space, unlike a week earlier when a Russian spy plane briefly crossed Estonia’s border. But so many sorties in one day was unusual compared with recent years. … Nato said it had conducted more than 100 such intercepts of Russian aircraft this year so far, about three times as many as in 2013 before the confrontation with Moscow over separatist revolts in Ukraine soured relations.

Elias Groll adds:

Last month, Estonia accused Russia of kidnapping an Estonian intelligence agent. Swedish defense officials now speak of a fundamentally altered security paradigm in the Baltic after Russian planes carried out a mock bombing of Stockholm and violated Swedish airspace in the region.

Groll says such actions “bring relations between Moscow and the West to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.” Marc Champion also finds that “a version of the Cold War is returning, but its rules and parameters aren’t clear”:

A defining aspect of the Cold War was that, for the most part, deterrence kept each side from meddling in the other’s sphere: The U.S. and NATO stood by during the uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Putin wants a similar kind of tacit agreement with the U.S. now. … So Putin may see testing NATO as a form of shoe-banging. The danger of this new Cold War is that there is complete disagreement between Russia on one side and the U.S. and European Union on the other as to the dividing lines are and the rules of the game.

Dave Majumdar solicits the opinions of some military experts, who see the Kremlin pushing NATO’s buttons but probably not rehearsing a nuclear attack:

Analyst Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, said that the recent display of Russian air power was just another provocation in a long line of similar antagonistic moves by Russia. The Russian strategic bomber foray into the Atlantic is also reminiscent of a September incident where two nuclear-capable Tu-95s bombers, two Il-78 tankers and two MiG-31 Foxhound fighters were intercepted near Alaska.

“This reminds me of the exercises Russia has been flying in the Pacific for a few years now, just transferred to the European theater,” Grant said. “I don’t read this as a specific nuclear or conventional scenario practice, rather an exercise in long-range navigation and provocation. It’s clearly designed to annoy NATO but from a purely tactical perspective, this was still a pretty small display of airpower.”

In these circumstances, Keating worries less about deliberate acts of war and more about accidents:

This doesn’t necessarily mean Russia is preparing for war, and open conflict between Russia and NATO countries still seems pretty unlikely. It probably has more to do with Russia seeing how much it can get away with, and making it clear that it disapproves of Europe’s pro-Ukraine stance. But as June’s shootdown of a Malaysian airliner demonstrated, tragedies can happen when there are itchy fingers on the triggers of anti-aircraft missiles.

The Anti-ISIS Coalition And Obama’s Strategy

by Jonah Shepp

At the NATO summit in Newport, Wales today, US officials announced that they had formed an international coalition to wage war on ISIS:

President Barack Obama sought to use a NATO summit in Wales to enlist allied support in a campaign to destroy the Islamist militants but as the summit drew to a close it remained unclear how many nations might join Washington in air strikes. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told foreign and defense ministers from 10 nations at a hastily arranged meeting that there were many ways they could help, including training and equipping the Iraqis. … Hagel told ministers from Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark that they, with the United States, formed the core group for tackling the Sunni militant group.

In his press conference, Obama stressed that the coalition-building effort isn’t over and that John Kerry would continue to seek partnerships with other countries in combating the ISIS threat. He also stressed the importance of engaging Arab states, particularly those with Sunni majorities, in countering ISIS not only militarily, but also—or even primarily—politically. He rightly pointed out that any international effort will only succeed in the long term with the support of local actors in Iraq and Syria, and compared the coming effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS to the fight against al-Qaeda.

That fight looked very different under Bush and under Obama, so what that means is unclear. If I had to guess, I would say that he is signaling a plan to fight ISIS as he has fought other jihadist militant groups: i.e., primarily through targeted killings of its leadership from on high (cf. today’s announcement that Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Somalia’s al-Shabaab, was killed in a US airstrike on Monday) and by degrading their capabilities until they are weak enough for local partners to finish them off. We could surely do this all by ourselves, but having an international coalition behind the effort enhances its legitimacy and reinforces the principle of multilateral responsibility for global security to which Obama clearly adheres.

Hayes Brown compares this coalition (which, again, won’t necessarily be limited to these ten countries) to the Multinational Force Bush formed to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

Conservatives have already begun to pan the announcement of the core coalition, drawing unfavorable comparisons to 2003. … While there are clearly some overlaps between the two groups, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Denmark and Poland, the “core” group lined up against ISIS has a few advantages over those assembled in 2003. In 2003, Germany and France were both strongly opposed to action in Iraq, depriving the U.S. of key support in Europe. Adding in those countries gives the group the support of two of the most militarily powerful states in Europe. Canada’s support adds to the cohesion among the most capable members of NATO and Ottawa’s support will also translate over into the G-7. Most strikingly, the group announced on Friday includes Turkey, which not only neighbors Iraq but serves as a Muslim-majority country that can be put forward as a defense against claims that the campaign against ISIS isn’t yet another Western invasion of a Muslim country.

But Juan Cole doubts our NATO allies are very enthusiastic about this mission:

My reading of the reporting from Wales is that most NATO states have little intention of intervening directly in Iraq and most of them have no intention to get involved in Syria. The US and Britain (and, far from Europe, Australia) are the most likely to commit to the Iraq front. The NATO country closest to ISIL territory, Turkey, seems reluctant to get involved in directly fighting ISIL (and critics of the religious Right party, AKP, which is in power, suggest that behind the scenes President Tayyip Erdogan is supporting the hard core Muslim rebels in Syria. Despite all the vehement talk, the US likely will have few allies in the air in Iraq as President Obama seems to be stampeded (by the Washington hawks and fear of losing the midterms for looking weak) into a wide-ranging new Iraq war that seems likely to spill over into Syria. The biggest problem the US faces, however, is the lack of effective allies on the ground in Iraq.

NATO Has Issues

by Dish Staff

As the NATO summit gets underway in Wales, David Francis highlights the alliance’s major challenges, chief among which is getting members to pay their fair share of collective defense spending:

[E]ven with open combat in a country bordering several NATO members, the summit is likely to be dominated by dollars and cents. For years, top officials in the Bush and Obama administrations have angrily called on Europe to spend more on defense so Washington wouldn’t be responsible for the lion’s share of the alliance’s funding. Taken as a whole, the defense budgets of NATO members are down some 20 percent in the last five years. Only three European NATO members — the United Kingdom, Greece, and Estonia — meet the alliance’s threshold of spending 2 percent or more of their GDP on defense. … In 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the alliance faced “collective military irrelevance” without an increase in European defense spending. In June, as the Ukraine crisis raged on, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that Europe had to stop playing lip service to defense spending and upgrade out-of-date equipment.

Yet Gordon Adams argues that NATO’s weaknesses can’t be papered over with more euros:

What is at issue in Europe is capability. If the Europeans ever actually reached the 2 percent defense spending threshold across the Alliance, they would still produce an excess of the kind of defense capability that is not needed (heavy ground combat units or very small air forces) that do not work together well), and militaries that duplicate, rather than complement each other. They spend enough to create up-to-date, deployable forces, but the ones too many of them build are nationally based and static. And they do not build them to a common, trans-European, integrated plan.

And Robin Wright observes that despite having a combined troop strength of over 3.3 million and accounting for well over half the world’s defense spending, “NATO seems to have less nerve and energy than it once did”:

It has focussed more on preventing or containing new fires than on putting out existing blazes raging in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. Its recent stats aren’t encouraging, either. Since 2001, NATO has spread its wings beyond the European theatre (its original mandate), into the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The first of these deployments was in Afghanistan, after the September 11th attacks, when NATO invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. (“An attack on one is an attack on all,” as Obama put it in a speech in Tallinn this morning.) In 2004, NATO formed a training mission for Iraqi security forces. And in 2011 it authorized warplanes to intervene in Libya. That air campaign was pivotal in ousting Muammar Qaddafi. But today Afghanistan teeters. Iraq and its military are in a shambles. Libya is a virtual failed state.