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Tuesday August 09, 2022

Nato’s stance

June 28, 2022

The forthcoming Madrid summit of Nato at the end of this week has attracted unusual attention in the context of a smoldering war in the eastern fringe of Europe.

The strategic significance of this summit is further augmented by the fact that this is the first formal gathering of the Nato leadership after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February and the withdrawal of US and its allies from Afghanistan last year. Though the agenda of the meeting has a long list of pending strategic points, obviously the main focus of the summit this time will be Ukraine and Russia. “We must be prepared for this to last for years. We must not weaken in our support for Ukraine, even if the costs are high” is how Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put in an interview with the German media this week.

A cursory glance at this statement, which was deliberately issued a few days ahead of the forthcoming Nato summit, would reveal three realities about the new prominent aspects of thinking of the Nato leadership towards the Ukraine war. One, they are bracing for a low-paced conventional war in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine in the coming months. And two, the Nato leadership is quite optimistic that the hardware and logistical support from Nato is sufficient enough to galvanize the Ukrainian forces to not only sustain the Russian attack for a longer period but also to push back them – though to a limited area - -from the Donbas region. And third, it has given a kind of reassurance to the world that the war is likely to remain confined to a well-demarcated area – with little chances to escalate to other parts of the European continent, perhaps the biggest fear associated with the Ukraine war.

The situation in Ukraine right now is quite in a contrast with the acutely grave situation that was observed in the first week of the war. The panic was particularly aggravated by the February 27 order of Vladimir Putin to Russia’s nuclear forces to move to a higher state of alert. “Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly economic actions against our country, but leaders of major Nato countries are making aggressive statements about our country. So, I order to move Russia’s deterrence forces to a special regime of combat duty”.

This was the first time since the end of the cold war that any top leader from Moscow had openly raised the specter of nuclear conflict. At a time when Russian jets were already conducting aerial attacks on Kyiv, for obvious reasons, Putin’s statement pushed the panic buttons in the Pentagon and Nato headquarters. The situation appeared to be grave at that time and the Nato leadership took Putin’s words too seriously and started working on a counterplan to preempt and retaliate in the worst-case scenario. However, it was divulged later that it was nothing more than a calculated ploy by Putin to confuse the Nato leadership and gain a psychological advantage in the initial phase of the war by forcing Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to resort to the table talk. As the war has lingered on, it is becoming clearer that Putin’s nuclear threat was just rhetoric.

Technically speaking, Putin’s order to his nuclear forces was just a preliminary nod to the control and command system to be in the “working conditions” only. It never implied that Vladimir Putin was preparing its nuclear arsenals to make the first strike. It was all part of his long-term plan so that the Zelensky government could be forced to resort to the negotiating table to extort maximum territory without wasting more resources in the war. Putin was well aware of the fact that Nato, despite its years of preparedness and readiness, in the initial stage, will only provide hardware and material support the Ukrainian army to bolster its strike power against the Russian positions and that the war will be dragged over many months.

Putin’s calculations are proving to be correct so far. However, the decision at the Nato summit in Madrid this week are going to have long-term implications on the Ukraine war. There are some hawks within Nato who are advocating for direct intervention to stop the advances of the Russian troops and physically target Russian positions through Nato forces. But this hawkish approach is not likely to win enough support at the summit for a very obvious reason. If Nato decides to physically intervene in the war, under the ‘umbrella’ of the UN charter, and target the Russian forward-deployed troops to snatch the Donbas region, this will prompt Putin to resort to extreme measure – including the use of battlefield-grade low-capacity nuclear weapons – to avenge the humiliation of the loss of the Donbas, or even Putin may re-launch massive aerial attacks on Kyiv and norther parts of Ukraine as a face-saving step.

But, by looking at Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s forecast of a long war. it appears that the Brussels establishment is not ready to go beyond material and logistical support at the moment. However, there will be a massive push from Washington and Paris to other members states – particularly Germany which is under-delivered so far despite being the largest economy in the Europe – to increase their share of military hardware support to Ukraine. It is also a fact that some Nato members, despite US-led stringent economic sanctions, are still having quite cozy relationship with Moscow.

Nonetheless, the Madrid summit will remain focused on the Ukraine war most of the time and this subject is likely to over-shadow all other long-pending strategic matters; the finalization of new Strategic Concept (the policy document that is supposed to set the new roadmap for Nato in the changing global power structure), decision on the membership application of Finland and Sweden and harmonization of defence spending of member states to the recommended two per cent of their respects GDPs.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

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