The Myth that NATO Committed to Having No Permanent Troops in Eastern Europe
It is widely believed that NATO cannot station forces permanently in Eastern Europe without violating a pledge it gave to Russia in 1997, in the NATO-Russia Founding Act. The belief is accepted even in articles that favor stationing troops in Eastern Europe. Yet, as we shall see, a simple cursory examination of the 1997 document reveals that it is not the case.
NATO's pledge to Russia was conditional, not unconditional. It was that, as long as there was no security threat to Eastern Europe, there would be no permanent NATO troops stationed there. On these terms, the NATO-Russia Founding Act was agreed to, signed, and ratified:
NATO reiterates that in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces. Accordingly, it will have to rely on adequate infrastructure commensurate with the above tasks. In this context, reinforcement may take place, when necessary, in the event of defence against a threat of aggression and missions in support of peace consistent with the United Nations Charter and the OSCE governing principles, as well as for exercises consistent with the adapted CFE Treaty, the provisions of the Vienna Document 1994 and mutually agreed transparency measures. Russia will exercise similar restraint in its conventional force deployments in Europe.
The fact of the conditionality of the pledge comes through with a clarity that is all the more remarkable, given the somewhat abstruse diplomatic-military language of the paragraph. It is something conditioned upon being "in the current and foreseeable security environment".
Publicly, it was explained in 1997 that the provision on non-prepositioning would be void if a new threat appeared; and that there was no threat to Eastern Europe in sight for some time to come. This was a precondition for the alliance professionals to agree to renounce prepositioning, as everyone understood that Russia could quickly shift forces and create a threat, and an alliance of a couple dozen countries could take dangerously long to respond. The conditional renunciation thus presupposed the uniquely safe political environment provided by the cooperative Westernizing outlook of early post-Soviet Russia. That environment has since changed dramatically and would be impossible to restore in full. In the new environment, Putin's threats have been sufficient to nullify the conditional renunciation permanently, not just temporarily.
Unfortunately, often one phrase of that Founding Act paragraph is nowadays cited out of context, misleadingly, as in this recent Der Spiegel article:
For now, the red line for the alliance's increased presence in Eastern Europe is the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations between NATO and Russia. It states that the alliance will not engage in "additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces" in the areas of the former Eastern Bloc.
The condition in the first part of that same sentence isleft out; the meaning of the sentence is turned upside down.
Having repeated the false premise that stationing troops in the East would be a violation of the Founding Act, the Der Spiegel article proceeds to discuss an abrogation of the Founding Act as the only way to do it. The conclusion is as unnecessary as the premise.
Russia has cut off one of the main branches of the Founding Act, the very branch it itself most needed to sit on. It would be wrong for us to cut down the whole tree, or renounce the whole Act. Rather, we should act directly upon the fact of the absence of the lost limb, and take our time to examine carefully whether some of the other branches are viable in its absence.
In breaking its pledges to make no threats against the independence and territorial integrity of Eastern Europe, Russia has released the West from the no-troops pledge that was conditioned on that no-threat pledge.
Or, in simpler terms: The provision of the Act on non-prepositioning of forces is already dead. The West has no need to kill it, only to acknowledge the fact. It has been nullified by Russia's actions in Ukraine, and nullified a second time over by Russia's official verbal threats of similar military action against all states that have ethnic Russians in their populations.
The proper way to keep an agreement is by taking appropriate counter-action when the agreement is conditional and one of the parties violates the condition. Turning the other cheek is not keeping the agreement; it is allowing the agreement to be turned into an enabler for abuse. Doubly so, when one bears legal obligations to do something more than turn a cheek in face of threats to others -- alliance partners.
If counter-action is the only way to keep the agreement, it is obvious what counter-action is appropriate at this time. It is to preposition NATO forces in Eastern Europe. This policy was implicitly accepted as natural in the very language with which it was renounced in 1997 for as long as there was no threat in Eastern Europe.
NATO forces were prior to 1989 propositioned in the countries most at risk. This is how NATO kept the peace for four long decades, in the most strained Cold War conditions. It deterred aggression and a third world war, rather than having to rush in and try to fight it back after the war started -- the bitter experience of the two previous world wars, from which the West learned something important. Its deterrence worked because it had "presence forces" and "reassurance forces" stationed forward well in advance, proving that its red line pledges of defending its members were for real, not just the sort of paper pledges that in past alliances had practically invited aggression. NATO was a different kind of alliance, an integrative alliance that built a concrete structure of peace and stability.In the 1990s, the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe all tried to join this structured system of peace and stability. NATO, before agreeing, affirmed its special integrative-stabilizing nature by asking the prospective new members to first absorb its acquis of methods and standards, and by conditionally avoiding the fuil integration of troop stationing as a way of keeping open a wider hoped-for integration process: the efforts of Yeltsin's Russia to integrate itself with and eventually into NATO, with a CFE troop agreement adaptation as an element of that. This wider hope, alas, is water that has passed under the bridge, although Mr. Brzezinski says that inevitably it will come back some day.
Now it is time for NATO to carry out its side of its pledge, the pledge to the Eastern European members: that its renunciation of "presence forces", its normal way of meeting its responsibility to protect them, would continue only as long as there was no threat to them. The forces should be stationed. The decision should be accompanied by a statement that this is not a renunciation of the Founding Act, it is simply acting on the fact that Russia has nullified one of the provisions of the Founding Act, without prejudice to the rest of the Act.
In principle NATO should be stationing a substantial force, sufficient to give full assurance to the threatened Eastern members, and full deterrence to Russia. But what matters most is not its size but to declare it accurately, not as a temporary force, but as a force mandated by NATO's permanent obligations, in keeping with the actual terms of the Founding Act.
Russia has threatened to revive its old Cold War narrative about how even the smallest presence force would be a danger to its own security, and "cause" it to build up its forces in return. This offers Westerners the option of reverting to a neutralist equivalency-posture. Many Westerners grew out of that posture after 1989, but some have not. It may help explain the readiness of many Westerners to accept uncritically the various legal-incapacitation myths about NATO; among them, the myth of an unconditional forces-renunciation commitment in the Founding Act.
It is time once again to put aside the myths and carry out our security duties.
Ira Straus is U.S. Coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. The opinions expressed here are his responsibility alone.