Unity, but not unanimity? NATO split on countering Russia amid Warsaw summit

NATO leaders are meeting in Warsaw to show the alliance will stand firm against new threats, including a “resurgent Russia.” But low-key discord inside its ranks suggest some members’ willingness to confront Moscow is far from rock-solid.

The 2016 NATO summit opened in the Polish capital on Friday, said to be of paramount importance to both the Atlantic and Europe facing uneasy post-Brexit negotiations and what the bloc calls a “resurgent” Russia.

“This may be the most important moment for our transatlantic alliance since the end of the Cold War,” US President Barack Obama claimed in a pre-summit article he penned for the Financial Times. “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine threatens our vision of a Europe that is whole, free and at peace.” 

“NATO will once again send a very clear message that we are here,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg echoed the US President, mentioning deployment of troops, military infrastructure and hardware closer to Russia’s borders. 

Despite the hawkish statements, Stoltenberg said the alliance wants “a meaningful and constructive dialogue with Russia” to reduce risks, increase predictability and enhance transparency “in times like these.”

NATO’s massive build-up in the three Baltic countries and Poland is officially labeled “assurance measures,” but not everyone in the alliance is keen to take part in what German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently called “saber-rattling and warmongering.”

Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance's eastern border will bring security is mistaken,” Steinmeier said in defiance of multiple war games in the region. A recent YouGov poll found that 64 percent of Germans agreed with his statement, with only 16 percent rejecting it. 

German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, an influential yet moderate politician, said NATO must revise its policy.

“We must ask if the world would be a better place when both sides conduct military exercises on the borders and arm themselves,” he told Passauer Neue Presse on Thursday, adding that it is time for Europe to start a new “disarmament initiative.”

Italy, another European military power, recently said it is wary of NATO’s hardline policy towards Russia. The alliance should "build bridges" in Eastern Europe and cooperate with Moscow to tackle global terrorism, Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti told Corriere della Sera on Wednesday. 

"We agree with what Steinmeier has said," she added.

According to a Pew Research Center’s June study, only 34 percent of Europeans believe Moscow endangers the continent, tapping instead Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and economic instability as primary challenges to be tackled. 

Moscow, which has always opposed NATO’s build-up in its neighborhood, said it is “closely watching” the Warsaw summit and keeping the door for dialogue open.

“We hope common sense will prevail,” the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday.

“It is absurd to speak of a threat coming from Russia when dozens of people are being killed in the heart of Europe, while hundreds die in the Middle East every day,” he stressed. Peskov added that NATO’s “anti-Russian hysteria” and multiple troop deployments do not help find common ground for cooperation.

Currently, the bloc plans to deploy four multinational battalions in the Baltic States and Poland, supplemented by around 1,200 combat vehicles, including 30 aircraft. The build-up also involves drastic increase in scale and pace of large-scale exercise taking place all across Eastern Europe on land and at sea.

“NATO has …military expenditures 12 times bigger than [that of] Russia,” Jan Oberg, peace studies professor, told RT on Friday. “Today we have intellectual dwarfs running NATO and many of the European states who have no idea about conflict resolution and reconciliation.”

The Russian military said it was forced to respond to the emerging security challenge with adequate defensive measures, including creation of new army divisions and strengthening of Navy’s Baltic and Black Sea Fleets.

“We are always accused of some kind of military activity. Where? On our territory. But the things happening on our border – that’s OK,” President Vladimir Putin said in late June.