Defence and Deterrence in Europe: Beyond Multilateralism as We Know It

26 November 2020   ·   Justyna Gotkowska

Multilateralism has reached its limits as a guiding principle for relations with Russia in security and defence. Germany should open up to multilateral military cooperation formats in addition to NATO to reinforce deterrence and defence on the eastern flank and to strengthen regional security. This requires an increase in defence spending and in military engagement.

Considering German history, Berlin’s attachment to multilateral frameworks in Europe – the EU, NATO – is understandable. These were, on the one hand, created to constrain West Germany’s economic and military power. On the other hand, they were supposed to serve as a bulwark against influence and aggression of the Soviet Union after the end of the Second World War. Multilateral frameworks like the European Communities (later to become the EU) and NATO were gradually enlarged to Central and Eastern European countries after the end of the Cold War and became the principal organisations to advance peace, security, and prosperity on the continent. Additionally, multilateral arrangements were put in place to regulate relations between Russia and the West. Most of them regarded arms control.

Since 2014, the European security environment has fundamentally changed. To gain regional military superiority, Russia has undermined agreements that aimed to restrain the development of offensive military capabilities in Europe. In response to Russia’s pattern of aggressive behaviour, NATO has strengthened its presence on the eastern flank with the US rotating additional forces in the Baltic states, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

In light of the deteriorating global and regional environment, Germany should rethink its attitude towards multilateralism with the objective of upholding European security. Firstly, Berlin needs to acknowledge that a comeback to multilateral security arrangements with Russia is possible only after improving European military posture. Secondly, Germany should join US efforts to reinforce defence and deterrence on the eastern flank in addition to the existing activities carried out within NATO. As the European NATO member with the largest economy, it should take on bigger military responsibility in the Baltic Sea region. The White Paper on multilateralism could be instrumental in changing old mind-sets in Berlin.

Russia Undermines the European Security Architecture – Multilateralism Reaches Its Limit

The recent decade showed that multilateralism has reached its limits as a guiding principle for European-Russian relations in security and defence: Russia decided to move towards a confrontational approach against the West. For the ruling Russian elite, Western norms and values started to endanger the corrupt oligarchic system of power that Vladimir Putin has created. Thus, the West became a normative threat to Russia, although not a military one. However, Russia, lacking other instruments than the coercive ones, has decided to use means of coercion and diversion to weaken its perceived adversaries. It strives to achieve a predominantly military position in its neighbourhood and in Europe to use it as a leverage for achieving political, economic, and military goals in the future.

In the last ten years, Russia has undermined nearly all the multilateral frameworks of European security cooperation to improve its military posture against the West: by annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine in 2014, it violated the UN Charter prescribing that “all members shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” It also violated the Budapest Memorandum that required Ukraine to abandon nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances. By developing a new ballistic nuclear capable missile with a nominal 2500 range for the Iskander system, Russia has breached the INF Treaty. It has undermined the Open Skies Treaty. For over a decade now, it has been cheating against the Vienna Document provisions with regard to the scope of Russian military exercises and their offensive scenarios. It has withdrawn from the CFE Treaty. The modernisation of Russian armed forces and its military deployments have violated the NATO-Russia Founding Act. The 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and the 2020 Novichok nerve agent use against Alexei Navalny were a deliberate violation of the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

As a strong proponent of multilateralism, Germany needs to acknowledge that pushing for multilateral solutions in security and defence vis-à-vis Russia has become counterproductive. Any multilateral security arrangements that Moscow is ready to conclude nowadays are to bind or obstruct the European states and prevent them from reacting to Russian armaments and growing military capabilities – in exchange of non-verifiable Russian promises. Germany should thus reconsider its rigid stance to the one-sided allied adherence to the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Moreover, discussing arms control with Russia is necessary, but needs to be done from a position of strength and implies improving European military power first.

Germany Should Reinforce Deterrence on the Eastern Flank in Addition to NATO’s Activities

The cooperation with allies in multilateral security and defence frameworks in Europe has also faced some strains. After the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014, NATO has been slow in coming back to the collective defence mode both in terms of force generation and deployment, and in terms of decision making. Due to different threat perceptions, security priorities, and limited resources, allies slowly agreed to a stronger reinforcement of the eastern flank countries in a deteriorating security environment. It was the US pressure of both the Obama and Trump administration on the European allies that brought an increase in defence spending, in troops’ readiness and in military presence on the eastern flank (ca. 4500 European soldiers, including 520 German troops). It was also the US under the Obama administration that stepped in with military engagement in addition to NATO’s activities to increase deterrence and defence in the Nordic-Baltic and the Black Sea regions. This engagement has been continued and strengthened by the Trump administration. Currently, about 6000 US soldiers rotate mainly in Poland, the Baltic states, Romania, and Bulgaria, and this presence effectively reinforces NATO’s deterrence on the eastern flank.

Germany should acknowledge that security and defence cooperation in NATO needs to be reinforced through regional cooperation with the aim to increase defence and deterrence on the eastern flank. The US priority on deterring China and its shifting focus on Asia-Pacific is not an empty slogan without consequences. US military engagement in the defence of Europe will not be guaranteed to the extent it used to be in the past. The Biden administration will thus increase pressure on Europe to enhance its efforts within collective defence. European allies need to do more in real terms – provide more military capabilities and more military engagement both in crisis management operations in the southern neighbourhood and in the collective defence on the eastern flank. More German engagement on the eastern flank needs to follow either through additional NATO initiatives or in regional cooperation formats.

Additional Troops, Air Defence Assets, and Funding for Military Infrastructure

Germany should join the US military presence in Poland, the Baltic states, and Romania. More concretely, Germany could send additional troops to exercise on a regular basis with the US Army (enhancing the US armoured brigade units) and the US Air Force (enhancing the US air detachments) across the eastern flank. Additional air defence assets could be placed in the region – in the future, Germany could enhance its air defence capabilities and exercises with Patriot air defence batteries together with Sweden, Poland, and Romania that are in the process of acquiring those systems. Germany can also expand its efforts to co-finance military infrastructure in the whole eastern flank, as it has done in Lithuania, and join the US’ activities.

These ideas for a stronger multilateral cooperation in the region should be reflected in the German Government’s White Paper on Multilateralism. The White Paper gives an opportunity to contribute to the process of transforming the security policy thinking in Berlin. Germany has so far been slow to fully acknowledge and address the changes in the European security environment. At the same time, as the main European ally in NATO and due to its central geographical location, it carries the biggest responsibility. It is high time to gradually make the German claims on strengthening European defence reality. 

NATO European Security Russia

Justyna Gotkowska

Justyna Gotkowska is coordinator of the Regional Security Programme at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw. She covers Germany’s, Nordic and Baltic States’ defence policies as well as the developments in NATO and EU’s security policy from a regional perspective. @jgotkowska