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A False Dichotomy: The Choice Between Protecting NATO’s Eastern and Southern Flanks

The image of Syria’s embattled president striding across a grand room in the Kremlin, reaching to shake the hand of the Russian President, left a strong impression in capitals across the globe. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been summoned by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to Moscow for an unannounced visit to discuss their joint military campaign in Syria and the country’s future. Russia’s initiatives in Syria, which have involved an incursion into NATO ally Turkey’s airspace and the high profile meeting of the Russian and Syrian presidents, have all highlighted how intertwined – if not inseparable – the challenges NATO faces to its East and South really are.

The attacks in Paris have driven home this fact with horrifying clarity, as festering civil war and conflict along one of NATO’s flanks hits at the heart of a key Ally, and the Alliance as a whole. While it is not new that these two regions have shared concerns, Russia’s intervention in Syria and engagement with Allied leaders following the Paris attacks marks a new level of convergence in the threats faced by the Alliance. In fact, some speculate that it is in large part due to the sanctions placed on Moscow because of its actions in Ukraine that Russia is pursuing an active role in the Syrian crisis, firmly placing the country back in the global political fray and demonstrating that it is an international player which cannot be ignored.

Such developments underscore how futile the divide is between those NATO countries which perceive threats from the East as most imminent and those whose concerns lie with the challenges from the South. As to be expected with 28 member countries, threat perceptions vary among the individual Allies. While Poland, the Czech Republic and Baltic States among others primarily worry about the threat posed by Russia on their Eastern borders – made all the more acute since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine – other Allies, such as Italy, Greece and Turkey, see the most immediate threat to their security emanating from the Middle East and Africa. These take the form of extremism, the trafficking of drugs and weapons and the flow of migrants and refugees. NATO’s Deputy Secretary General Verschbow stressed that although the varying “perceptions of the relative importance of these risks and challenges” is inevitable, the Alliance does not have the “luxury” to choose between placing priority on either the East or the South. He emphasised that common challenges require “transatlantic cooperation and transatlantic solidarity”. This sentiment rings ever truer in light of the terror unleashed in Paris.

However, such solidarity has been put to the test in the face of simultaneous growing insecurity to the East and South in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the regional instability in the Middle East and North Africa. This has led to palpable tension within the Alliance to such an extent, that the former US Defence Minister Chuck Hagel spoke of his “worry about the potential for division” among the Allies. This was echoed this past September by General Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), who stressed that NATO must “avoid any sense of competition between the Allies; our eastern ones and southern ones”.

While the rapidly shifting strategic context has placed increased strain on all Allies, it has also highlighted the need to avoid squabbling over resource allocation. The East and South divide is a false dichotomy: such perceptions must give way to a broader understanding and recognition of the innate interplay between the developments in both regions. Russia’s intervention in Syria should bring this reality into sharp focus in capitals across the Alliance and foster the full realization that “success in each region depends on success in the other.”

In the aftermath of the coordinated attacks in Paris, Allies must tread carefully in their engagement with the Russian President as they redouble efforts to find a political solution to the civil war in Syria. There is the danger that President Putin may seize this tragedy as an opportunity to drive a deeper wedge between those Allies who view Russia as the main destabilising force and threat to their security and those Allies which view the simmering conflicts to the South as the greatest security threat and Russia as a key partner to finding a solution. At such a critical time, it is essential that the Alliance and individual Allied governments are not seen to be willing to sacrifice the security of one flank of the Alliance for the other. Such a trade-off, if it were to alter the NATO’s tough stance against Russian actions in Ukraine, would threaten the unity of the Alliance.

Maneuvering through these difficulties at a time of high tensions and fostering the full understanding that security in one region is contingent on security in the other, will take leadership from Secretary General Stoltenberg. He will not have an easy task. He must navigate the tensions among Allies as well as carefully try to avoid any sense of imbalance in the amount of attention and resources afforded to either flank. It is critical that such a shift in mindset take place at all levels within NATO, both on the military and the diplomatic side, as well as back in capitals. While not easily quantifiable, persuading the Allies to fully appreciate that support for one region of the Alliance is support for all, should be a key objective moving towards the Warsaw Summit in 2016. As Chuck Hagel urged, “we must address all the challenges to this alliance, all together and all at once”. The ongoing debate around threat perception and prioritization will have long-term implications in how NATO interprets its core mission to safeguard the freedom and security of its members.

Russia’s recent actions and military build-up in the Mediterranean, as well as its growing profile in Syria therefore, should be seen as tangible proof of a convergence in key challenges and they offer the opportunity for Allies to rally around and recognise their joint cause. Fracturing along regional lines only serves to distract from the real challenges at hand. This is something NATO cannot afford in the current security environment. More than ever, now must be a time of unity among NATO Allies, with a focus on a shared purpose and wise, long-term investment across the spectrum of capabilities. Reconciling different threat perceptions and the prioritisation of threats among the Allies, as well as a mindset shift away from the binary view of the threats facing NATO, must be key objectives moving towards the Warsaw Summit in July 2016.

Caitlin Vito
Caitlin Vito currently works at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in their London office. She has considerable experience in international organisations, previously working at NATO in the Political Affairs and Security Policy Division, where she supported NATO’s external liaison efforts, as well as at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Liaison Office in Vienna. Former assignments have also included work at the Centre for Security Governance think tank. Caitlin Vito is a graduate of the Erasmus Mundus Global Studies Masters Programme, studying at the University of Vienna, University of Leipzig and the Institute for Peace and Security Studies in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A dual Canadian/Italian citizen, she also holds a Bachelor’s degree in European Studies from the University of Guelph.