Has Nato just erected a new Iron Curtain across Europe?

The security alliance has done exactly the opposite of what Russia's Vladimir Putin intended – expand itself

Members of Polish 18th Mechanised Division and members of the US 82nd Airbourne Division participate in a joint military training in Nowa Deba, Poland, in April. Reuters
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From Finland in the north to Greece in the south, from Romania in the east to Portugal in the west, a new Iron Curtain is descending over Europe as Nato looks to strengthen its ability to withstand the threat of Russian aggression.

In the two decades that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in power, one of his frequent complaints has been that there is “too much Nato”, a reference to the organisation’s eastward expansion since the end of the Cold War, which resulted in a number of former Soviet nations joining the alliance. Indeed, one of Mr Putin’s justifications for invading Ukraine in February was his concern that the country, a key part of the former Soviet Union, was seeking Nato membership.

But if Mr Putin’s goal has been to reduce Nato’s presence in Europe, his efforts have been in vain if the conclusions of this week’s alliance summit in Madrid are anything to go by. For, far from backing down in the face of Russia’s demands, Nato leaders have opted for the opposite course of action, increasing their military presence in Europe while at the same time expanding the alliance to include Finland and Sweden.

Nato's plan to increase the number of rapid deployment troops in Europe from about 40,000 troops to 300,000 by the end of next year

Arguably the most eye-catching announcement is their plan to increase the number of rapid deployment troops in Europe from about 40,000 troops to 300,000 by the end of next year, a force that is more than equal to the height of Russia’s military strength. In addition, Nato’s border with Russia is about to expand by a further 1,300 kilometres in north-eastern Europe after Turkey finally relented on its attempts to prevent Sweden and Finland from joining over claims that the two countries were providing a safe haven for Kurdish separatists.

Their admission is a blow for Mr Putin, as it dramatically increases Russia’s isolation in Europe. Previously, for their own historical reasons, both countries had studiously observed a policy of neutrality during the Cold War. Sweden’s neutrality dated back to the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, while Finland, which suffered heavy casualties fighting the Soviets during the Second World War, adopted a similar policy during the Cold War so as not to cause further friction with Moscow, thereby coining the phrase “Finlandisation”.

In the wake of Russia’s military assault on Ukraine, though, both countries have now taken the decision to throw their lot in with Nato, a move both countries believe is essential to safeguard their security from potential future threats from Moscow. They will now be reassured by Nato’s commitment reinforce Europe’s defences.

The military build-up is being led by Washington, with the US planning to send more destroyers, troops and air defence systems to Eastern Europe in the coming months. Speaking at the summit, US President Joe Biden remarked: “I said Putin’s looking for the Finlandisation of Europe. He’s going to get the NATOisation of Europe. And that is exactly what he didn’t want, but exactly what needs to be done to guarantee security for Europe. And I think it’s necessary.”

The Pentagon has agreed to deploy a brigade combat team to Romania as the first of what will be a new rotational American presence in the country, a capability that Bucharest has long asked for. The US will also increase its presence in Poland, setting up a permanent V Corps headquarters, an army garrison headquarters and a field support battalion, with the new forces helping with logistics and planning military exercises across the east. The American military also aims to augment its armoured, aviation, air defence and special operations forces in the Baltic region, establish new air defence units in Germany and Italy, and sending two F-35 squadrons to the UK.

The most visible part of the deployments will probably be two more Arleigh Burke-class destroyers that will be home-ported in Rota, Spain, making a total of six US warships capable of performing air defence missions and launching cruise missiles well inland. The destroyers will help patrol the Mediterranean, where Russian cruisers and submarines have been more active over the past year, and provide missile defence for southern European allies.

Britain and Germany have also pledged to commit more forces to defend Nato’s eastern flank. British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced he will place more soldiers, warplanes and a Royal Navy aircraft carrier on standby to head to the region. An extra 1,000 soldiers are to be committed to Estonia, where there are already 2,000 troops. One of Britain’s two aircraft carriers and its escort ships, as well as other naval assets, would also be offered to the alliance.

Nato’s build-up comes after its members agreed a new “strategic concept” that seeks to establish a blueprint for the alliance’s key objectives for the next decade. Indeed, in what amounts to a radical change of policy towards Moscow, Russia has now been identified as posing “the most significant and direct threat to allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area”. In the previous doctrine agreed in 2010, Russia was described as a “strategic partner”. For the first time, China also merits a mention, with Nato warning that its “coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values”.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance had agreed that a “fundamental shift” in which it would return to Cold War-style readiness to respond to the perceived increased threat posed by Russia.

The dramatic developments certainly represent a significant setback for Mr Putin, whose aim during the past two decades has been to reduce Nato’s presence. Instead, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson observed at the summit, Mr Putin now finds himself “getting more Nato”.

Published: June 30, 2022, 11:50 AM