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nato’s first true test: poland 2008

As usual in international relations, seemingly minor actions have spun out control. Sure, it was probably unwise for the Georgian government to provide even the tiniest justification for a Russian strike, but I don’t think that the Russians expected the chain reaction that now has Russia threatening to go “beyond diplomacy” over the Polish-US  missile shield accord. They probably thought that kicking the Georgians around would be another easy bullying of another small country. Instead, it accelerates Poland’s integration with the Western defense establishment, NATO.

Now we’re getting sucked into another brinksmanship game: Russia doesn’t want to let Poland completely defect to the West. That would signal to everyone else (Baltics, Poland, Ukraines, the Caucuses) that it’s ok to defect to the West. So you threaten “more” action. That’s a bad move because if you don’t do anything, it will encourage more defection. And if you didn’t threaten force, once again you encourage more defection. Either way, it’s a formula for violence.

But it gets even worse – one of the defectors is Poland, a member of NATO. In it’s history, there has never been a serious invocation of the NATO treaty. As far as I can tell, the only time mutual self-defence was called for was when the Bush adminsitration asked NATO for assistance in punishing the Taliban. That was relatively easy for NATO members to do – send a few squads and let the American pay for it. No immediate threat to Europe.

But now, it’s quite serious. If Russia used force against Poland, the very core of NATO would be at stake. If you don’t defend a large Westernizing nation against Russian interference, what’s the point of NATO? A failure to live up to Article 5 of the NATO treaty would signal to Russian that’s hunting season in the “sphere of influence” and the East European allies would realize that NATO was a dud.

If you do send troops to defend Poland, then you get into a war that will be won by NATO but will incur enormous damage. Russia simply doesn’t have the forces to mount an extended campaign against technically superior Western nations. Heck, it could barely contain the Chechnyans back in the 1990s. At the same time, Russia has a long history of engaging in endless losing wars just for the sake of national honor (various 19th century wars against Turkey & Greece, WWI, the 1905 Japanese war, WWII part I, Afghanistan, Chechnya etc.) Body counts are no deterrent.

Now both sides probably realize this and my guess is that Russia will cop out with some sort of agression-non-agression. Maybe “cyberwarfare” of some kind, or trade embargoes, or simply blowing up a few symbolic things in Poland. But any real violence will lead down dark roads and both sides know it.

Written by fabiorojas

August 21, 2008 at 1:38 am

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  1. […] significant strategic ways if Russia is outside rather than inside.  There’s plenty of speculation about what this and the Poland agreement mean (see above for a graphical view of Russia’s […]

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  2. As I recall, NATO invoked Article V immediately after 9/11, *before* the evidence of Al Qaeda’s involvement had been made public and well before the Afghan government had refused to surrender Bin Laden and expel Al Qaeda prompting the military action. NATO as such was *not* involved in the initial Afghan invasion; the coalition was not NATO.

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    Jacob T. Levy

    August 25, 2008 at 5:21 pm


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