Bolstering NATO through British-German cooperation

As Ukraine felt the full force of Russian aggression and adapted to the sad reality that it will fight alone, Michael McFaul, a former United States (US) Ambassador to Russia, summed up[↗] the situation with the Tweet: ‘Thank God we enlarged NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation].’ If the alliance had not expanded eastward, peoples across Central and Eastern Europe would be rightly terrified that they would be next in line for the type of devastation that Russia’s kleptocracy is wreaking in Ukraine. That they may be concerned, but not terrified, is seemingly testament to the credibility of NATO in providing effective deterrence against the repressive and revanchist regime in the Kremlin. 

In recent weeks, however, questions had been raised about the geopolitical direction of certain European NATO allies, which were seen as undermining the alliance’s overall posture. These may have caused more than a few sleepless nights for Central and Eastern Europeans concerned over the reliability of NATO’s commitment to their own security. 

As British and American intelligence[↗] warned of a looming Russian invasion of Ukraine, Euro-Atlantic unity in response to Russian aggression was often overstated and only held true for a very low common denominator in terms of sanctions and assistance. This was exacerbated by sustained bickering[↗] over sanctions with several countries holding out to protect treasured economic sectors, a hesitation among others (especially Germany) to cut Russia’s access to SWIFT, and general confusion over the energy sector. The uneven provision of military supplies and training to Ukraine also revealed different stances in the alliance. 

In stark contrast to the United Kingdom (UK) with Operation ORBITAL and the donation of significant numbers of anti-tank and other weapons and naval platforms to Ukraine – bolstered by contributions from Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and the Netherlands – Germany has been at the other end of the spectrum. Of course, Berlin would probably have adopted a more decisive approach had a NATO ally – and not Ukraine – come under Russian attack, but, after a series of questionable steps[↗], Germany came in for particular criticism[↗].

Not only did Berlin obdurately rule out sending modern weapons to Ukraine itself (most recently on 24th February, the very day of the Russian invasion), but it also blocked others from doing so. Moreover, Germany’s limited contributions (including the infamous 5,000 helmets) were widely mocked and interventions from leading German political figures, such as Robert Habeck[↗], the Vice-Chancellor, and Rolf Muetzenich[↗], the Social Democrats (SPD) Parliamentary Group Leader, repeatedly undermined[↗] German credibility. 

Germany in the spotlight: Stepping up?

Growing external pressure (particularly from the UK[↗], US[↗] and Poland) started to pay off on 22nd February when Germany announced it was putting the ill-starred Nord Stream II[↗] pipeline on hold. For some, this was finally a demonstration of German leadership and a new found willingness to bear its costs in the face of the Russian threat to Ukraine. The much-trumpeted deterrent effect of this step lasted less than 48 hours. In reality it was, like Britain’s belated crackdown on dirty Russian money in and through the City of London, merely bowing to the inevitable and abandoning a course that never should have been taken in the first place.

Internal pressure was also beginning to mount: Annagret Kramp-Karrenbauer, former German Minister of Defence, bemoaned[↗] her country’s ‘historical failure’ to ‘prepare anything that would have deterred Putin’ even ‘after Georgia, Crimea and Donbass.’ On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Gen. Alfons Mais, Inspector (Head) of the German Army, lamented[↗] that ‘the army I am privileged to lead is more or less bare’ and that ‘the options that [the Bundeswehr] could offer the politicians to support [NATO] are extremely limited.’ 

Then, on 26th February, the levee broke as Berlin agreed to send[↗] 1,500 anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. This presaged Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s speech[↗] that torched a thousand policy positions in an extraordinary Sunday session of the Bundestag on 27th February. To widespread shock – and the delight of many forward-leaning German security experts and commentators – Scholz’s new approach[↗] promised to take defence much more seriously and provide significant resources to give substance to the new posture.

Critically, Scholz committed to provide €100 billion (£83.6 billion) to begin properly equipping the Bundeswehr – the German Armed Forces – meaning that Germany will start to spend more than 2% of its national income on defence. Granted, some will be forgiven for not celebrating too soon, given previous false dawns and lingering concerns over long-held German attitudes[↗] to geostrategic policy. After all, Germany made similar promises – during the NATO Summit in Newport in 2014 – after Russia’s unprovoked annexation of Crimea, but their timescale slipped from 2024 to 2031 and, perhaps, never. 

That’s changed quickly, but a new Berlin will not be built in a day, so Germany’s allies would do well to help encourage its new-found resolve. The question now is: How might the full potential of this German Zeitenwende (historical turning point) and ‘Sicherheitswende’ (security transformation) be properly realised and locked in – for Germany, NATO and Europe more widely? Scholz’s intent to cooperate with France on new capability development and production is to be welcomed, but without closer cooperation with other key European allies, such as the UK, Germany’s significant new resources could go to waste.

Revisiting the web of deterrence

Of the NATO allies, the UK, US and France have not only nuclear weapons that can devastate any enemy, but also delivery systems that can guarantee a second strike on an opponent in the event that they are hit first. If a nuclear-armed opponent were to attack British, American or French territory or military forces, it would surely know that in the final instance, it would be risking a nuclear exchange. This is the logic behind deterrence by punishment.

Yet, even under NATO’s Article 5, it is difficult to imagine that a British, French or American leader would authorise the use of nuclear force against an enemy that invaded another NATO ally. Strategists realised during the Cold War that without the forward deployment of conventional forces carefully positioned to intersect with and ‘extend’ the American, British and French nuclear deterrents, Article 5 would be based on bluff. Consequently, 200,000 American and 55,000 British troops were kept in West Germany, supported by a large West German ground force. Importantly, British and American military bases were built, which became home to the troops’ families, including women and children, many of whom were born of British/American and German parents – compounding the deterrent by making it harder to extract them in the event of an emergency.

Though not on the same scale as NATO’s Cold War posture, NATO allies agreed in 2016, in the aftermath of the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, to establish an Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in northeastern Europe and a Tailored Forward Presence (TFP) in southeastern Europe. The US, UK, Germany and Canada agreed to act as ‘framework nations’ in the four most-exposed allies, namely Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Britain’s Integrated Review describes[↗] these denial forces as ‘tripwires’; the idea being that if they are ‘triggered’ by an attacker, the full force of NATO would come in response.

However, these modest forces are not the British Army of the Rhine, to say nothing of the sprawling US military complex in West Germany during the Cold War. Yes, a British or American leader might feel compelled to respond if their military personnel were to get killed in a Russian onslaught on the Baltic states or Poland, but geographic limitations combined with the weight in Russian numbers have the potential to overwhelm Baltic defences, as well as the EFP/TFP. In this scenario, Russian forces would occupy the Baltic states before NATO could even prepare reinforcements. This is why the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) was also set up: this is designed to reinforce, rapidly, the smaller forward-deployed EFP/TFP forces in the event of an emergency, while NATO readies reinforcements. 

In reality, then, the EFP and TFP are less like tripwires and more like sticky webs; to stretch the metaphor further, the VJTF and subsequent echelons of ground troops become the spider that further binds the victim, while nuclear forces provide the venom in the last resort. Getting caught in the web would potentially lead to rapid escalation, potentially to the ultimate level, thereby theoretically deterring any attack.

How Britain and Germany can jointly weave a stronger web

Although the US remains deeply committed to Euro-Atlantic security – President Joe Biden recently stated[↗] he would defend NATO allies with the ‘full force of American power’ – the rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the Indo-Pacific means that Europeans need to do more to underpin NATO’s web of deterrence. As Russia’s latest war of aggression has shown, although the European Union (EU) may have a significant role to play in marrying its members’ combined economic means to geopolitical ends[↗], only NATO can provide for collective defence. It is encouraging in this regard that France has recently stepped-up[↗] to bolster the TFP in Romania, which finally threads the force de frappe directly into NATO’s web of deterrence. Indeed, harnessing all European allies’ respective and prospective strengths will be key to taking greater responsibility for Euro-Atlantic security.

But as the threat from Russia is now direct and acute, it makes sense for Britain and Germany – Europe’s two largest economies and defence spenders[↗] – to work more closely together to harness their complementary strengths. Irrespective of Brexit, the UK has committed itself[↗] to remaining ‘the greatest single European contributor to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area to 2030.’ British nuclear weapons (and their extension through the EFP/TFP), global maritime projection forces, command and control capabilities, and cyber and intelligence systems, as well as the UK’s large defence technological and industrial base, are crucial strategic instruments in which Germany and most other European NATO allies are deficient. 

However, Britain, as an island nation committed to maritime power, lacks a genuinely strong, massed ground force to ensure that the EFP/TFP properly intersects with its nuclear deterrent. As the leading continental economy, largest industrial power, and most populous European state, Germany could, with its significant uptick in defence spending, now assemble such a force. In addition to its Dual Capable Aircraft (for NATO nuclear sharing), it should focus on readying a sufficiently-sized, well-equipped land army to provide rapid reinforcement to the EFP/TFP to deter a Russian attack. This large force could even be forward-deployed to the most pertinent locations, including permanent bases on NATO’s Eastern flank – an ‘Army of the Vistula’, if not the Emajogi, or even the Dnieper.

Channelling its new seriousness effectively by working with key allies – France, Poland, the Baltic states, Romania, and particularly the UK – Germany can provide the forces that Europe needs to maximise NATO’s deterrence posture. In time, this newfound German approach should be further strengthened by the inclusion of Ukraine’s large, battle-hardened military in NATO. The task today is to ensure Kyiv gets all the weapons and assistance it needs to defend itself from the Russian onslaught, but Ukrainians also deserve to know that they will never again have to fight alone. By weaving together a stronger and more integrated web of deterrence, the UK and Germany make for ideal partners in reassuring their European allies and bolstering NATO.

James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy. Dr Benjamin Tallis is a Practice Fellow at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security in Berlin, Germany.

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