Nato’s Washington summit will need to tackle Russian sabotage and myriad security threats.

The leaders of Nato member states will meet in Washington DC in a few weeks and one of the topics of discussion will be how to tackle escalating incidents of Russian sabotage.

Ahead of the summit on July 9-11, there has been increased Russian intelligence activity across Nato member states. The Dutch National Security Agency warned that it is possible Russia has orchestrated various arson and sabotage attacks in the UK, Poland, Sweden and Germany. In the meantime, the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said that the organisation had increased its vigilance and was closely monitoring Russian activities.

This article is the opinion of the author, Alexander Gilder, University of Reading, and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.

In the UK, the National Security Act 2023 has been used for the first time to charge a man with assisting a foreign intelligence service following his arson attack targeting Ukrainian businesses on March 20.

This is just part of a pattern of sabotage activities across Europe with planned attacks on US military bases in Germany thwarted, railway derailments in Sweden and the recruitment of citizens and criminal networks in Estonia and Lithuania to attack government and opposition figures.

Russia has a long history of pushing the boundaries and how Nato responds in both the short and long term is key to firmly reinforcing those boundaries. Its members will need to ensure close cooperation, particularly on intelligence, to counter potential networks of saboteurs who appear to be operating in the region.

The sabotage efforts come amid the largest Nato exercises since the end of the cold war. Named Steadfast Defender, the exercises saw more than 90,000 troops from member states in rapid deployments across Europe and the Atlantic.

Steadfast Defender aimed to “demonstrate Nato’s ability to defend every inch of its territory” with the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Gen Christopher Cavoli, stating that the exercises showed the organisation’s unity and determination to protect each member.

Now the critical question is how the upcoming Washington summit will shape Nato’s approach to tackling Kremlin-backed sabotage and whether the membership will decide to back Ukraine with further military support.

Nato refocuses on combat

For much of the 21st century, Nato has focused on activities such as peacekeeping, training, logistics and humanitarian relief rather than combat. Many Nato activities have also been based outside the Euro-Atlantic region (Europe, south Asia and the Middle East) such as the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and cooperation with the African Union. The threat posed by Russia in Europe presents a very different challenge.

Following the 2022 Madrid summit, Nato declared Russia a threat and issued a statement saying that Russia “undermines international security and stability”. It added: “The Russian Federation is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability.”

It then doubled the number of battlegroups (a military unit normally made up of five companies) that Nato maintains along its eastern European border from Estonia to Bulgaria. These battlegroups have grown in size as a deterrent to further Russian military action in the region.

As part of this change, Nato undertook Steadfast Jupiter in late 2023 which saw troops rehearse wartime fighting that could be needed to defend member states.

Nato’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe is currently undergoing a major transition from a strategic to a war-fighting command headquarters. It could then command and coordinate the complex network of operations needed if Nato were to deploy forces to defend an attack on a member nation.

Admiral Robert Bauer, chair of the Nato military committee, said: “These changes are essential to our Alliance, especially as NATO is transitioning from an era of crisis management to a new era of collective defence.”

Moving towards the summit

This summit, which marks Nato’s 75th anniversary, is a critical moment for Nato and the defence of the Euro-Atlantic region, especially with a possible Trump-led US likely to pull back funding and commitment.

As threats emanating from Russia continue, analysts have identified Nato’s weaknesses, including its reliance on US military resources and its members relatively low defence spending and investments.

The forthcoming summit’s location is important. European leaders will need to convince the US of Nato’s continued relevance and that Europe is pulling its weight financially. Only 18 out of 32 members are on track to hit the 2% of GDP defence spending target agreed by Nato member state defence ministers in 2006.

The 2023 Vilnius summit saw Nato repeat its long-term support for Ukraine becoming a member. But days before that summit, Joe Biden said that the war in Ukraine must end before Ukraine’s membership application could move forward.

In May this year, Stoltenberg called for “firmer, stronger institutionalized” assistance and training for Ukraine to be agreed in Washington. There will probably be commitments to continued security assistance to Ukraine alongside firm statements on Nato’s rapid response capabilities if a member nation is attacked.

A new Nato secretary general, Mark Rutte, is about to be appointed at a vital time for the organisation as it faces threats from Russia as well as possible funding cuts from the US. As Nato’s chief political spokesperson, the secretary general plays a vital role in rallying members to maintain and increase their defence spending .

Former Dutch prime minister Rutte’s years of experience leading coalition governments in the Netherlands could prove useful for alliance building at Nato. Rutte, who will take over the role this autumn, has been an outspoken supporter of Ukraine and Dutch military aid for Kyiv.

Russia is continuing to increase spending on the war. Its defence spending grew by 24% from 2022 to 2023, making it the third highest spending nation on military expenditure globally.

Nato will now need to repeat its future commitment to Ukraine and how it will sustain the military capabilities necessary to defend its member nations.

New members Sweden and Finland bring added military capabilities to the alliance. Swedish companies produce everything from fighter jets to submarines and Finland has highly capable resilience planning.

It is also important that Nato continues to ensure its forces are ready to mobilise and rapidly deploy. This will be underpinned by well-developed planning procedures across the organisation. Exercises play a key role in allowing Nato forces to develop and implement processes and procedures that improve military effectiveness.

This is just one part of a set of challenges that Nato, and Rutte, will face as Russia continues to undermine security across Europe.The Conversation

Alexander Gilder, Associate Professor of International Law and Security, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license and as part of our efforts to promote open journalism. Read the original article.

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