Over the decades of intensive engagement with its close partners, NATO has always insisted on military interoperability of the partner nation’s forces with those of the Alliance. Quite often, the primacy of military fitness exceeded the heavy weight of political requirements such as democratic transformation of the defense sector or increased transparency for better civilian control. Although Article 5 should serve as the ultimate guarantee against security concerns, the factor of defensibility of new members (former partners as in the case of the Baltic states) objectively remained a top issue, drawing plenty of controversy in political and academic discussions.
Every wave of Alliance enlargement triggered fierce discussion as to whether the military value of newly integrated nations matched the relevance of the political decision to extend the area of Article 5 application. Indeed, like the Berlin crisis in the late 1950s, when allied nations quietly recognized the impossibility of defending western-controlled zones of the German capital, countries like Slovakia and especially remotely located Baltic states generated heavy doubts about the joint resolve to defend them. But, surprisingly, they also questioned the soundness of the application of Article 5 at all. As expected, this intellectual ping-pong heightened as Russia intensified its efforts to modernize nearly every branch of its military, especially after the mediocre performance of its forces in the short war against Georgia in 2008. However, even the period of steady escalation between 2008 and 2014, as Russia deliberately increased the scale and intensity of the military drills close to NATO borders, did not change the existing analytical paradigm until the Kremlin proved its willingness and capacity to challenge western allies by annexing Crimea and occupying eastern parts of Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine once and for all ended the traditional debate over whether NATO was willing to defend its eastern allied nations. The Wales and Warsaw summits left no doubts about the resolve and, indeed, a number of urgent steps were initiated to remove all political and military doubt about the defensibility of new members. In fact, historically, the very first framework of military cooperation, such as the PFP, was intended to prepare future members for joint military operations that in the end would bring added value and contribute to the increased military power and capability pool of the Alliance. Yet the parochial neglect of Russian revisionist intensions and the desire to cooperate with her on a strategic level gradually undermined the relevance of the PFP, leaving Article 5 the only source of deterrence. Heavy focus on “out of area operations” required member-candidates and close partners to prepare deployable units for counter-insurgency-like operations in Afghanistan, leaving the risk of facing conventional threat from Russia unattended. As a result, NATO had to realize that it lacked the resources and means to back the call for collective defense. Multiple RAND-based war-gaming and simulations indicated an urgent need for a substantial force increase in the Baltics and Poland both numerically and capability-wise to thwart potential Russian attacks. Even with the suggested options of deploying additional NATO-troops in the region, Russian forces would still have operational advantage with the high likelihood of destroying the resistance of forward deployed units before the main NATO-force could be assembled. At that point the very naive but practical question of how much time was needed for NATO to react militarily and politically to save the victim country becomes key not only for the Baltic states, but especially for those partner countries that aspire to NATO membership despite Russia’s opposition.
Unlike the eastern flank of the Alliance, where NATO cautiously decided to deploy some additional multinational combat groups, Georgia has no luxury of continuous NATO-boots presence on its soil. Hence, the question of how Georgia would buy enough time during a potential conflict with Russia to allow the international community and NATO to interfere becomes much more critical than for NATO-members (Georgia shares a land border with NATO’s second largest military power- Turkey. Undoubtedly, this should be touched upon briefly). Simply put, this means that Georgia (and similar other NATO-partners bordering Russia) need to invest much more in their defense capabilities and increase their military power in order to offer NATO the possibility of that interference. Russia is perfecting its ability to create facts on the ground and confront the western allies with the conditions changed in her favor. In the Georgian case, it would imply the swift destruction of Georgian forces presenting it as a political fait accompli, limiting the West’s options and scale of reaction. Technically, if NATO is sure that whatever it does to support Georgia would be a belated action, the chance of such action is close to zero. Therefore, it would be a sign of prudence for Georgia to do everything to prove the opposite and assure NATO of the existence of a so-called “window of opportunity” to come to Georgia’s aid. This window of opportunity can only be provided if Georgia’s people and military can prove its resilience and resist long enough to convince NATO and its other friendly nations of the worth of political and military support.
NATO’s Article 5 is not a panacea, but a very practical tool, which, in fact, requires plenty of preconditions to exist, the most important of which is the assurance that the Alliance decision to defend collectively will not be futile or come too late. Even with the arrival of allied reinforcement, the Baltic states continue to improve and enlarge their military capabilities, followed by similar energetic actions in Sweden and Finland. Unfortunately, the Georgian military is struggling to utilize its shrinking funding instead of acting strategically. It’s high time for Georgia to start rethinking and investing much more in its domestic ability to defend alone. Clearly, no one believes the Georgian military can hold up against the crushing power of the much superior Russian forces, yet it must prove enough resilience to contain a Russian advance and offer enough time for international political interference- because it works in a simple and reciprocal way: the surer NATO is about Georgia’s ability to defend herself long enough, the more likely the Alliance will be ready to step in to support.