For many inhabitants of Warsaw, the NATO summit, which took place in the Polish capital on the eighth and ninth of July 2016, was nothing more than a nuisance. Several of the city’s main arteries were closed for the entirety of the event; border controls were increased; and public transport was disrupted. Frustrated citizens flooded the comments sections of online news portals before the summit even began asking why a summit requiring such high levels of security could not take place in an isolated venue far away from the streets of Warsaw. On Saturday evening, President Obama’s escort to the airport alone caused such traffic jams that parts of the city came screeching to a standstill.
For Polish authorities, however, the summit meant much more than traffic jams. It is no accident that that one of the venues chosen for the event was the Presidential Palace where, in 1955, the USSR and several other nations signed the Warsaw Pact, an agreement set up in order to counter the threat of NATO. During the unveiling of the Warsaw Summit logo on the 2nd of December 2015, Polish Minister Witold Waszczykowski emphasized the importance of the summit, stating that it would be the first meeting of Allies on NATO’s eastern flank since the 2008 summit in Bucharest. In reality, this is not so impressive—three other summits took place in the Czech Republic, Latvia and Romania in the last 14 years, making Eastern and Central Europe a rather popular destination for NATO gatherings. Why, then, was the symbolic meaning of the meeting stressed to such an extent by the Polish government?
Put simply, what did the summit mean for Eastern and Central Europe, and did it mean the same for NATO itself?
While Law and Justice, Poland’s ruling party, has strong Euro-sceptical views, its mistrust of international organizations does not extend to NATO. With Russian interventions in Georgia and Crimea in recent years, and Soviet troops on Polish soil still fresh in the collective memory of the nation, the country’s authorities were eager to secure increased presence of NATO troops on its territory. And, indeed, the Alliance’s leaders confirmed the deployment of four battalions of approximately 1000 soldiers each in Poland and the Baltic states. Although these numbers would hardly be sufficient to stop a Russian invasion, they do represent a deterrent, as any confrontation would directly involve NATO troops and trigger the involvement of the entire Alliance in the conflict. Moreover, Anakonda 2016, a massive multinational military exercise, took place in Poland in the weeks leading up to the summit, and involved over 31,000 soldiers from 24 countries.
However, there are two possible downsides to those actions. Firstly, Poland is not only looking for greater support from NATO—it has already also taken internal defensive measures. Polish Minister of National Defence Antoni Macierewicz, a figure controversial for comments like his claim that the 2010 crash of the Polish presidential airplane in Smolensk was no accident and was covered up by Russia and the former Polish Prime Minister, has spearheaded the creation of a paramilitary force of 35,000 volunteers to counter the threat of “hybrid warfare’”of the type seen in Ukraine in recent years. A report by the Warsaw-based National Centre for Strategic Studies (NCSS) about this formation included a very controversial line stating that this paramilitary force could constitute an efficient preventive measure against anti-governmental actions. Although a co-author of the report underlines the fact that the term “anti-governmental actions” has nothing to do with the widespread anti-governmental protests which have taken place since the 2015 parliamentary elections, the fact that during peacetime the paramilitary force would be under the responsibility of the Ministry of Internal Affairs rather than the Ministry of National Defense is worrying. NATO, in other words, risks being coopted by the Polish government for defense of a party, not the people.
The second problem links more directly to the decisions taken during the NATO summit. Russia perceives NATO, and the fact that a NATO summit was held in Warsaw, as further examples of the Alliance’s encroachment and unjustified presence in its so-called “near abroad.” Indeed, one of the outcomes of the meeting in Warsaw was that all delegations supported Georgia’s NATO membership aspirations, a delicate subject that, according to some analysts, sparked the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Moreover, NATO established a Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine aimed at increasing its resistance to “hybrid threats.” During a pre-summit press conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the Alliance’s aim is “to defend our allies, not to increase tensions in Europe,” and that it “remains open to dialogue with Russia.” This type of remark,however, is overshadowed by the tone set in the Warsaw Summit Communiqué, which stated that “Russia’s recent activities and policies have reduced stability and security, increased unpredictability, and changed the security environment” and described the “illegal annexation of Crimea,” the “deliberate destabilisation of eastern Ukraine,” “provocative military activities near NATO borders,” and “aggressive nuclear rhetoric.” While a strong stance from NATO might be necessary to curb Russia’s ambitions as a regional hegemon, it will likely further exacerbate the existing tensions with the Kremlin, especially given that, since the summit, Washington and Moscow have taken to expelling each other’s diplomats.
But it is also worth noting that the subject of the Russian threat was only one among the many topics discussed during the summit. The Alliance also recognized cyberspace as a domain of operations comparable to air, land and sea, and underlined the importance of energy security in resisting political and economic pressure from external actors. Montenegro also took part in the negotiations, and was invited to become the 29th member of the Alliance, which could potentially bolster its efforts to join the EU. ISIS was described as a “grave threat to the wider Middle East and North Africa region and to our own nations,” and NATO outlined its determination to “do more and achieve lasting calm” in the region. Finally, the EU was described as a “unique and essential partner” with which cooperation must be further enhanced.
After the dissolution of the USSR, many political scientists argued that NATO would become an obsolete construct. But the renewed perception of Russia as a threat means that many countries in Central and Eastern Europe still look to NATO for protection. And the Alliance’s increased focus on new security challenges, including cyberspace, terrorism, and energy, has allowed it to survive and even thrive in the international arena. NATO is still much more than a nuisance—and not only to the temporarily inconvenienced residents of Warsaw.