Relations between NATO and Russia have been spiraling downward in recent years beginning with the annexation of Crimea. The recent buzzing of a U.S. naval vessel in the Baltic Sea and tough talk from the Russian Ambassador to NATO turned up the heat yet again. It’s clear the Cold War alliance is being tested by its old foe. So far, response from member nations to counter Russian aggression has been anemic. But there’s a bigger problem.
NATO has a ‘Game of Thrones’ scenario on its hands and it had better figure out whom it can trust quickly. Political sabotage at the hands of Russia from within NATO nations is threatening the security of the region.
NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove testified before Congress in March stating, “Russia recognizes strength and sees weakness as opportunity. To that end, Russia applies all instruments of national power, including its military, to corrupt and undermine targeted European countries. Some call this unconventional warfare, some call it hybrid.”
At July’s NATO summit in Warsaw, questions again will arise about the commitment of member states to collective security. The main test of that commitment is whether 20 percent of defense spending by members is devoted to major weapons systems.
Despite what happened in Ukraine, some of the countries nearest Russia remain the least prepared for invasion. A recent report by NATO shows that many member states close to the Russian border still have failed to meet their commitments. According to James Hasik of the Atlantic Council, most NATO forces are still in its western countries despite its eastward expansion.
It’s likely not a coincidence. Eastern Europe is especially vulnerable because of the nomenklatura and “former” KGB agents occupying key political positions.
For instance, Russian influence in the government of the Czech Republic and its poor defense readiness have both been widely reported in recent months. Defense Minister Stropnicky has compared stationing NATO troops in the Czech Republic to the 1968 Soviet invasion. The Minister is from the protest party ANO, chaired by controversial oligarch and Finance Minister Andrej Babis. In March, a classified report was leaked from Czech Counter Intelligence that identifies Babis as an officer of the KGB.
Babis circumvented “lustration,” a post-Communist due diligence required for all Ministers that seeks to uncover ties to the Communist secret services. He also has never undergone the normal vetting required for even routine security clearances.
NATO simply can’t function when ministers, party leaders, and others who set defense budgets and policy for a member nation have access to the most sensitive classified material, all the while possibly working for Russia. Western NATO member states must do more to ensure compliance with collective security commitments and root out Russian collaborators if it is to survive the challenges coming from Moscow.
In the Czech Republic, the professional military desperately require rearmament. The current Czech Army Chief of Staff, General Becvar, said in March that only 67 of 107 standard armored vehicles were operable. The government approved the purchase of 20 more armored vehicles (they need 200) but the process has stalled. The Defense Ministry has paid lip-service for years to its commitment to convert its helicopter fleet from aging Russian aircraft to modern, NATO standards and upgrade its 1970s Soviet-made radars. They still have failed to actually do it.
This lack of defense readiness prevents the Czech military from participating in NATO training and exercises — and actually protecting its borders against any possible Russian incursion.
In a recent speech at the Brookings Institution, Czech Prime Minister Sobotka clearly recommitted himself to NATO and the burden of collective security. Unfortunately, his ability to deliver is highly questionable if his government is under Russian influence.
The Obama Administration has been slow to recognize the increased Russian influence in Europe, but Congress has been more assertive. Together they now claim to be taking measures to strengthen NATO and counter Russian infiltration. The U.S. is probing Russian funding and influence in European political parties, and there are discussions in Washington about combatting Russian influence in NATO governments through sanctions and extraterritorial investigations.
It is clear that NATO must get its house in order as well. Before the Warsaw Summit convenes, we should know who really is with us and who is against us. All office holders with access to classified data must undergo proper vetting, and any officials found to have conspired with hostile intelligence agencies should be subjected to targeted sanctions or other measures.
NATO’s most powerful and influential members must ensure all states are committed to collective security and meet defense spending benchmarks. Otherwise, this real Game of Thrones will keep Europe on the defense.