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Russia Forcing Changes to NATO Strategic Concepts

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization continues to change even as it defends the 30 nations of the alliance, Ambassador Julianne Smith, U.S. permanent representative to NATO, told the Defense Writers Group today.

Smith spoke about the challenges from Russia due to that country's unprovoked war on Ukraine and the upcoming NATO Summit in Madrid.

Her discussion reinforced the changes in the alliance as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine — the biggest being that the 30 member nations speak with one voice in opposing the Russian invasion.

President Joe Biden will attend the Madrid Summit and discuss a range of issues with the leaders of the other NATO allies beginning June 28.

A man and a woman sit at a table and speak to one another.
Austin and Smith
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks with Ambassador Julianne Smith, U.S permanent representative to NATO, before a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, March 16, 2022.
Photo By: Chad J. McNeeley, DOD
VIRIN: 220316-D-TT977-0066

Even before the Russian invasion, the Madrid Summit was poised to be a game-changer for the alliance. The summit crown jewel was to be the agreement on a new strategic concept for the alliance. Much has changed since the last time NATO leaders approved a strategic concept in 2010.

"Even before February 24, there was a deep appreciation across the alliance that the language on Russia from 2010 was sorely outdated and needed a significant upgrade and needed to reflect the current environment," Smith said. "There was also an appreciation that China, for the first time, needed to be part of the strategic concept."

In addition, the concept must address new threats and challenges, including "a heavier emphasis on things like emerging and disruptive technologies, heavier emphasis on new domains like cyber and space, [and] more on climate change," she said.

And then, Russia again invaded its neighbor, which added new demands and complexities to the summit.

Now, there is a force-posture piece to discussions in Madrid. The allies — including the United States — have sent thousands of service members to the alliance's frontline states to deter Putin. The number of NATO battlegroups in those states increased from four to eight. Biden has pledged to defend every inch of NATO territory. The allies will discuss how the long-range footprint of NATO forces in Europe should look. "What over the medium- and long-term should the alliance be looking to do in that neighborhood to reinforce NATO's eastern flank?" Smith asked.

Another response to the Russian invasion is applications by Sweden and Finland to join the alliance. The two nations, long NATO partners, have military capabilities that would fit seamlessly into the alliance, Smith said. "The hope is that those two countries will join us in Madrid as invitees," she said.

The NATO flag and others are displayed in a row in a room.
Flag Display
The NATO flag hangs in the plenary room at the NATO Military Committee Conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Sept. 13, 2019.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro, DOD
VIRIN: 190914-D-PB383-002Y

China, too, is a concern. The foreign ministers of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea will join NATO leaders in Madrid. Smith believes this will broaden "the conversation about our shared security, … talking to them about things like emerging and disruptive technologies and cyber," she said.

Smith, who is based in Brussels, said the allies have been impressed by the performance of the Ukrainian military in their defense of their country. "I think many of us were surprised by their ability to push back on Russian aggression, their determination, their fighting spirit, the ways in which they were handling certain assets and capabilities," she said.

The same allies express surprise at Russia's performance in the war. "Russia is a country that is clearly having some major challenges on the ground," she said. "Putin was incapable and unable to move into Kyiv and take it in just a few days. Russia has had to reassess and put its focus almost exclusively in the East."

Smith said the outreach to the Indo-Pacific nations is helping all democratic nations deal with new competitors' strategies. Both Russia and China are threats to the rules-based international order that has kept the peace since the end of World War II.

Russia and China are aligned in many ways. Both nations use gray-area tactics to gain advantages, and they conducted joint military exercises.

"It's been interesting for me to watch [representatives from] countries in the Asia-Pacific [region] talk about hybrid threats on their side of the Pacific: how they are grappling with disinformation, cyberattacks, the aggressive tactics that they're seeing, acts of intimidation from China," Smith said. "Then, you pair that with an Estonian or a Lithuanian, and they talk about some of the same challenges that they're seeing from Russia."

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