Jochen BITTNER in ZEIT online June 26, 2016
Translated from German by Tom Winter, June 27, 2016
NATO is really dangerous
In the course of saber-rattling: rather it’s squeaking and groans that one gets from the grand maneuvers. The West demonstrates to Putin, what an easy game he would have with them.
There are old houses, whose beams and girders have gotten so crooked and wobbly that architects wonder at the sight why they haven’t collapsed long since. This state they call Static Instability. Sometimes only the wallpaper is holding the house together. As for NATO, the supposedly most powerful defense alliance in world history, one can say the same about its largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned of “sabre-rattling and war-howling” in view of this grand exercise of tens of thousands of NATO soldiers in eastern Europe on Russia’s border. But if the military staff in the Kremlin actually perceived the exercises of the past few weeks as actually threatening, that would be quite gracious of them. The sounds that NATO sent out during bulk maneuver Anaconda in Poland, were more like groans and gnashing.
Both politically and militarily the Alliance’s promise of mutual assistance is extremely fragile. But when the actualizing of its core promise is doubtful – is NATO still breathing? Or is the structure behind the political wallpaper long dead?
Seen from a helicopter, the landscape in northeastern Poland is idyllic. On the Masurian Lakes sailboats draw small white lines in the water, holiday houses line the banks. But the soldiers on board the Black Hawk helicopter see something else: problems. A difficult terrain. Rivers which must be overcome. Marshlands for the wheeled vehicles to get stuck in.
General Ben Hodges, commander of US ground forces in Europe, clicks the button for the on-board radio and taps the chart on which he has been tracking the flight. “The geography is just not an advantage to the defenders,” he says. Even so the Poles ask of their NATO partners the assurance that in case of emergency, they will rush in to help.
But how limits on the solidarity already showed up in the planning phase for the exercise. Anaconda is not officially a NATO exercise, but a Polish national one. Although 25,000 troops from 22 NATO countries took part – “but some countries such as Germany and France found it too provocative towards Russia, to call it a NATO exercise,” says Hodges over the rotor noise. Was that not a bit bizarre? The General shrugs. “The Russians compare the maneuver with the Operation Barbarossa,” he says, i.e. with the attack of the Wehrmacht on the Soviet Union in 1941
Apparently, Hodges’ shrugging his shoulders is to indicate one or another of the politicians were overmuch impressed by Moscow’s propaganda.
The Polish government wants the maneuvers to be understood as response to major exercises of the Russian army. Over the last year they’ve played out attack scenarios with 95,000 soldiers on the border with NATO, according to the alliance. Earlier attacks on the three Baltic states were rehearsed, under the wargame name Zapad (Russian for West). With a defense budget amounting to about 4.5 percent of gross domestic product, the Russian government spends more than twice as many tax money for its armed forces than the European NATO countries.
The Black Hawk helicopters land in Węgorzewo, a small town less than twenty kilometers south of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. In the courtyard of a Polish barracks the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Carson, Colorado has set up spherical high-tech tents. The domes radiate ocher in the summer sun, just like the Humvees in the parking lot. The desert camouflage sticks out in the Central European meadows like a signal. “Shouldn’t we just paint them over?” jokes an officer…
Inside the main tent, soldiers crowd around four long tables full of PCs. The fight takes place mainly on the screen. “But if the power goes out or we get hacked,” says a press officer, “we still have it here anyway.”
He has a card table with red and blue poker chips, all with labels. They show the tactical situation, and it looks like this: The “Bothnians” (as the Russian army is called here) have invaded Poland from the north and they want to take the country’s oil reserves. They are supported by irregular troops from the south (which one would take for Belarus) as well as by an “information war” (meaning Kremlin propaganda). Already 100,000 people are fleeing to the south, on those same roads that the NATO forces would have to use to advance to the north.
The chart with the poker chips is only apparently fictitious. In fact, it shows a strip of land, that the strategists consider the currently most vulnerable part of the NATO area, an approximately 120 kilometer wide strip along the Polish-Lithuanian border, which abuts Kaliningrad to the north and Belarus to the south. They would have to get all the forces and supplies necessary to defend the Baltic states through this corridor, the “Suwalki gap” as NATO calls it.
To get there, the allies had at most 36-60 hours before the Russian troops would occupy the Estonian and Latvian capitals Tallinn and Riga. This was the result of an elaborate simulation by the renowned US think tank RAND.
The soldiers are here to help the Polish army destroy enemy artillery positions. Computers use radar tracks of projectiles to locate the enemy artillery and forward the data to a howitzer, which then aligns the return fire.
Ideally, radar and howitzer are interconnected via a digital line. But In the case of the Polish and American units they are not. The Poles have to give the Americans the coordinates of the gun emplacement by phone or mail, in turn, they have to make the computer entries manually. Until that is done, the opponent’s position may have been long since moved away – NATO would fire into emptiness.
Hodges’ next email reports the filler neck problem. Although US tankers can certainly fill Polish, Canadian and Lithuanian fuel tanks, but they can’t fill the German, French, British, Italian or Hungarian ones.
So there have to be adapter kits. The US Army possesses 36 of these sets, a logistics guy reports back to Hodges, the other countries don’t have any – except France.
But what worries Hodges most is the communication technology: “Neither radio nor email are secure. I assume that everything I write out from my BlackBerry will be intercepted.” Those in Moscow intercepting all these emails in recent weeks may find it hard to believe in an encirclement of Russia by the imperial aggressor NATO.
The Western Alliance thus manages after nearly twenty years of joint missions abroad to not know how to operate a troop. It remains an alliance of national and technical Islands – and is thus already structurally disadvantaged, compared to a centrally organized military power like Russia.
Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which states that “an armed attack against one or more (of the Parties, — ed.) in Europe or North America will be considered as an attack against them all” was written 67 years ago, by politicians of another generation, with other experiences, in another world.
Is this assistance oath today politically redeemable?
The federal government finally agreed to send all of 400 soldiers to Poland for Anaconda – but they could not be combat troops only bridge builders. Not a threatening action, but one good for great photos.
Near the village Chełmno on the Vistula the Armored Engineer Battalion 130 from Minden positioned thirty Amphibious Pontoon vehicles, each as big as a double-truck up to a 350 meter wide river. After about half an hour the bridge is passable, and the President of Poland, who made a special trip for it, finds appreciative words. But as impressive as the technical spectacle was, it is the only one NATO can deliver. There is no other such bridge in Europe.
And for the heavy amphibious vehicles to make it to Poland, the Bundeswehr had to borrow matching flatcars from the Czech Railways. The German railway doesn’t have enough.
Head shaking breaks out in the planning staff over the extensive paperwork that needs to be done before anything olive drab can move eastwards. The US troops first had to bring only their gear and stuff through customs; then it was necessary for all convoys to obtain transit permits through countries and counties. No Schengen applies for NATO troops. Yet another disadvantage vis-a-vis the Russian Federation.
In General Hodges’ staff they console themselves with the thought that in the end, it was just a manoever. Everything would run more quickly and decisively, “when the shit hits the fan” as one of his aides put it. That is one possibility. The other: If a maneuver goes through such mishaps, what sort of screw-ups face the alliance in a real test?
If Putin has been watching closely in the past few days, he knows that perhaps just something minimal, just a little push, would be needed to destroy NATO self confidence.