Rory Stewart is no soft-touch. When he was elected chairman of the Defence Select Committee, it was thought that he would hold the government and NATO’s feet to the fire. And so it has come to pass. The committee has published an alarming report on NATO’s unpreparedness to meet a threat from Russia. It says, in terms, that the risk of Russia attacking a NATO member, either conventionally or asymmetrically, is ‘small’ but ‘significant’. NATO has inadequate rapid reaction forces, cyber defence and strategic plans to counter this risk. The report also makes a telling political point: the public might no longer support NATO’s defining principle that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
Stewart’s analysis is underpinned by general observations, some of which he described on the Today programme earlier this morning. He said that NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan, and a decade of instability in the Middle East and the Maghreb, have distracted attention from Russia. Financial insecurity has led to reduced defence investment and the diminution of ‘Russian expertise’ (a glorious euphemism for spies?). Figuratively speaking, NATO’s leaders are under-gunned and in the dark.
Recent events in Ukraine, the Crimea and Georgia, Stewart says, show that NATO’s strength urgently needs to be ‘recalibrated’ to ‘vulnerable’ regions in eastern Europe and the Baltic states. He wants Britain to lead the way by making a commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence (a basic NATO requirement) in the next parliament. He also questioned the international development budget, which has been increased perhaps at the expense of defence. And Stewart restated an often neglected fact: Russia is a smaller economy than Britain (and much smaller next to NATO members combined), but spends considerably more on defence.
Perhaps Stewart’s sentiments will see him condemned as a ‘Cold War warrior’, ignorant of the growing ties between Europe and Russia. If so, it would be unjust because he doesn’t fit the stereotype. His objective, clearly, is to deter Vladimir Putin’s expansionist policy. This is what the so-called ‘Cold War warriors’, be they advocates of tough sanctions or sabre rattling, hope to achieve. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former secretary of state at the FCO and the MoD, told me last week that the ‘objective [of tough sanctions] is to normalise relations with Russia by forcing a change in President Putin’s foreign policy. That is the only objective.’
Michael Fallon, the current Defence Secretary, replied to Rory Stewart – and by extension other critics of the present policy – on Today a little while ago. He said that Britain was committed to spending 2 per cent in this parliament (my italics). The challenge, he said, was to convince other NATO members to follow suit. He also gave a robust defence of international development spending, arguing that it was an arm of foreign policy used, for example, in nation building. He also described Britain’s contribution to NATO’s temporary deployment in eastern Europe and the Baltic states, including the pledge to send a 1,350 strong battle group with 300 armoured vehicles and tanks to an exercise in Poland.
The aim of these very public statements about NATO manoeuvres is to deter Putin, and curb his foreign policy. Fallon and Stewart are, therefore, closer than they might appear. However, Fallon was not (at least to my ears) asked to address Stewart’s most interesting political point: that the public might not support the principle that an attack on one NATO state is an attack on all. What does the government think about that?