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Analysis: NATO, the return of the alliance

24th March 2017 - 16:08 by Grant Turnbull in London

An increasingly hostile Russia has once again refocused minds in the NATO alliance. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nearly three decades ago when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union ended, the world breathed a sigh of relief as 40 years of great power rivalry came to an end.

At the same time, one of the core tenets of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a military alliance created in 1949 specifically to counter the threat on the eastern flank, evaporated.

Instead, NATO looked to justify its existence tackling organised crime, terrorism and taking part in 'out of area operations', most notably sending forces to Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission.

NATO countries also used the so-called 'peace dividend' to cut defence budgets and drastically reduce personnel and equipment numbers. So with no external threat and defence taking less priority in individual member countries, many questioned why NATO still existed.

Fast forward to 2017 and that assumption has drastically changed. Russia, weakened after the Cold War, has built itself up again and is flexing its military muscle with interventions in Georgia and more recently Ukraine, with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 using so-called 'hybrid' tactics.

Now, the eastern front doesn't look so secure and that has European states, and the NATO alliance, worried. So worried, in fact, that the region is going through an unprecedented period of military build-up, with forces from several countries pouring into the Baltic and Eastern European states.

Two efforts are currently under way to increase deterrence against Russian aggression, one being the NATO-led Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) mission, which has seen four multinational battalion-sized battlegroups deployed to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

The UK is leading the Estonian battlegroup and is sending a heavyweight mix of kit, including Challenger 2 tanks, AS90 self-propelled howitzers and Warrior IFVs. According to Meelis Oidsalu, the Estonian MoD's Under Secretary for Defence Planning, the EFP commitment is of 'immense importance'.

'Obviously as a small nation... we are not able to fulfil all the capability needs that we have,' said Oidsalu, speaking to Shephard in Tallinn. 'Therefore any presence, not only demonstrating solidarity by our allies when they come here to train with us, but now also in the form of EFP is of immense importance.'

Obviously as a small nation... we are not able to fulfil all the capability needs that we have.
Meelis Oidsalu, Estonian MoD Under Secretary

Responsible for military defence development and planning for Estonia, Oidsalu said that 'the list of opportunities' for Russian forces had been shortened by a bolstered NATO presence. 'Because we have a real fighting force here, not only a unit with training gear and no ammunition, this is a hardcore thing and the opponent is aware of that.'

A complementary deterrence mission is also under way by the US, known as Operation Atlantic Resolve. This mission, funded by the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) has seen a return to rotational deployments of armoured brigade combat teams (ABCT) in Europe. In 2013, the US withdrew the last of its tanks from Germany and left behind just two heavy brigades as focus shifted on the pivot to Asia.

Today, however, M1A2 Abrams tanks, M2 Bradley IFVs and a myriad of other equipment, including Apache attack helicopters, are back in action across the eastern flank. Earlier this month, Shephard saw first-hand US Army troops going through live-fire exercises in Adazi, Latvia, with crews practising squad-level armoured tactics and working up to platoon and company-level manoeuvres.

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