ABCD 2021 Highlights: Next NATO Strategic Concept, New Threats, Russia’s High Appetite for Risk, Emphasis on Collective Defence

The Annual Baltic Conference on Defence (ABCD) 2021 focused on the new Strategic Concept that NATO will develop in time for its next summit in 2022.

The conference discussed the influence of Russia and China on our security environment and how NATO should position itself politically and militarily in relation to these two countries, including in its deterrence and defence posture in the Baltic Sea region. It also discussed how the Alliance should develop more broadly in the next 10 years and reflected on the relationship between the US and Europe.

The conference featured a long list of speakers, including Alar Karis, President of Estonia, Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, Minister of National Defence of the Hellenic Republic, James Heappey, Minister for the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom, Margiris Abukevičius, Vice-minister of National Defence of Lithuania, Patrick Turner, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Defence Policy and Planning, Lieutenant General Sławomir Wojciechowski, Commander Multinational Corps Northeast and Guillaume Ollagnier, Head of the Department for Europe, North America and Multilateral Affairs at the Ministry for the Armed Forces of France.

The takeaways from the panels that follow are not intended to be an exhaustive record of the event, and the views recorded here were not necessarily shared by all participants.

NATO’s new Strategic Concept

Compared to 2010 NATO faces new threats. Its strengths have forced adversaries to go below the threshold of armed conflict. Adaptation and modernisation efforts must be accelerated, and the Alliance should amend its political decision-making process: the North Atlantic Council cannot afford months of deliberations and NATO should trade quantity for responsiveness. Burden sharing also means being in the South China Sea. NATO also has a potential role in ensuring sea lines of communication between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Pacific Ocean. Even though they may seem ineffective today, arms control efforts are necessary in case Russia should change its current approach.

What to expect from and how to cope with Russia and China?

It is a misperception that Russia is a declining power. On the contrary, Russia is not going away and has a high degree of appetite for risk. Indeed, Russia’s elite consists of imperialists who are of the opinion that it is the West that is declining. There were different views as to whether China is a challenge or a threat. Some view China not as a rising power but as a present threat that uses hybrid and cyber tools very actively. NATO’s new Strategic Concept will need to reflect the shift in the strategic landscape. Deterrence and defence will be less bound by geography because of recent developments, e.g., cyber, space and hypersonic weapons. But much of NATO’s adaptation will be threat-agnostic, e.g., the need for more resilience.

NATO’s deterrence and defence in north-east Europe

NATO’s three core tasks are likely to remain in the new strategic concept although the emphasis will be on collective defence and not on large out-of-area operations. Speakers expressed different views regarding NATO’s approach vis-à-vis China due to the fact that it is harder to define China than Russia. Discussions about duplication and competition between NATO and the EU are unhelpful since capable national armed forces are the very basis of our security.

Speakers expressed opposite views on NATO’s adaptation depending on whether their focus was on what already has been accomplished (glass half full) or on what remains to be done (glass half empty). Since 2014, the European Allies and Canada have increased their defence spending by 260 billion USD, the Alliance’s nuclear deterrence has been strengthened and a new family of defence plans has been developed. Still, NATO lacks unity of command and national developments are not always harmonised, so more resources and bigger numbers will not automatically improve the situation.

The conference was organised by the International Centre for Defence and Security together with the Estonian Ministry of Defence, and in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. It was supported by MBDA, EuroSpike, Nammo, BAE Systems and Milworks.

The event was attended by more than 180 participants, including representatives from NATO, Allies and partners, as well as defence and security experts.