DIGITAL ARTICLE | COMMENTARIES by: Debalina Ghoshal
Russia’s westward military expansion post the Ukrainian crisis has become a concerning factor for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). To be able to respond quickly to the Russian threat, NATO is also making eastward expansion to move its troops close to the Russian border.
Following the Zapad exercise by Russia in 2017, NATO is concernedthat such a large scale drill could accidentally trigger small or even a large scale conflict in Eastern Europe, as, post the Ukraine crisis, Eastern Europe is apprehensive of any Russian military moves. In order to accelerate the deployment of troops close to the Russian border, NATO is creating a “military Schengen zone,” coupled with an improvement in transport and logistics infrastructure, which also includes developingroads, railways and bridges to handle tanks and heavy military equipment.
With border restrictions and lack of suitable infrastructure that can facilitate rapid troop deployment, NATO realizes the need to have a military Schengen zone. Greater cooperation and improved interoperability among NATO forces would be possible with the creation of the zone, which would be a passport free travel zone lowering the barriers to move military equipment and troops across Europe.
This is similar to the Schengen Area for travel in Europe comprising twenty-six countriesthat have abolished passport and other border control mechanisms on their mutual borders.
Such a step would hasten the movement of troops and military equipment from one place to another. According to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini: “by facilitating military mobility within [the] EU, we can be more effective in preventing crises,” more effectively deploy in missions, and be “quicker in reacting when challenges arise.” She also hopes for“more efficient use of public money and a better equipped transport network, ensuring quick and seamless mobility across the continent.”
According to reports, in several parts of Europe sitesthat store arsenals, ammunition and food supplies are being created for the speedy development of an additional force grouping. This concept was the brainchild of the US Army commander in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, and aims to hastenthe movement of troops and military equipment, while still abidingby EU road laws and respecting sovereignty.
Lt. Gen. Hodges realized the nuancesof border restrictions and raised concerns, citing the example of how moving forces from Germany to Poland has a five-day notice period, but it takes two weeks notification to move troops from Poland to Lithuania. The railway system ahead of Poland is archaic and of Russian standard, especially in the Baltic states, and thus improvements need to be made.
Under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, NATO members are bound to involve themselves in “collective security,” wherein an attack on one NATO country is considered to be an attack on all NATO countries. However, collective security is only possible when each NATO state can swiftly move from one state to another with its troops and military equipment. Otherwise, the commitment to collective security remains only effective on paper, and not operationally possible.
The Baltic States - Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – have expressed serious supportfor the military Schengen area. In 2016, they suggested the creation of a “visa-free” military space for NATO troops that could hasten NATO commitment to the Baltic States at a rapid pace, not affected by bureaucratic measures creating unwanted obstacles.
NATO countries such as Romania and Bulgaria are yet to jointhe Schengen Area that abolished passport use in Europe. These countries are also located in Eastern Europe and a Schengen area leading to the establishment of a military Schengen zone is the need of the hour. Another important NATO member, the UK, is also not a memberof the Schengen Area. These non-members, who otherwise are crucial NATO members, make the process of free troop movement across Europe a difficult task.
The need to rapidly mobilize troops and military equipment for increased maneuverability is necessary owing to the rising threat from Russia. In order to strengthen the security structure in Europe, greater cooperation is required between NATO and European countries.
Debalina Ghoshal is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear, missile and missile defense-related issues.
Note:The twenty six countries include Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Leichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.