Center for Strategic Decision Research


Challenges of Instability for NATO in the Northwest Region

Air Chief Marshal Sir John Cheshire KBE CBE
Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Northwest Europe

In addition to the ACE-wide challenges to stability that SACEUR and DSACEUR described in detail, there are three additional challenges that face us in the Northwest Region. While these concerns either do not exist on the doorstep of my MSC (Major Subordinate Commander) colleagues, or are significantly less prevalent for them, I would still like to focus your attention on them.


The first challenge stems from the fact that geopolitically Russia is the largest nation in our Area of Interest (AOI). Indeed there is a common border between Norway and Russia. While it is easy for those of us who live in the secure environment of Vienna, New York, Ottawa, or even London to play down the significance of that 196-km common border in Finmark, the inescapable fact is that it remains a major factor in the instability assessment made by my colleagues in Norway.

For the same reason, all our partner nations in the Baltic area also are very sensitive to the importance of their individual and collective relationships with Russia, in the context of regional stability. It is logical that those nations in the Northwest Region that have a common border with Russia would be most sensitive to the issue of stability with Russia.

Although this particular geopolitical issue is of course a national concern, the fact that it is also a common one for many of our NATO and partner nations in the Northwest Region leads those of us responsible for regional stability to take it just as seriously as the nations themselves. I should also say that anything that Russia regards as an instability issue, particularly in the Leningrad Military District (LMD), is of no less concern to us.


The second general point in the assessment of instability is how much NATO in general, and my Region in particular, can actually do to influence regional stability positively. It is, of course, obvious that we will do everything we can to enhance stability and reduce risks in our Region—indeed that is a formal task given to us by the North Atlantic Council. The dilemma we face, however, is that, in practice, we have little direct influence over some of the issues that might actually trigger instability in our Area of Interest. Four examples of such issues are bilateral border disputes, disturbances over minority rights, internal political instability, and disputes over offshore resources.

Potential triggers of this sort actually cause us the greatest concern, because they are the ones over which we have little influence and which could ignite regional instability rapidly. Such instability might, in turn, result in a request by a long-standing Partner nation for NATO military assistance. In short, in these situations we might be unable to prevent a fuse from being lit, but we might be called on to help contain the ensuing explosion.

We also recognize that NATO could, wholly unwittingly, aggravate the instability in the region, and we go to great lengths to avoid the possibility of that happening. For example, we recognize that we have to strike a very careful balance in our enhanced PFP program; a balance which, on the one hand, satisfies the increasing aspirations of the Baltic nations but, on the other, does not stray into areas that our Russian colleagues would regard as unacceptably destabilizing.

Our Relationship With Russia

As SACEUR’s custodian of the defense guarantee in the Northwest Region, I should like to make three specific points about our relationship with the Russian military:

  • First and foremost, Russia poses no military threat to the Northwest Region.
  • Second, we go to great lengths to ensure that the Russian military is fully aware of all the PFP activities in our Region—and why we are carrying them out and who is involved. Thanks to my good friend General Anatoly Krivolapov and his like-minded colleagues, I like to think that our activities are regarded as transparent, militarily sensible, and in the best interests of regional stability. I have little doubt that they would tell me if they regarded our activities otherwise.
  • Third, the inescapable fact still remains that Russia retains sufficient military hardware in the Leningrad Military District to make life very uncomfortable for any of the nations in the Northwest Region’s Area of Interest. And if there is substantial military hardware in the hands of one nation in our AOI, and if the political situation in that nation is in any way unpredictable, it would be militarily irresponsible to ignore the potential for the unexpected. We try to remain militarily responsible.


A third potential trigger to instability in my Region is that Russia retains a substantial number of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) in the Leningrad Military District. Our concern is not that Russia would contemplate using them against the nations in our Region. Rather, it is the risk that one (or more) of those weapons might get stolen. Were that to happen, and were the weapon to fall into the hands of extremists, then we would have to be prepared to handle the resulting potential for instability.


I have tried to highlight just some of the issues that could trigger instability in the Northwest Region. I want to emphasize that none of them are threats, in using the traditional definition, but that all of them could occur and would almost certainly do so with little or no warning. If any of them were to materialize, we would not underestimate the political and military consequences of NATO involvement in its aftermath.


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