As Russia’s war with Ukraine drags on, Russia President Putin continues to issue warnings about NATO. NATO is the alliance of western countries with the U.S. a key member. Today, we’re off to Germany for a rare look inside the operation set up exclusively to coordinate NATO’s response to Putin. We’re the first American crew at NATO Allied Air Command where you might be surprised by their analysis of the threat Russia now poses to the rest of the world.
NATO was a big part of the reason Russia President Putin gave for escalating tension with Ukraine in the buildup to the war. Putin said he worried that Ukraine might join NATO. That would put a bigger chunk of the western military alliance at Russia’s doorstep — a red line he insisted could not be crossed.
In the wake of Russia’s attack, Ukraine hasn’t become part of NATO. But NATO appears poised to get bigger, with two prospective members: Finland and Sweden. Those additions would double the amount of NATO-protected land mass along Russia’s border.
NATO’s roots trace back to the late 1940s. The United Socialist Soviet Republic — the Soviet Union — had partnered with the U.S. and Great Britain in World War II to fight the Nazis.
But post-war, under Joseph Stalin, the Marxist-Communist USSR began installing communist-leaning leaders in liberated countries. There was fear the Soviets would spread communism into western Europe and beyond.
So in 1949, the U.S. and 11 other founding members signed the Washington Treaty in Washington, D.C. They agreed on a collective defense and shared risk of members.
For its part, the Soviets started an equally powerful alliance, the Warsaw Pact, that balanced power. But that treaty dissolved when the Soviet Union fell at the end of 1991.
Today, there are 30 NATO members, and the alliance is again squarely focused on Russia with new missions here at Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany.
Sharyl (on-camera): With Russia’s attack on Ukraine, NATO set up air operations specifically controlled out of this building for 24/7 coordination.
We’re the first American crew permitted into the NATO command center, designed exclusively for air operations throughout Europe.
General Cristoph Pliet is Deputy Chief of Staff Operations at NATO Headquarters.
Pliet: When Ukraine happened, shortly before, we activated this headquarters to coordinate all allied efforts in the air.
Sharyl: In terms of defensive strategies, what are we doing?
Pliet: We are actually shielding at the moment against any Russian possible invasion into European territory. So we are flying at the borders, so called CAP missions, with armed fighter aircraft. We have on-ground alert 15 minutes readiness armed aircraft as well to be able to react to any situation which might arise. And we do a lot of training to keep our crews ready to be able to escalate and de-escalate as we wish for.
Sharyl: Does Russia watch this activity that's happening kind of along that border? And is this considered something that helps keep them in check?
Pliet: Yes, of course. We are playing deterrence. That's the normal game between powers. So you want the opponent to understand that you are ready and you are able to defend your territory. So it would not make sense to defend 200, 300 km behind the border. It's quite close to the borders, but in a safe distance to the border.
Sharyl: What was the worry in the beginning?
Pliet: So in the beginning, we were not quite sure what the intent of the Russians was. So we prepared to be able to escalate, de-escalate, whatever the Russians were doing. We were defensive. We were in the high-defensive posture. We always had jets in the front. For the first three days we were flying 24/7 3 CAPs with fighter aircraft, armed fighter aircraft, close to the border on the eastern flank, and be prepared so if the Russians would fly into our airspace, we could defend every inch of NATO territory.
Sharyl: What made you come to understand that is not an immediate threat?
Pliet: We understand that they keep a safe distance from NATO territory. They are very careful not to attack any targets which are right on the border to Putin, for example, so not to spill over the conflict into NATO territory. And we can observe that we have a pretty good idea what the Russians are doing every second.
Sharyl: What sort of aggression would you look for that would be concerning in terms of a change in that status?
Pliet: So an aggression — that's a broad term — so I would differentiate it in two topics. Topic number one would be a mistake of a technical leader, like a pilot or a tank commander, shooting inadvertently into NATO territory. And you would then have to coordinate with the Russians via the red phone... was it intentionally or was it not intentionally, and the case can be settled and investigated. The other one would be a preparation of an attack into NATO territory, which would need approximately 30 to 60 days to at least have a minimum effect onto NATO forces. But we would really identify what the Russians were doing.
Sharyl: You would expect to have some warning, visually?
Pliet: We have all the warnings, yes.
Sharyl: Can you explain the limits or the bounds in terms of what NATO can do and is doing currently when it comes to Ukraine?
Pliet: So the limit is clear. It's given by our political leaders. We are not in a crisis mode, we are in peacetime, which means all the peacetime regulations apply. We are not shooting down Russian aircraft if they cross the border unless they are attacking into our defenses. So we always can do self-defense, extended self-defense. And you always can protect your own forces, should there be an attack on your own forces and your own population. But those are the normal peacetime regulations, so we are not allowed, in accordance with the regulations we have, to do any offensive operations against the Russians. But we don't want to do that. We are clearly a defensive alliance, and we just want to defend the alliance against Russian aggression.
Representing the U.S. here is Col. Edwin Markie, a director of management at NATO Allied Air Command.
Sharyl: In the early days of the Ukraine war, after this was started up, this facility, what was the atmosphere like — when people weren't sure, was Putin going to stop with what he'd done in Ukraine, or was perhaps more going to happen?
Col. Edwin Markie: So, the atmosphere in this room, in the entire building, was one of what I would classify as controlled chaos.
Sharyl: In addition to the actual military operations, there's a lot of messaging that takes place when it comes to what NATO does. Is that accurate?
Markie: That is accurate. So, when we're out training, we're showing that we are capable, we are ready. We are assuring the alliance that we can do our jobs. We are working on our interoperability. We're working to, again, train how you want to fight and fight how you want to train — to feed that deterrence for anyone who's looking to see what is NATO capable of.
As to the worry that Putin often cited — Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO — ironically, that country doesn’t even meet NATO requirements, according to experts like retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis. That’s due to Ukraine’s preexisting border dispute with Russia, civil unrest, rampant corruption, and a debate over whether Ukraine is a full democracy.
Lt. Col Daniel Davis (Ret.): Part of the NATO requirements for admitting new members specifically says they have to have two things. They have to have all their internal disputes settled. Obviously there's a civil war in Ukraine, so that's not settled. And they have to have border issues settled. With Russia they don't. So on those two factors alone, they would never qualify, at least indefinitely, as far as you can see.
Sharyl (on-camera): A spokesman for Putin has said that Finland and Sweden’s prospective membership in NATO would not make the situation more stable, and he promised a response to balance the situation.