TRAPANI, Italy (Reuters) - The brass band played, the flags waved and Western generals delivered speeches brimming with resolve as NATO began big war games in the central Mediterranean this week.
But the military display seemed faintly unreal while Russian warplanes were bombing Syrian rebels a few hundred miles to the east in a coordinated action with President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
NATO, which waged an air campaign to help Libyan rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi, then left that country to descend into anarchy, is not a player in Syria and is watching uncomfortably as its former Cold War adversary Russia widens its role there.
The speed and scope of Moscow’s intervention in Syria’s four-year-old civil war, coming after Russia’s seizure of Crimea and support for pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine last year, wrong-footed the U.S.-led alliance and has heightened soul-searching about its future.
“The West has been tactically surprised. I don’t think they anticipated what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin would get up to,” said Nick Witney, a former European Defence Agency chief now at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
NATO last year set in motion its biggest modernization since the Cold War. But the alliance’s political and military elite now see the need for a broader plan that goes beyond deterring Russia in the east. They call it thinking “360 degrees”.
“We need to develop a strategy for all kinds of crises, at 360 degrees,” said Gen. Denis Mercier, the Frenchman who heads NATO’s command focused on future threats. “We need to react in the south, in the east, the north, all around.”
NATO’s problem is that such a strategy is still embryonic while developments in Europe’s neighborhood are moving faster than the ponderous approach of the 28-nation defense pact, created in 1949 to deter the Soviet threat.
From the Baltics, where Russia has a naval base in Kaliningrad, through the Black Sea and annexed Crimea, to Syria, Moscow has stationed anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles able to cover huge areas.
NATO officials see the emergence of a strategy of defensive zones of influence, with surface-to-air missile batteries and anti-ship missiles that could disrupt NATO moving across air, land and sea or deny it access to some areas.
Unconventional warfare techniques are part of the equation, ranging from unidentified troops - the so-called “green men” without insignia on their uniforms seen in Crimea and eastern Ukraine - to disinformation operations and cyber attacks.
NATO also faces failing states, war, Islamist militancy and a refugee crisis at Europe’s borders. That is partly a result of the European Union’s inability to stabilize its neighborhood economically.
But critics say it is also due to U.S. President Barack Obama’s aversion to entanglement in Middle East wars in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. That has led to a decline in Washington’s influence across the region.
While NATO is drawing up a multi-layered deterrence plan, officials acknowledge a risk that Russia might again move faster to pre-empt Western action. For instance, it could move warships from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Libyan coast to hamper any possible NATO effort to support a government of national unity in the future.
Still, some say NATO has been here before and any talk of a lack of preparedness is overblown. Past bouts of questioning of the alliance’s relevance led to operations in the Balkans and in Afghanistan - a significant departure from 40 years of Cold War deterrence in which NATO forces never operated “out of area”.
A NATO official rejected any suggestion the alliance was passively watching Russia’s military build-up in Syria, noting that three allies – the United States, France and Turkey – were involved individually in the coalition waging air strikes against Islamic State rebels in Syria and Iraq.
Some experts see a danger of overestimating Putin, who oversees an economy weakened by Western sanctions and lower oil prices and cannot match NATO military power over the long term.
“We should be under no illusions about Putin’s hostility to the West but also be very careful not to over react to what a damaged Russian economy can produce in the way of military capability,” said Witney, a former British defense planner.
NATO’s public response is to test its new spearhead force of 5,000 troops, ready to move within a few days. Over the next five weeks, the alliance is carrying out its biggest military exercises since 2002, with 36,000 troops, 230 military units, 140 aircraft and more than 60 ships, to certify the force.
Such measures, agreed at a NATO summit in Wales last year following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, are aimed chiefly at reassuring eastern allies that Russia will not be able to invade them too. There is still debate about whether the spearhead force could be used in North Africa or beyond.
Small command posts with NATO flags from Estonia to Bulgaria and the spearhead force are ready. But one NATO diplomat called such measures “the minimum necessary”, and Gen. Mercier said the so-called Readiness Action Plan was “just a first step”.
“We have worked on reassuring our allies,” said Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme commander in Europe. “We are not exactly sure what it will take to work in the future,” he said when asked what NATO’s modern deterrents might look like.
The next NATO summit next July in Warsaw is the target date for proposals for more modern, agile deterrents.
Such ideas include setting up NATO-flagged command posts on the southern flank and adapting the spearhead force for maritime and air operations.
They could also feature a permanent naval force to patrol the Mediterranean and work more closely with the European Union and the United Nations in stabilizing fragile states.
Another idea involves including a nuclear deterrent in training exercises, something Britain supports but others, such as Germany, worry would be seen as a provocation by Russia.
NATO’s Gen. Mercier even suggested looking to companies such as courier DHL Worldwide Express and online retailer Amazon.com to improve NATO’s deployment speed.
“The question is how to have new ideas to make deployments easier. We should look at what the civilian world does, to DHL and Amazon. How do they improve their logistics?” Mercier said.
Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Paul Taylor