Make no mistake: Russian President Vladimir Putin is running rings around NATO and the west. His seizure of Crimea and the incursion into eastern Ukraine two years ago awakened NATO from a lengthy siesta in which the alliance was coasting when it came to defence. Putin’s intervention into Syria and Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter late last year complicated matters.
Combined with the expansion of Islamic State (IS), the Syrian civil war has created a massively disruptive flow of refugees into Europe exceeding the capacity to assimilate this migration. And the spread of IS terrorists to Europe and the US has made actual attacks against NATO states a reality that did not exist during the Cold War. Now challenged by President Putin’s intent to “push the envelope” for Russian engagement and the menace presented by Islamic State (IS), NATO has no choice but to respond. Conditioned by the binary nature of the Cold War, NATO has reacted to Russia with traditional responses based on increases in the readiness and deployment of military forces. And it has deferred real action against IS so far.
At the Wales heads of state NATO summit in September 2014, the alliance agreed to an ambitious readiness action plan in response to Russia’s Ukrainian intervention. Training and exercises would be increased. A very high readiness force was established should Russia make threatening moves west. And the US created and funded a European Security Initiative to provide money for a strengthened military posture in Europe.
NATO nations promised to spend two percent of the GDP on defence, a goal only a handful of members would reach. In many ways, the military responses exceeded initial expectations. However, while these steps reassured many of the nations, Russia still maintains formidable means to intimidate its neighbours. The first is geographic. The US is 3,000 miles away from Europe. Russia borders NATO’s Baltic and Black Sea states and has interior lines of communications. Furthermore, if Russia were to threaten the Baltics, NATO reinforcement would have to overcome serious defences and the Kaliningrad oblast that blocks direct access by sea, air and road. Communications would have to move through a part of Poland that does not have well-developed transport nodes or Belarus, a state more closely aligned with Russia. Second, Russia has advantages in its Spetznatz or special forces: propaganda, cyber and a huge numerical superiority in theatre nuclear weapons. Third, much of Europe is still dependent on Russian oil and natural gas. Finally, Putin does not have to make decisions based on gaining approval from 28 other peers as is required in NATO.
NATO, however, has many options if it breaks out of a traditional mindset. Despite intimidation tactics, Putin will not gamble on provoking a war. Despite his preponderance of a theatre of nuclear weapons, strategic deterrence still works. The worst (and most unlikely) case is Putin’s use of ‘hybrid’ tactics against the Baltic or the Black Sea states. Propaganda, cyber and ‘little green men’ to infiltrate a target state would be the means. What should NATO do?
Beyond the current increases in readiness, training and deployment, NATO must shift to a ‘porcupine’ defence on its flanks against a hybrid campaign. Instead of depending on reinforcement by large numbers of forces facing the challenges noted above, defence of the Baltic and Black Sea states should rest initially on large numbers of Stinger-like anti-air and Javelin anti-vehicle missiles to bloody an initial incursion. The declaratory policy will be to shoot any ‘green men’ on sight. And NATO must bolster its capability for cyber and counter-propaganda capability that can be moved quickly to the states where it is needed. None of these steps need be overly costly.
More importantly, a high level dialogue with Russia must start aimed at reducing tensions. This column has argued for a P-5 Plus Two — the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the EU and NATO — as a better venue than the Russia-NATO Council. However, negotiations are imperative and must include Ukraine and Syria. The leverage will be through sanctions’ relief in exchange for changed behavior, a more potent weapon than military force in these conditions.
IS is more problematic. Some form of NATO troop deployment to the region may be required as a quid pro quo for creating an Arab/Muslim ground force. But without US leadership, NATO will not act. Even with US action, obtaining the needed unanimity for decision will be difficult.
Throughout its history, NATO has faced many seemingly existential crossroads. Yet it survived. But for history to repeat itself, NATO needs a new strategy. And it needs one now.