Fostering a ‘Will to Fight’ Has to be NATO's Next Priority

Ready to fight: Estonia is one of the few NATO member states where citizens exhibit a high willingness to defend their country. Image: Aleksandr Belugin / Alamy

As NATO militaries prepare for a potential conflict with Russia, there is a noticeable lack of willingness among their societies to participate in their own defence. Finland and Estonia have been actively working to enhance their preparedness in this regard, and they offer valuable lessons that the UK and other NATO members can learn from.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022, NATO member states have been bolstering their defence capabilities to enable them to fight Russia if necessary – increasing defence budgets, acquiring new equipment, expanding the size of their armed forces and even exploring the idea of reintroducing various forms of conscription. Yet, one crucial aspect of this preparation has remained mostly overlooked – the readiness of their populations to defend their countries and contribute to wartime efforts.

Large-scale conventional wars are rarely fought and won by small fully professional militaries. Instead, they typically require a whole-of-society mobilisation, whether through conscripting civilians into the military or mobilising the economy and industrial base to meet military needs. However, such comprehensive efforts require a society that is willing to take part, and as the war in Ukraine clearly demonstrates, a motivated population can be a decisive factor in shaping the outcome of such conflicts.

Despite a growing number of warnings from military leaders about the risk of a large conflict, available data shows a worrying lack of motivation among citizens of NATO countries to ‘do their part’. Recent polls have shown that there are significantly more people under 40 in the UK who would refuse to be called up in case they were conscripted for a major war than those who would be willing to serve. And figures in a number of mainly Western European NATO member states, including Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, are even lower.

This reluctance should be seen as a concerning indicator when it comes to NATO's preparedness, but it is most likely welcomed by Russia. One of the primary objectives of Russian information operations in Ukraine has been to undermine the Ukrainian will to resist, and it is likely that any significant escalation by Russia towards NATO would be preceded by extensive information operations aimed at further diminishing defence resolve among NATO member states’ populations.

Lessons to be Learned

There are, however, some NATO member states where citizens exhibit significantly higher willingness to defend their countries: surveys show that over 80% of Finns and 66% of Estonians would be prepared to participate in defence efforts if their countries were attacked. These figures are not a coincidence – both countries have identified defence resolve as a key requirement for survival in a potential conflict, and they have been actively working to improve their societal preparedness for such a scenario.

If Europe and the UK are truly committed to investing further in their security and better preparing for a potential Russian threat, fostering a willingness to fight needs to be a crucial part of it

In the case of Finland, fostering a will to defend has been implemented in the Finnish ‘total defence strategy’ for decades and on multiple levels. In Estonia, the Ministry of Defence has identified the need to enhance citizens’ willingness to fight as a priority following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and has a department dedicated to increasing ‘defence resolve’.

Both of these countries, however, share similar findings. Their experience seems to show that an awareness and understanding of a credible threat to their security, a belief in the capacity of their country to defend itself from this threat, and an understanding of what their role would be in this effort are among the key factors increasing the willingness of citizens to defend their country.

This could and should be a lesson for both the UK and many of its NATO allies. Willingness to fight can be increased through concerted efforts to communicate the existence of real threats to European security; what is being done to deter, prevent and potentially stop them; and what would be required from the population if a large conflict does break out.

The warnings of the UK Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, that the UK public would need to be called up to fight if war with Russia was declared – along with similar warnings from his NATO counterparts – serve as crucial first steps. However, their effect will be limited if they are not followed by a coordinated effort to increase societal preparedness over the coming years.

If Europe and the UK are truly committed to investing further in their security and better preparing for a potential Russian threat, fostering a willingness to fight needs to be a crucial part of it. Whether Europe will be willing to fight if attacked is a key factor in whether its deterrence against Russia will be seen as credible not. As such, it is a factor that Russia will most likely seek to undermine – and one that NATO countries should seek to strengthen.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dominik Presl

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