Is NATO About to Waste a Good Crisis?

Main Image Credit NATO troops pictured during Exercise Trident Juncture in 2018. Courtesy of Defensie / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

The UK’s plans to double its troop contribution to NATO’s eastern borders is an important political step, but it is also a predictable one that does not address the threat posed by Russia.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered additional British troops to a number of NATO member states; included are land, air and sea assets that would double the UK’s current troop contribution. Deployments are expected to begin this week and undoubtedly represent a welcome signal of intent for the Baltic states. The announcement also demonstrates that Global Britain is underwritten by an administration that is – in facing Russia at least – determined to be judged by its actions, rather than its words.

The UK has been prominent in responding to the Kremlin’s attempts to exert pressure on Kyiv through its troop build-up. It has provided 2,000 Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons (NLAW) and 30 additional advisers from the Ranger regiment to support Ukrainian forces in training on the new weapon. Additionally, the RAF has increased the frequency of RC-135W Rivet Joint electronic surveillance aircraft flights over Ukraine in support of similar US efforts in the region. The UK also supported Poland as Belarus positioned migrants on the border between the two countries; 140 British Army engineers were deployed to the country in December. So far, post-Brexit Britain has demonstrated its commitment to European security, as well as its resolve to NATO as an organisation.

Its actions, alongside similar declarations from the US, France, Denmark and the Netherlands, demonstrate that NATO remains committed to the defence of its eastern members, despite the fragmented response of the Alliance to events in Ukraine. It also signals to the European members of NATO that the transatlantic allies can lead on a response to Russia, which is a positive message given the inability of the EU to form and attend to its defence needs outside of NATO. Assessing the Russian perspective is challenging, but it is hard to imagine how the Russian General Staff could have planned the force build-up, without anticipating the possibility of a similar response by NATO. NATO planners should not be surprised if the additional deployments become part of a Russian information narrative designed to show that the Alliance is a genuine menace to Russia.

The above notwithstanding, the current and past build-ups of Russian troops demonstrate that Russia can generate and coordinate significant forces at short notice. It can do so with relative ease, and in a timeframe that would be challenging for NATO to match or beat. To deploy to Eastern Europe, NATO relies on a limited pool of critical infrastructure and supply lines that, in some locations, exceed 800 km. Exercise Trident Juncture in 2018 demonstrated that it would take NATO weeks to move 50,000 troops to Norway in a response to an event that triggered Article 5 – the Alliance’s mutual-defence provision. This was without Russia exacerbating political and military frictions in Europe to slow down deployment. This means that there is a fragility inherent in any knee-jerk reaction to a Russian build-up.

Assessing the Threat

Discussion around an Article 5 response typically involves one scenario: a Russian invasion of the Baltics, which leads to a massed response intended to stop the Russian forces before it is too late. This attitude plays to Russia’s strengths and exacerbates NATO’s weaknesses. If NATO is to stop Russian troops in their tracks, or deter them from acting at all, it must take the quality and quantity of troops deployed to at-risk areas more seriously. Alternatively, it must accept that territory will be lost, but that the costs will be catastrophic for the Kremlin and that it will only be a matter of time before Russian forces are rolled back.

If NATO is to stop Russian troops in their tracks, or deter them from acting at all, it must take the quality and quantity of troops deployed to at-risk areas more seriously

At the heart of NATO’s current posture in Europe is an inherent tension between two divergent aims: perimeter defence and limited liability. The former principle posits that a threat to the credibility or territorial integrity of the Alliance must be forestalled at all points along its perimeter. Temporary or small-scale losses put the credibility of Article 5 into question. Perimeter defence coexists with a limited-liability approach, which shuns the costs and political risks associated with maintaining large forward-deployed formations. In effect, the Alliance hopes to deter Russian aggression, both major and minor, through a combination of forward-deployed battlegroups and the agile reinforcement of remote theatres such as the Baltics.

However, the Russians will rapidly overrun forward forces and have a range of options to slow the pace of reinforcement. For example, Russian authors contemplate using limited conventional precision strike to destroy critical infrastructure, hoping to slow down both the physical movement of assets and NATO’s political decision-making by undermining the resolve of wavering allies whose territory straddles critical transit routes. In addition, Russian assets such as special purpose submarines can target the undersea cables on which strategic communications depend. Though not capable of destroying this infrastructure entirely, Russia can add weeks to NATO planning cycles through careful disruption.

For an Alliance that sets itself the task of stopping or rolling back any Russian incursion rapidly, this represents a critical challenge. However, Russia’s ability to slow down NATO deployments only matters because the Alliance has bought into Russian short war assumptions even though NATO has vastly superior aggregate capabilities, which could be mobilised given time. The Alliance could adopt an elastic defence that accepted the temporary loss of territory on NATO’s eastern periphery as it built up its capabilities for operations to roll back Russian aggression. Forward NATO forces would, largely, only be required to buy time for forces to mobilise in depth.

Realistic Credibility

The credibility of Article 5 depends on NATO’s ability to defeat aggression, but this can take time. In other words, effective Alliance defence in the short term may involve some partners bearing different levels of risk. This would imply painful choices – particularly for frontline states – but it would not be the first time that such choices have been necessary. During the Cold War, the Alliance planned for the temporary loss of German territory as it prepared to compel the USSR to retreat. Similarly, intra-Allied disagreements about tactical nuclear weapons as an offset to Soviet conventional strength and the costs their use would entail for frontline states persevered throughout the Cold War.

That said, NATO could instead opt to resolve the other half of this contradiction – that is, the Alliance could maintain its focus on perimeter defence and resource this strategy properly. In addition to substantial investments in facilities to support large-scale forward deployment, this would involve key members substantially improving their capabilities in areas such as armour and indirect fires at some cost. In addition, almost any NATO approach taken would require the more effective protection of critical national infrastructure from threats ranging from missiles to submarines.

A Russian army tied down in Ukraine would not pose an immediate threat to the Alliance for years, buying NATO the time to change course

If the Alliance chooses one of these options, it will face three obstacles: political dissension; cost; and the difficulty of changing course quickly. If NATO should opt for elastic defence and rollback, for example, it will have to secure buy-in from frontline states that will bear a disproportionate burden in the event of war. Absent a degree of urgency, such hard political discussions could well be deferred. If, alternatively, the Alliance opts to invest in a credible forward posture, this will require increased national investments in capabilities such as armour, as well as the capacity to sustain capabilities forward deployed at readiness – a process involving both costs and associated political friction. Moreover, even if these hurdles are overcome, generating new capabilities and the capacity to sustain and integrate them into a forward-leaning Alliance force posture is time consuming. For example, the procurement cycle of a meaningful number of new main battle tanks is close to a decade, and that of surface combatants is longer still. Forward deployment also produces requirements in areas ranging from the creation of supporting infrastructure to maintaining personnel and equipment at readiness. All this raises the question of whether, if NATO opts to change course, it would face a period of transitional vulnerability should conflict break out before it has adapted.

It is here that the tragedy in Ukraine may offer the Alliance an opportunity. A long war against popular resistance in Ukraine, protracted by indirect support to those resisting, could tie down significant numbers of Russian troops. Consider, for example, that even the light-footprint intervention in Syria saw 63,000 Russian troops cycled in and out of the country over three years. A Russian army tied down in Ukraine would not pose an immediate threat to the Alliance for years, buying NATO the time to change course. Second, such crises often create moments of political clarity within alliances. The 2014 invasion of Crimea, for example, facilitated one of the most wide-ranging reassessments of the Alliance’s priorities in decades. Similarly, a Russian invasion could temporarily break political logjams regarding some of the choices that NATO has postponed: ranging from the strategic choices described above to operational ones such as the effective resourcing of anti-submarine warfare in the High North or delivering integrated air and missile defence.

As NATO updates its strategic concept and capstone warfighting concept, Ukraine’s dilemma could be a blessing in disguise. As English writer Samuel Johnson put it, ‘When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully’.

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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Sam Cranny-Evans

Associate Fellow

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Dr Sidharth Kaushal

Research Fellow, Sea Power

Military Sciences

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