NATO vs Russia at 70

The competition between NATO and Russia is not going the Alliance’s way. Russia has encircled Europe and divided the Alliance. How odd then that NATO is in such a self-congratulatory mood on its 70th anniversary.

Recently, RUSI hosted a seminar with participants from the Security in Northern Europe consortium. It featured government representatives from the UK, USA, Norway and France as well as figures from industry and academia, to discuss the forthcoming NATO Leaders' Meeting and what is likely to be on the agenda and what should be on it – two very different things. The meeting was held under non-attribution rules.

But what is clear – and hardly confidential – is that different national interests continue to vie for attention in the forthcoming agenda. A two-hour meeting is all the Alliance leaders plan to have together and we are promised a much shorter communique as a result. The risk is that the tone of the output from December’s summit will be triumphant, using the argument that NATO member states are spending more on their defence and highlighting  perceived historical successes since the end of the Cold War, rather than engaging in a more sober assessment of the state of an Alliance that is losing the competition with the successor to the rival it was designed to counter.

NATO remains in a deep state of navel-gazing. From the thorny question of Turkey, to the behaviour of the Trump administration and broader divisions over global security issues, the Alliance's internal politics are rife with mistrust. An era of limited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has overturned the traditional division of responsibility between politicians and military leaders many of whom seem to be challenged in meeting two intellectual challenges at once.  Militaries themselves seem obsessed with technological change and transformation, a trend  derived from an orthodoxy that victory over the Soviet Union during the Cold War was achieved by technology alone.

Today, Russia is arguably in the ascendency. The Arctic, the North Atlantic, North Africa, Syria, and Turkey all appear to have been fallen under Russian influence with the result, ironically, that it is the turn of NATO’s European continental members to feel encircled, the very claim that Russia has so often made about the Alliance. 

Moreover, Russia’s activities in the Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean, Baltic Sea, Balkans, and Sea of Azov are dividing NATO from within. Whilst the Russian strategy might well be deliberate, the reality is the ratio of defence spending between Russia and Europe, and the disparity in bomber, missile, and warhead numbers does not place Russia in such an advantageous position. Russia might be overwhelmingly outpowered by NATO on paper, but is outmanoeuvring NATO by other means.

To its credit, the Alliance has adopted a new NATO military strategy, the first since 1967.  This document could be valuable as a basis for cohering activity against threats and that might allow for conversations about military outputs rather than cash inputs. The document is classified: that approach inhibits a public understanding of how NATO will protect them and is obstructing the dialogue between the public and NATO – something the Parliamentary Assembly is working hard to re-establish. 

But internal differences, strategy development and Russia are not the only issues that the Alliance needs to deal with. The influence and penetration of China in Europe and on NATO member states has grown remarkably in the last decade, in everything from infrastructure ownership, corporate purchases, technology dependencies, to military presence. Despite this, NATO seems unwilling or unable to have a discussion about China, even if that was to discuss a potential red herring of a grand Russia-China pact.

This inability of the Alliance to deal with two major external issues simultaneously might have been caused by the dominance of single threat vectors for the Alliance since 1991, many of which were below the level at which NATO’s political leaders should have been operating.  The current climate of micromanagement within the Alliance, which often means that the macro issues do not get the time they deserve, cannot continue: the time and intellectual effort of NATO’s leaders needs refocusing at higher levels.

The new NATO Military Strategy might or might not address these factors.  In any case, such a refocus might start by acknowledging a few important facets of the state of competition between NATO and Russia (and China) today. First, less effort is needed on messaging and reassuring Western populations; far more effort needs to be made in improving the Alliance’s deterrence posture towards Russia. Second, the 2% of GDP spending debate – also known as the ‘burden-sharing’ debate – needs to be rephrased in terms of the risks, roles and responsibilities of individual member states. These are not contributions, they are ‘burdens’ that state-level governments must face. Third, governments of member-states should acknowledge that the public-private partnership is much more important to equipping NATO forces than the Alliance has given it credit for: in the face of the fourth industrial revolution, it is likely to increase even further during the next decade. The public also needs to be re-engaged in the discussion, and adequately prepared for incidents and eventualities at home at a time and place of the competitors choosing

The critical deduction from this review of NATO’s challenges is that the Alliance must stop thinking about conflict with Russia in terms of Napoleonic constructs, decisive battles, or out-of-area engagements. This era of great power competition requires a reset in thinking about geopolitical realities, founded on evidence of conflict as experienced today. The old conceptions of war and of decision-making, informed by NATO’s ‘corporate memory’ of the Cold War, are no longer fit for task, despite the re-emergence of NATO’s nuclear deterrence doctrine.

Only by acknowledging these realities can NATO rediscover its previous successes and meet future challenges. The Leaders's Summit in London next month may well acknowledge Space as a new domain of operations and warfighting (as it has done for cyber recently), but until there is a better understanding of what an Article 5 mutual security pledge looks like when applied to space, or what defines hostile intent between space vehicles, this would be as useful as a discussion on what the new NATO headquarters building should look like.

Come December, NATO’s leaders might be tempted to congratulate each other on their work in Afghanistan and Iraq, plan to admit Northern Macedonia to the Alliance, talk up technological transformation or discuss European Strategic Autonomy (an ardent desire in Paris). 

But the real effort needs to be devoted to a rediscovery of the principles and decision-making processes that made NATO capable of competing with the USSR during the Cold War.  This is not to say Cold War doctrines should be dusted off and used again (they shouldn’t), but rather requires an adjustment in the intellectual division of labour by politicians and their military leaders. This will be crucial if the Alliance is to meet the challenges that modern Russia poses and confront the Kremlin on battlefields both physical and virtual. 

This work is presented within the Security and Defence in Northern Europe research programme, funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Defence and is a collaborative effort of the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the German Council on Foreign Relations and RUSI.

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


Professor Peter Roberts

Senior Associate Fellow

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