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There is now a fundamental divergence in world views between the NATO powers and Russia. The West sees Russia as being on the strategic offensive – in the process,challenging a European rules-based order where small states can decide their own fates – investing heavily in military power and increasingly willing to use force to get its way.
Security relations between the West and Russia are still a mix of competitive and co-operative elements. Co-operation has recently been evident in relation to the Iranian nuclear deal. There has also been some convergence in approaches to Syria, though the two sides still remain far apart. Yet, since the invasions of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the balance of the relationship has become markedly more competitive. Elements of co-operation have increasingly been seen as exceptions to the rule.
Russia, for its part, places opposition to US hegemonic ambitions at the heart of its foreign policy. It believes that the US took advantage of its past weakness to enlarge NATO eastwards, including to former Soviet republics. Russia’s leaders have argued that the country’s military initiatives in the last two years have been conducted for defensive purposes. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and its subsequent military support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, was triggered by the overthrow of then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a close Russian ally. The military intervention in Syria since September was similarly triggered by reports that the defensive lines of the Assad regime were at imminent risk of being overrun by rebel forces.
Dramatically reduced oil and gas prices, combined with the cumulative long-term effects of sanctions, have now brought the rapid Russian economic expansion of the last decade to an end. Although the defence budget has been protected from the sharp cuts being made in many areas of social spending, ambitious programmes for re-equipping Russia’s military are being reduced and postponed. Yet a weak Russia could, over the next decade, be as dangerous as a strong one – just as an unpopular president could be more prepared to take military risks in order to shore up his domestic support. Responding to an unpredictable Russia will continue to be one of the central challenges of European security.
Given Russia’s underlying strategic weakness, NATO policy must balance the need to deter further aggression with the need to reassure Moscow that its own fears and concerns are also taken into account. In the absence of a fundamental change of Russia’s policy, aspirations for a transformed relationship based on the mutual trust that seemed possible in the early 1990s are probably unrealistic for some time to come. However, both sides do have a common interest in managing their relations in a manner that minimises the probability of armed conflict between them.
To achieve this, NATO policy-makers need to start with two large military asymmetries, neither of which existed during the Cold War.
First, despite sharp recent increases, Russia still spends only $70 billion annually on defence, compared with NATO Europe’s $250 billion and the US’s $600 billion. It remains far behind the US in the quality of its fielded forces. And now, with the pace of growth in its defence budget slowing dramatically, the gap with overall NATO capabilities – or at least Russia’s perception of such a gap – could begin to widen again.
This growing inferiority, in turn, could further deepen the Kremlin’s longstanding fears of a surprise attack, rooted in the Soviet experience of Nazi Germany’s blitzkrieg in June 1941. These concerns are particularly acute in relation to Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal. They help to explain both why investments in nuclear forces are prioritised – this is the one area in which Russia can truthfully claim to have rough parity with the US – and why Russia is so concerned by US plans for ballistic-missile defence (BMD). Washington’s refusal to amend its plans for BMD basing in Europe, despite the Iranian nuclear deal, plays into Moscow’s narrative that these deployments were always about Russia.
The second asymmetry, by contrast, is in Russia’s favour. NATO enlargement has brought the Atlantic Alliance to the border of Russia itself, but has left NATO’s most capable forces based several hundred miles to the west. Even Poland – an increasingly capable military power – still bases most of its combat forces in the west of the country. As a result, Russia maintains local military superiority in its immediate neighbourhood, even as the wider military balance is against it.
Moreover, since the 2008 Georgian war, Russia’s military has reorganised by giving up many of its capabilities for large-scale conventional warfare. Instead, it has focused on enhancing its ability to conduct smaller operations in its immediate neighbourhood at short notice. The results of this investment have been seen over the last two years – in Ukraine and now in Syria.
As a result of these changes, the three Baltic States are concerned that, after a preparatory ‘hybrid’ phase, Russia could invade them at short notice, daring NATO to respond.
In the immediate aftermath of Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, leaders at the NATO summit held in Wales in September 2014 announced a series of steps designed to enhance the Alliance’s capability to deter Russian moves against its member states and to reassure eastern members that they would not be abandoned in a future crisis. However, in the lead-up to the next NATO summit in Warsaw in July 2016, some members want to go further. Some argue that it is now time to deploy a significant permanent presence of NATO conventional forces on Russia’s borders, both in the three Baltic States and in the eastern districts of Poland (facing Kaliningrad). Only such a presence, it is argued, can provide an effective capability for slowing any future Russian aggressive force, preventing the creation of a fait accompli and providing enough time for reinforcements to arrive.
Yet other NATO states, including the US and the UK, argue that this is still a step too far. It would help to address one element of the deterrence puzzle, only to add a new set of problems. The stationing of large combat forces with offensive potential on Russia’s borders, it is feared, would likely raise tensions, provoke increased forward deployments by Russia in response and increase the chances of miscalculation in a future crisis.
Russian concerns about an attack have to be taken seriously. In a mirror image of Western concerns over hybrid warfare, Russian leaders fear new ‘colour revolutions’, in which the US and its allies use a combination of subversion, propaganda and economic sanctions to encourage uprisings against governments that they wish to overthrow. Such tactics have been used already in Serbia and Georgia, and most recently – as the Russians see it – in Ukraine. In the future, the fear is that they could be used against Belarus and possibly even against Russia itself. There may be particular concerns in relation to Kaliningrad, which only became part of Russia after the expulsion of its German inhabitants in 1945, and is now home to Russia’s Baltic fleet. Because of its location and heritage, Kaliningrad is already heavily exposed to European political and cultural influences, with a local identity distinct from that of the rest of Russia – from which it is physically separated. If NATO were to build a significant permanent presence on the exclave’s borders, Russia might fear that Kaliningrad could become indefensible in a future crisis.
If there ever were a shooting war, Russia could not rely on being able to use Kaliningrad as a sanctuary from which to shoot down NATO aircraft, without taking the substantial risk that NATO would respond by attacking its air-defence facilities. Yet overt NATO signalling of such a possibility,in peacetime, could be misinterpreted as a sign of possible offensive intent. NATO should therefore avoid signalling that Kaliningrad might be held at risk in a future crisis, despite its role in Russian anti-access and area-denial plans.
Yet there are further steps, short of a substantial deployment of permanent forces to the Baltics, that NATO could take to reinforce deterrence of Russia.
First, the vulnerabilities of exposed states to subversion and cyber-attack should be addressed through support for improved defences of airfields and critical national infrastructure (CNI); protected communications; more proactive police and paramilitary forces; and the planning of local armed resistance.
Second, NATO states should maintain a persistent and continuous – but not permanent – presence in exposed states. There should be a focus on how the NATO presence could act as a ‘trip wire’ in ambiguous situations – for example, by committing them to support local police and CNI protection. Particular attention should be paid to ensure that the rules of engagement for deployed foreign forces allow them to be involved at a relatively early stage in a crisis (for example in response to Russian-orchestrated takeovers of airfields and television stations).
Third, NATO should do more to orchestrate – and communicate – the deterrence signalling of its members, including through exercises and deployments, to ensure that their cumulative effect does not send unintended – and potentially unduly provocative – messages. In the immediate aftermath of the aggression in Ukraine, national programmes of assistance from Western states were not always drawn up in full awareness of the broader picture.
Fourth, particular attention should be given to enhance capabilities for crisis co-ordination between NATO’s four leading military powers – the US, the UK, France and Germany. The primary mechanism for Alliance consultation during a crisis should remain the North Atlantic Council. Yet there is always a risk that obstructive behaviour from a small number of states (perhaps with their own special relationships with Russia) could delay an effective response for a critical period of hours or even days. Maintaining unity between the four major powers ensures that each shares the responsibility for what might follow. However, it would also be important to make clear that all NATO member states remain entitled – under the UN Charter – to respond to requests for military assistance from allies, even in the absence of a NATO consensus.
Some of the greatest internal strains within the Alliance come from the variations in how member states prioritise different risks and threats. While eastern states want others to share their concerns about Russia, they have become increasingly reluctant to support military operations in the wider Middle East or to bear a share of the burden of Syrian refugees. Most Mediterranean states, by contrast, are focused on threats from the south. To some extent, a division of labour in security responsibilities within the Alliance is therefore inevitable. However, if this is taken too far in a major crisis, it could undermine the most fundamental principles of collective defence.
NATO as an organisation, therefore, needs to reiterate that member states should continue to make military capabilities available to face ‘Article V’ threats to their security, whether they come from Al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan, ISIS in Syria and Iraq, or Russia.
In turn, this means that NATO should continue to emphasise strategic adaptability in its military planning, while resisting the deployment of large, fixed contingents of permanent, non-national forces along its borders. The larger powers – including the US, the UK and France – should remain primarily ‘spine powers’, able to switch between theatres as priorities change.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers
Research Director and Director, UK Defence Policy Studies, RUSI.