Western Europe might not see all aspects of Russia’s propaganda war.
Even a few years ago, there was already debate about whether NATO as a defence alliance was still necessary in the 21st century. Many member states either reduced or suspended their defence spending, Russia was discussed as NATO’s strategic partner, and officials in the headquarters corridors could be heard joking about Russia joining NATO.
The role of the Alliance quickly became clearer in 2014 when Russia annexed and occupied the Crimea and started a war in eastern Ukraine that continues to this day. The events in Ukraine could be considered a new-generation war, where in parallel with the classical conventional warfare a so-called hybrid war is being waged—political, economic, cyber and other measures are used for achieving one’s goals.
Russia’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in the east, and the terrorist threat from Daesh and migration problems in the south, have substantially changed the security situation in Europe in recent years. The common denominator, however, is the skill and capability to use hybrid warfare tactics to achieve one’s goals.
Hybrid warfare does not have a single, unchanging definition but, in essence, there is a predominant consensus that this is warfare where, in addition to military means, non-military tools are used to achieve goals and the implementation of the latter primarily takes advantage of internal weaknesses.
One possible definition of hybrid warfare proposed by NATO is war where the objective is achieved by integrating military, paramilitary and civilian measures, trying to influence policymakers and decision-makers.1
Although in essence it is not a new concept, the use of hybrid warfare tactics has taken on a new dimension in the internet era and is creating more and more new challenges to the Alliance. The tools of hybrid warfare, mainly propaganda and spreading false information, were actively used by the Soviet Union. The main difference between Soviet hybrid tactics and those used by Russia today is that in the Soviet era the tools were mainly used to weaken the country’s opponents but now there is also a desire to redesign Europe politically in line with Russia’s interests.2
Based on the changed security architecture and the statements regarding NATO during the campaign of the new US President-elect, Donald Trump, , cooperation between NATO and the European Union, Europe’s defence capabilities and their development are once again topical.
Strategic Partnership on Paper
The beginnings of cooperation between NATO and the European Union were already evident during the Cold War in the form of the Western European Union (WEU). The adoption of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 laid the foundation for a common EU security and defence policy that was also supported by NATO.
An official joint summit of NATO and the European Union did not take place until 2000. The first important example of cooperation could be said to be the common position adopted on the crisis in the western Balkans in May 2001, when NATO and the EU both had an interest in resolving the crisis.
The next step was the NATO-EU Declaration on a European Security and Defence Policy, signed at the end of 2002, that defined the parties as strategic partners. The main emphasis was on cooperation in crisis management, but also on making decisions based on mutual interests. The following year, the organisations signed the so-called Berlin Plus agreement that included the possibility of the European Union using NATO forces if necessary. This agreement mainly provided opportunities for the EU to cooperate more closely with NATO. In the following years there were regular formal meetings between foreign ministers and ambassadors of both groups. However, extensive cooperation did not take place in practice.
The strengthening and development of the strategic partnership between NATO and the EU became more important in NATO’s Strategic Concept, adopted in 2010, which obliged the Alliance to work more closely with international organisations, including the EU, on crisis prevention and to ensure peace and stability in post-conflict regions. Cooperation in cyber defence was added during NATO’s Wales Summit in 2014, but technical agreements were not reached until early 2016.
Thus, cooperation between NATO and the EU has existed for a long time, at least on paper, and has occasionally received injections of new impetus. In practice, however, cooperation between the organisations—which have 22 member states in common—has not been very smooth. One of the main problems is the question of Turkey and Cyprus, but another is the lack of political will to cooperate on a larger scale.
The need for closer cooperation between NATO and the EU has been discussed more actively again following the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, which outlined hybrid threats, cyber defence, joint military exercises, development of defence capabilities and naval defence as additional possibilities for cooperation between NATO and the EU.
The NATO-EU declaration adopted at the Warsaw Summit defines new common challenges that require closer cooperation than before to guarantee European security. Joint analyses and preventive work, information-sharing and cooperation in strategic communications is deemed important to tackle hybrid threats as effectively as possible.
The importance of NATO-EU cooperation is also outlined in the EU’s Global Strategy, published this year, which states that NATO is an important partner in ensuring transatlantic security. The focus is also on hybrid and cyber warfare.
European security is also being discussed more actively among members of the European Parliament. At the end of November the parliament adopted a report prepared by Estonian MEP Urmas Paet about tightening European defence cooperation; this also emphasises the need for cooperation with NATO, especially in the context of fighting hybrid and cyber threats, but also for cooperation in scientific research on defence, and states that the EU’s support is needed to create the infrastructure for military forces. It is also considered important that, if necessary, NATO can use EU resources.
All these steps are most welcome, but words on paper are not enough. Cooperation between the organisations has been discussed before, but serious and substantial cooperation has not been achieved. Given the increasingly varied threats, this is becoming inevitable—a hybrid approach is needed to tackle hybrid threats successfully.
Hybrid Threat Challenges for NATO and the European Union
NATO and the EU are both part of the Western values system, share the same principles and stand for stability and security in Europe. NATO, as the primary guarantor of European and transatlantic stability and security, is a military organisation, which means that it generally lacks the measures and possibilities to defend itself from hybrid threats. The Warsaw Summit also recognised cyberspace as the potential fourth dimension of warfare, in addition to ground, sea and air; but cyber threats are only one part of hybrid threats.
Events in Ukraine threw up a number of new challenges with which a classical military alliance like NATO cannot cope. Russia’s hybrid warfare methods have revealed several “gaps” in NATO’s current doctrines and measures. For example, conscious directing of migration flows or spreading false information in a NATO member state with the aim of dividing society cannot be defined as attacks in the classical sense. It is even more difficult to define them as attacks in the context of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. In addition, the response to an aggressor that attacks with hybrid tactics needs to be much more rapid than current NATO decision-making processes would allow. The prescribed defence expenditure, amounting to 2% of GDP, does not cover the cost of countering hybrid threats (e.g. investment in internal security, including the police and border forces, educating the public about propaganda and disinformation, etc.). In the context of hybrid warfare, non-military tools are as important as military ones, also from the perspective of deterrence.3 NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence and the EU’s institution in the same field have made a significant contribution to determining and mapping hybrid threats. A centre for countering hybrid threats, to be established in Finland next year, is also a welcome development.
However, it is important that the two organisations really cooperate and do not just perform the same tasks separately. The basis of efficient and successful cooperation is certainly political will but, first and foremost, the organisations need to reach a mutual understanding that hybrid warfare is part of real warfare and hybrid threats are just as serious as military ones. Hybrid warfare is not only cyber warfare—it involves a much broader spectrum, making NATO-EU cooperation crucial here. Today, the problem lies in the fact that many senior officials in NATO and the EU have not understood exactly what hybrid threats are, which is especially dangerous given that the opponent is Russia, which is familiar with hybrid tactics and uses them skilfully.4
Although the risk of conventional war in NATO member states is not high, attacks in the cyber-sphere, aggressive information campaigns, interventions in elections or other attempts to destabilise society from within are much more likely. The inability to counter these threats could lead to a situation in which the adversary achieves its objectives without taking military measures. This especially affects Western European countries that do not have the historical experience of the workings of Russian propaganda to the extent that Eastern Europe does.
Cooperation between NATO and the EU is therefore more important than ever. The European Union, as a primarily political civilian organisation, is just the right actor to contribute to security in the context of various hybrid threats. The fact that the majority of NATO and EU member states are the same means that resources are limited and constructive complementary cooperation is of the utmost importance. A united and strong NATO and European Union are both important factors in guaranteeing the stability and security of Europe.
1 North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Wales Summit, September 2014.
2 Hybrid Warfare: NATO’s New Strategic Challenge? 7 April 2015, NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Defence and Security Committee, General Report.
3 Understanding and Countering Hybrid Warfare: Next Steps for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Katie Abbott, University of Ottawa, 23 March 2016.
4 NATO-EU: Cybrid Jawfare?, Julian Lindley-Frenc, 18 November 2016:
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.