There is an urgent need for fresh thinking about deterrence as a core concept in preventing aggression in Europe – this was the central message from an excellent Wilton Park conference “Rethinking deterrence and assurance” held last week in the UK.
There was a pretty unanimous understanding at the conference that the challenge posed by Russia is strategic, long-term and multi-faceted. As such it goes far beyond the current crisis in Ukraine. The latter is a symptom, not a cause. Given the above, a new type of Cold War might be the best thing we could expect. At the same time, the strategic stability prevalent during most of the Cold War era is gone. Limited armed conflicts along NATO’s eastern flank have become a thinkable possibility and this challenges traditional concepts of deterrence.
Russia may objectively be a declining power but it is asserting itself in an increasingly confident manner and working on exploiting Western weaknesses. It has developed a wide range of capabilities and tools that could be used to intimidate and attack neighbouring countries. In the military domain, Russian efforts have been focused on qualitative and quantitative improvements of its conventional forces. At the same time, the bellicose nuclear rhetoric has been raised to levels not seen since the worst periods of the Cold War. The threat of conventional or nuclear coercion against NATO members is real. Moreover, we are facing an player who can act very quickly and in a decisive manner.
There is a general belief that Putin’s aim is to test the NATO alliance and, if possible, to break it. So far the cohesion shown by the allies in facing up to Russia has been a nasty surprise for the Kremlin. But can we be sure that this solidarity will hold when the Alliance is faced with a really grave situation requiring decisions over war and peace? The Baltic region, as the most exposed area of the Atlantic Alliance, is central to these concerns, and is clearly the area where the deterrence and assurance challenge for NATO is most acute.
The potential Russian aggression could take both unconventional and conventional forms, and most likely it will be a mix of different elements. This reflects Russia’s comprehensive approach to conflicts, which is often also described as hybrid warfare. While the unconventional methods in the Russian toolbox should not be underestimated, exploitation of its conventional military superiority in the region remains central to Russia’s strategy.
The starkest scenario is one where Russia attempts a quick and decisive land-grab in the Baltics. This being successful it could then overtly threaten to use limited nuclear strikes to deter the Alliance from intervening. This would be in accordance with a Russian concept of using nuclear escalation to de-escalate. The aim of the whole adventure would be to present NATO with a fait accompli on the ground. Russia could believe that NATO would not have the stomach to fight back then faced with an explicit threat of nuclear escalation. If this gamble would succeed, the whole credibility of the Alliance would be fatally undermined.
The key question is – do the United States and Europe have sufficient will and capability to deter Russia convincingly? Repeated signals, like the speech by President Obama in Tallinn last September, of a determination to uphold the obligations of Article 5 security guarantees are vital. Words are important! But to be credible signalling needs to be backed up by capability. Red lines which are not backed by hard power may invite the adversary to test them.
Current NATO collective defence guarantees are based on the principle of extended deterrence provided mainly by the nuclear forces of the United States. It is evident that to counter nuclear blackmail, the Alliance needs to have strong nuclear capabilities and NATO’s nuclear posture, readiness and messaging need therefore to be carefully reassessed. The current NATO posture of non-strategic nuclear forces in Europe is way below the options Russia has in the nuclear field. At the Wilton Park conference, a question was raised whether NATO again needs to beef up its nuclear forces in Europe to ensure that Russia understands that in the case of the use of nuclear weapons the Alliance will not back down?
While this option itself would need to remain on the table, attempts at the re-nuclearisation of Europe would most likely divide the Alliance. Further, while Russia may indeed be mostly bluffing and in real life unlikely to break long-established nuclear taboos, still the very prospect of ending up in situation where a nuclear exchange might become a realistic course of action does not provide much confidence about the attractiveness of relying too extensively on the threat of nuclear retaliation.
Instead, from the perspective of the region, the issue is how to minimize the risk of having to end up in the situation which would allow the Kremlin to attempt to dictate to NATO its own terms by bringing the nuclear card directly to the table. The focus of NATO’s strategy in the Baltic region would therefore need to be minimizing the risk of Russian forces gaining significant territory, which could later be enormously difficult and costly to reverse. The key in deterring Russia would be a NATO strategy of credible forward defensive posture. By removing the overwhelming local military advantage of the opponent, NATO would remove the very incentive for the Russian leadership to strike.
Following from this, the Alliance needs to consider that policies and force structures would prove most effective in defending against, and thereby deterring, Russian military aggression. Will there be the right forces in the right place and at the right time? NATO is conventionally much stronger than Russia, but that conventional strength is not immediately available where it is needed. In the case of the Baltic region, NATO presently faces a clear conventional inferiority in the balance of forces and also does not have a good recipe to rapidly reinforce the region with significant combat forces.
The current NATO approach relies on rapid response forces which at the onset of the crisis could be deployed to the territory of exposed allies. However, while Russia as a centralised authoritarian state can take decisions quickly and has shown an ability to deploy significant numbers of troops over large territories, the corresponding capacities of NATO are in doubt. Especially questionable is the ability for quick political decision-making in an alliance of 28 democracies.
The present NATO defensive posture in the Baltic region consists mainly of the local defence forces of the Baltic states, and rather symbolic company-sized trip-wire type deployments of US troops. In addition, the United States plans to preposition heavy weaponry in NATO’s easternmost member states. But the equipment dedicated to the Baltic countries would still amount to only an additional company per state. While clearly a step forward, this cannot be seen as sufficiently credible to remove the possible temptation of the Russian leadership to test the Alliance in the Baltics.
The Baltic states themselves, while undoubtedly needing to put a premium on developing the capabilities and mind-set for national territorial defence, something which many in the Alliance used to describe as old-fashioned policies and a waste of resources, will not have the capability to themselves deter Russia convincingly. This is due to the basic asymmetry of the sizes between the Baltic states and the Russian Federation.
The presence of conventional allied military forces able to inflict significant costs to the Russian military would be the deterrent message required. It would be much more credible than a promise to retaliate and would also diminish the very threat of ending in a situation there the Alliance would face Russia’s coercive threat of nuclear use. Moreover, in the context of hybrid threats, a strong conventional military posture would deny the adversary an opportunity to support its unconventional methods with military blackmail.
As a start, the whole Alliance effort in support of the easternmost allies should be framed as deterrence instead of reassurance. The focus has to be on countering the potential threat, rather than merely on the insecurities of exposed allies. In the end, in order to be reassured one has to believe that the adversary is being deterred.
For the implementation of this deterrence posture, US leadership and strong American presence on the ground is essential. It would avoid any perception of disengagement and the impression that US interest in Baltic security is secondary to other global interests. Further, the Russian political and military leadership undoubtedly takes American military power very seriously.
US troops in the Baltic states should be accompanied by deployments of force components from key Western European allies. This would both signal the commitment of European allies to the deterrence and wider transatlantic burden-sharing.
Germany, having emerged under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel as a political leader of Europe, has been getting increasingly vocal in its condemnation of Russia’s behaviour. At the same time doubts about the ultimate unwillingness of Germany to, if necessary, militarily confront Russia are not easy to dissipate. Therefore, the signals that Germany is increasing its contributions to NATO’s efforts in the region are welcome and should lead to the persistent presence of Bundeswehr units in the Baltic states. Similar deployments from the United Kingdom and France would also be of particular importance. Not only because of these two countries having the most capable and experienced military forces among European allies, but also because they are nuclear powers.
Yes, it will all cost money. But these expenses are not significant compared to the costs the nations were willing to bear during recent deployments to operations, like ISAF in Afghanistan. Even more importantly, if the allies indicate that they consider the costs of these deployments as too high, what kind of signal does this send to Russia? Would it not show a lack of resolve to bear costs, and therefore, signal that if faced with a confrontation which would involve the need to bear much, much higher costs, the allies would indeed back off. This would only encourage the Kremlin’s calculation that the West is more interested in compromise with Russian expansionist demands than in militarily confronting Moscow. Leaving this impression is especially dangerous in the context of messages like the one provided by the results of the recent poll by the Pew Research Center, which showed the general reluctance of European populations to use military force to defend a NATO ally attacked by Russia.
In sum, ensuring the effectiveness of deterrence in the Baltic region has to be a central feature of the new policy of containment which should guide Western thinking about handling the Russian challenge. NATO’s present conventional vulnerability in the region itself can cause strategic instability. Nothing would do more to invite Russian aggression than signalling NATO’s lack of resolve.