This post was originally published on November 4, 2016, on Lindley French’s Blog Blast: Speaking Truth Unto Power:
“Russia is using the whole range of of state organs and powers to push its foreign policy in increasingly aggressive ways”.
– MI5 Director-General Andrew Parker. 1 November, 2016
Alphen, Netherlands. 3 November.
Russia is exploiting NATO’s many deterrence gaps because the Alliance no longer understands deterrence. Back in 1959 Bernard Brodie defined deterrence as a strategy designed to dissuade an adversary of an action not yet taken. Then deterrence was seen as what Herman Kahn infamously called the Homicide Pact Machine. However, contemporary deterrence requires far more than mutually assured nuclear destruction. Deterrence today is a complex mix of political will, conventional armed forces, nuclear forces, societal resiliency, new technology, and even psychological robustness. Moscow understands that and has embarked on a counter-deterrence influence strategy so that relatively weaker Russia can systematically undermine inherently far stronger NATO.
Moscow’s strategy operates at several levels. Russia is seeking to weaken NATO conventional military deterrence by establishing local, temporary military superiority and implying the threat of a long war that would force the Alliance to trade space for time. Moscow’s aim is to establish a virtual buffer zone of influence, not to trigger a war with the Alliance as a whole. Russia would either lose such a war, or trigger a nuclear conflict which Moscow understands would be a disaster for all. However, that does not preclude Moscow from embarking on a ‘limited’ Baltic land grab if it deemed the circumstances to be sufficiently propitious. Around the Baltic States Russia now enjoys local military superiority. And, whilst NATO conventional forces look strong on paper, many of them are either not equipped, ill-equipped, or simply unable to move quickly in support a major crisis in NATO’s east.
However, it is Alliance nuclear deterrence where Russian strategists are employing their considerable intellectual, strategic, and indeed psychological skills. By introducing illegal short and medium-range nuclear weapons back into Europe, and by suggesting they might have a warfighting role, Moscow is trying to break the continuity link between NATO’s conventional and nuclear deterrents. Moscow is also only too happy to leave an implied threat of nuclear war hanging toxically in the minds of its fellow Europeans.
The strategy is working. Apart from a limited French mid-range airborne nuclear capability, and some ancient American assets based in Germany, there is no credible political link between NATO’s conventional and nuclear forces. If ‘enhanced forward presence’, i.e. the conventional deterrent failed the US, Britain and France would be faced with the prospect of resorting to the use of their strategic nuclear forces. Such forces could in theory play a ‘sub-strategic’ role given that most of them can carry a range of warheads with different levels of destructive kilo-tonnage and mega-tonnage. However, these systems are submarine-based and in a sense self-deter as Moscow have to assume that if such a missile appeared on its radars it would herald a country-busting strategic exchange. Given that reality the idea that such weapons could deter a ‘limited’ war in Eastern Europe let alone be used is not only politically ‘incredible’ (in the real meaning of the word), it is unthinkable.
Deterrence is not simply about weapons – far from it. Russia is employing a range of irregular methods to undermine Alliance deterrence. This includes hybrid warfare, a range of soft power tactics, through the use of social media to sow disinformation, and direct efforts to exploit the political divisions in already divided European societies. Strategic miscommunication and disinformation is spread via a ‘hybrid truth’ strategy using television networks such as RT and Sputnik that are little more than instruments of Russian propaganda. Moscow has also bought some misguided academics and commentators in Europe to help ‘multiply the message’.
Russia’s use of cyber-warfare is proving particularly adept. Andrew Parker’s statement coincided with this week’s announcement by the British Government that it will spend some £2bn/$2.4bn on a new cyber-warfare capability that would, in the words of Chancellor Philip Hammond, enable Britain to “strike back” against attackers. Russia already has a major offensive cyber capability focussed on its mammoth Ministry of State Security, and is about to invest another $250m.
Why is Russia for the moment succeeding? The strongest/weakest pillar of deterrence is politics. Political deterrence worked during the Cold War because Moscow believed credible the NATO Article 5 premise that an attack on one Alliance member would be regarded as an attack on all. Today, the automaticity of NATO collective defence is not so clear. Last week I was in Italy. Many senior Italians simply dismiss the Russian ‘threat’ as the hysterical ramblings of a few, small Baltic States. It is a point of view held elsewhere in Europe, most notably in France. Critically, NATO’s eastern, southern, and western members are profoundly divided over where to make the Main Effort. Worse, the two traditional bastions of the Alliance are either distracted, as in the case of the US, or politically-broken, as in the case of the UK. Brexit is proving to be precisely the strategic disaster I predicted, and which forced me to abandon any support for it.
So, what to do? At the July NATO Warsaw Summit the Alliance agreed that, “NATO’s capacity to deter and defend is supported by an appropriate mix of capabilities. Nuclear conventional and missile defence capabilities complement each other. NATO also maintains the freedom of action and flexibility to respond to the full spectrum of challenges with an appropriate and tailored approach, at the minimum level of force”.
In such political circumstances NATO’s room for deterrent manoeuvre is limited. However, if the Alliance is to plug its deterrence gaps there are some things the alliance, or at least its more powerful members could do, if one assumes that a weak Russia does not actually seek all-out war. First, contest the cyber-battlespace. Do not leave the field to the Russians to exploit cyberspace at will. Second, contest the hybrid information-space. Deconstruct Russian propaganda and actively promote a message of strength and friendship to the Russian people. Third, mean what we say. Alliance members must actually fulfil the commitments they make at NATO summits. Fourth, forge a new Resiliency Pact between NATO and the EU to render European society more robust in preventing Moscow’s efforts to divide and distract. Above all, NATO members must prevent the strength/weakness balance of power to reach a point anywhere in the Alliance where Russia’s own internal self-contradictions might lead a Kremlin in crisis to chance a nationalist-adventurist gamble.
If NATO is to fulfil its mission the Alliance must not only fill the deterrence gaps, it must think anew about just what deterrence actually means and demands in the twenty-first century. Then, just then, we might convince President Putin to avoid actions not yet taken, and which may lead who knows where…
Julian Lindley-French is an internationally-recognised strategic analyst, advisor and author, Vice-President of the Atlantic Treaty Association, CGAI Fellow, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Statecraft, Director of Europa Analytica & Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, National Defense University, Washington DC