I wrote this back in July 2015, and it was originally published by The Center for Intelligence Studies on their website. However, I have had difficulty linking back to the article, so I’ve decided to put it up on my blog.
The Implications of Russia’s Aggression Against Ukraine for NATO
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea early last year, and its subsequent invasion of Ukraine proper, discussions about the country’s ambitions and goals have become common in European capitals. Even more so as Russian adventurism has not been limited to Ukraine. Flybys with transponders turned off, and dangerous maneuvers mid-air in international airspace are now a regular occurrence. The search for a Russian submarine in Swedish waters last year brought back memories of the Cold War era.
The rhetoric from Moscow about nuclear capability and intent is escalating at the same time. In March, Russia’s military claimed that it was sending its Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian province on Poland’s border. It additionally stated that it was planning to “deploy long-range, nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 bombers to Crimea”. Conventional weapons and troops are also being moved into Kaliningrad, a recent article in RFERL confirmed. The sabre-rattling is concerning.
Questions about NATO’s future and capabilities are increasing in conjunction with rising Russian adventurism. There is a growing belief that NATO is fractured and does not have the political will to act in the face of the threats it faces from a resurgent Russia. There are questions about the alliance’s cohesiveness, and commitment to one another. Is the alliance able to respond adequately to the current threats it faces from Russia?
NATO faces dual threats from Russia. The threat of a conventional war with Russia is being debated, with both experts and dilettantes trying to anticipate which alliance member Russia will invade first. Alongside this, the phrase ‘hybrid war’ is being bandied about, though its meaning and what it entails is not agreed upon. In essence the group is facing the threat of war by unconventional means. Tactics include propaganda aimed at minority populations in order to destabilize domestic politics in NATO countries, and cyber warfare, among others. These are threats that the alliance was not designed to counter.
It seems unlikely that Russia could win a conventional war on the battlefield with NATO. As a result, Russia is resorting to asymmetrical attacks, and intimidation tactics. Attacks that NATO was not designed to counteract. While the alliance has only recently stated that a cyber attack would be considered a reason for action on Article 5, the parameters are unclear. Poland, for example, has experienced seven reported cyber attacks in the last year alone. Although it is unclear if the source of the attacks is the same, as it has not been publicized.
At the same time, an internal fracturing appears to be taking place. NATO has always been something of a loose confederation of nations who could be relied upon to act if a member was attacked. It has become even looser in the last couple of decades. The common enemy it was initially designed to counter no longer existed, as the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and Russia was transformed from a threat into a partner. New threats emerged to fill the vacuum left by the USSR, but rather than acting as a unifying force, they sometimes led to discord. The alliance struggled to define their purpose and common interests in the face of these changes and challenges.
Pew Research Center recently released a poll about attitudes to the alliance and the conflict in Ukraine with Russia. The polling agency dramatically declared that more than half of Germans thought their country should not abide by Article V in coming to the aid of an alliance member if they got into conflict with Russia.
The Pew poll was criticized, however, for misrepresenting their findings. In fact, the poll question did not specify the instigator of the hypothetical conflict. Something that would almost surely make a difference in the way someone answered the question, and certainly would change how NATO reacted.
Even so, it appears that NATO lacks the political will to act as a whole. Articles 4 and 5 may not be the guarantee they were once believed to be. Politics still play a role in the alliance’s decision-making process. This principle was laid out as early as 1956, when the Secretary General of NATO, Lord Ismay, stated: “NATO is a political as well as a military alliance”.
Immediately following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Poland and Lithuania called for “extraordinary consultations” based on Article 4 of the Washington Treaty, on the premise that Russia’s actions were ‘a threat to NATO’. Consultations based on Article 4 have only been called four times since 1949.
Article 4 of the NATO treaty reads:
“The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”
Article 5 of the treaty has only been invoked once, by the United States after it was attacked on September 11. Article 5 requires all members to agree to act, and does not mention technological advances. There has been some question of what happens in the case of a cyber attack. But NATO Chief Stoltenberg reassured allies earlier this year, saying, “NATO has made clear that cyber attacks can potentially trigger an Article 5 response.”
Another question that has been on the coalition’s backburner for years is the budget. According to numbers just released by NATO, only five countries (Estonia, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States) are spending the suggested two percent of GDP (gross domestic product). This percentage is not mandatory, but the fact that it is not has caused some resentment among the various members. In addition, there are 18 countries who plan to increase their contribution, Stoltenberg stated on Monday. Nevertheless, he continued, the budget is expected to fall “by 1.5%” this year.
These budgetary disputes demonstrate a lack of commitment to other alliance members, and have led to some resentment about countries who do not contribute, but still expect to benefit.
Some NATO members were also hesitant to allow former Warsaw Pact countries to join the alliance after the end of the Cold War. And accession has been frozen since 2009, when Albania and Croatia joined. Both Ukraine and Georgia have been denied entry despite statements of intent. However, in the face of increasing Russian sabre-rattling, there has also been interest expressed by non-NATO countries in expanding their partnership, or even joining the alliance. Polls conducted in Sweden, for example, show that popular support for NATO ascension is the highest it has been in years — 31% according to a recent poll.
Russia’s ambassador to Sweden has recently responded with threats, saying: “The country that joins Nato needs to be aware of the risks it is exposing itself to.”
On a recent visit to Finland, former Russian Finance Minister, Alexei Kudrin, also asked for guarantees that the alliance “would not continue to expand”. A promise Russia has claimed they were given at the end of the Cold War.
It is difficult not to be sceptical of the capability of a fractured NATO to respond to Russian aggression. NATO has demonstrated clearly that it is technically and technologically capable in the face of a conventional invasion.
As Stoltenberg recently stated: “NATO is here. And NATO is ready.”
He continued by laying out the coalition’s future plans, including deployments, and new “logistics headquarters”.
Nevertheless, it seems frozen when confronted with unconventional attacks. Additionally, it appears to be politically incapable of reaching a consensus on so-called existential threats, and even identifying its common enemy.
Russia’s current hostile behavior presents NATO with the opportunity to address questions concerning its purpose and function. There is a small window of opportunity for the alliance to come to an agreement on these issues and develop a new strategy, but unfortunately this looks increasingly unlikely. NATO failed to adapt to new realities following the end of the Cold War, leaving itself unprepared for the current threats it faces. Any attempts to rectify the situation now would be reactionary and may not be successful.