Russian Resurgence has Blindsided Nato

Putin’s Crimean adventure, US isolation and EU decline show that the Western Allies urgently need to come up with a new strategy

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Combat-ready? British soldiers on a Nato military exercise in Estonia intended to deter Russian aggression (credit: Getty)

 This summer looks set to be remembered as a low point in the vitality of global democracy: the shape of global politics has seen unprecedented change in six short months. It is hard to think of a time in the postwar world when the global footprint of freedom has been so comprehensively under threat and in so many different locations. The response by both America and Europe has been ostrich-like. A violent but probably ultimately suicidal Sunni insurgency in Iraq and the ongoing fighting in Syria are likely to give way to an unimaginably powerful Iran, whose fortunes have turned on President Obama’s strategic incompetence and push towards American isolationism. A resurgent Iran has wasted no time expanding its sphere of influence. Obama’s hasty withdrawal from Iraq and failure to provide the promised “diplomatic surge” have contributed to the violence of the sectarian fracture of the state. The irony of America helping Iran achieve her strategic objectives, while compromising the nuclear non-proliferation stance of the West, is astonishing and would have been inconceivable a year ago. In Asia, the cauldron of disputes is reaching new levels of tension between China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. At the same time China is clamping down on the limited freedoms of Hong Kong. The British press has seemingly forgotten about the crisis in Ukraine while Russia has cut off gas supplies to her neighbour and some Russian companies are in the process of switching contracts to the Chinese renminbi, reducing Western sanctions to an annoyance.
Nato needs to take several important lessons from this mess. First, that despite the rhetoric, Obama is the least globally involved American president since the Second World War. The contours of American military response to global crises appear to be limited to fig-leaf troop deployments measured in the hundreds of men, and limited air strikes. Obama’s foreign policy maxim “Don’t do stupid shit” can be translated, in policy terms, as an effective move to isolationism. A seasoned strategist might suggest that the avoidance of “stupid shit” is not a policy but a state of mind that translates to inaction. Not doing anything has left America with only a selection of very bad geopolitical choices. America’s defence of democracy may well be sacrificed in favour of a return to the 19th-century notion of effectively creating buffer states between great powers. Ukraine would be one such example and Iraq might ultimately be balkanised in a similar way between the respective Shia and Sunni powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Second, the building of relations between Russia, China, Syria, Iran and perhaps by proxy Iraq, is significant. The alliance of oil and gas producers and the huge Chinese market underscores Western economic as well as political miscalculation. The spread of democracy, which America and Western Europe have taken for granted, is under assault by countries who have now demonstrated that they are able to exploit the unwillingness of Nato to engage strategically.
As America remembered over Memorial Day weekend the human cost of its commitment to defending democracy, Europe awoke to a new political reality in the form of resurgent extremist and nationalist politics. For those still downplaying the significance of Russia’s Ukrainian incursion, there was little respite. The European elections occurred simultaneously with the Ukrainian elections, in a week in which Vladimir Putin signed the Eurasian Union into existence, and an unapologetic President Obama restated his incoherent retrenchment of US foreign policy at West Point.
Putin’s appearance on the beaches of Normandy for the D-Day commemoration was symbolic of the degree to which European and American responses to Russia’s occupation of Crimea have had little effect. Attempts to isolate Russia economically have been put into perspective by the strategic Sino-Russian gas deal, which some estimates value at $400 billion over 30 years. The deal was accompanied by joint military manoeuvres and a declaration of concern about Ukraine, seemingly absolving Putin of Chinese condemnation and paving the way for future cooperation. Obama’s strategic miscalculations in Europe and Asia have made concrete a Eurasian partnership that seemed improbable at the start of the year and is intended to counterbalance American power. Equally, the Russian stock market and rouble have both rebounded since the lows at the start of Western sanctions. Nonetheless, there is still violence in the east of Ukraine, despite an apparent reduction in the Russian troop build-up on the border.
 Putin has achieved his aim of destabilising Ukraine to the point that its membership of Nato or the EU is unrealistic in the mid-term and he now controls the strategically important Crimean port of Sevastapol. Beyond these goals, and even once tensions recede, he has ushered in a new chapter in transatlantic security and it has been imposed upon, not directed by, the Nato allies. The European settlement is under threat from inside and out, and Putin has managed to drive a wedge between the European and American allies over how best to manage the situation or meet future security requirements.
It is ten years since the “big bang” of EU enlargement absorbed much of the former Soviet Union and talk of the future scope of the union seemed to defy geography. With a quick, skilful assault on the contours of European democracy and Nato’s credibility, Putin has reversed the post-Cold War success of Nato and the EU in extending membership to whomever met their democratic and economic requirements. It is no coincidence that one of the few unifying issues among the extremist parties at the European polls has been their anti-American stance and pro-Putin links. The Kremlin will no doubt welcome their destabilising presence in the European parliament.
A week after his West Point speech, Obama’s sop to the terrified and most at risk eastern European members of Nato was the announcement of a “European reassurance initiative” (ERI). The package sounded more impressive than his previous lacklustre efforts at European security. However, as use of the word “reassurance” rather than “deterrence” signals, Obama’s real impulse was less about securing Europe and more about a short-term pacifier for America’s noisy Nato partners. The reality is that extra troop rotations and naval patrols in Europe of the magnitude announced will not make a significant strategic difference to European security. Unsurprisingly, Obama’s announcement made intra-Nato politics worse. The Western European allies were concerned about jeopardising business links with Moscow, while the eastern allies, the Poles in particular, complained that the efforts did not go far enough to protect them. Indeed, Poland has asked for a Nato deployment of 10,000 men on its soil.
Obama and the northern European allies seem to think the crisis will blow over and it will soon be a return to business as usual. So while the President looks to his European partners to increase their share of the burden, Nato continues to act as if the full US military is behind it. In reality, the US military is undergoing its biggest decrease in man power since the Second World War. The worrying outcome of this mutual US-European evasion of responsibility is not the loss of Franco-Russo naval contracts or German natural gas imports, which currently impede a unified European response to Russia, but that smaller eastern European Nato members will look to bolster their security through non-Nato channels. This would lead to heightened security tensions and the spread of political instability on the continent.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine have seen it reject the 1997 Nato-Russia Founding Act, which formalised post-Cold War borders. Failure by America to act decisively and let an under-resourced mid-level power undertake low-cost revisionism on Nato’s doorstep has not only heightened the security stakes in Europe but also set a dangerous global precedent. Coupled with Obama’s stated desire for burden-sharing with regional allies, it is having undesirable and counterproductive strategic consequences.
The message has already been absorbed in Asia. Shinzo Abe’s Japan has undertaken an unprecedented move from a historically limited defence force to an offer to support regional allies against China. Abe has simultaneously stoked nationalist rhetoric, prodding the Chinese dragon. The outcome of grooming nationalist-inspired regional hegemons is not hard to envisage. This is fertile ground for regional arms races, into which America would be dragged via treaty obligations. Of equal concern is that Ukraine voluntarily denuclearised on the basis that it would receive territorial guarantees from major powers. The fate of Ukraine might lead other powers in a similar position to develop a nuclear deterrent or seek alliances with alternatives to the US.
Certainly, part of Obama’s logic is correct. In the case of Nato, the core European allies need to take their own defence much more seriously. Collectively they spend only 1.4 per cent of GDP on defence. The only region of the world to spend less is Latin America. Europe has been overly focused on the politically unpopular, elite-driven task of political and economic union. While it is true that America has always borne the brunt of Nato responsibility, financially and in terms of boots on the ground, only three European countries (the UK, Estonia and Greece) currently meet Nato’s target of spending at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Even with Obama’s new commitment, America will have no serious military presence in Europe. Nato requires a significant strategic reappraisal in order to manage a completely reordered European security situation. Even while Europe waits for the US Congress to approve Obama’s ERI, Nato showed that despite the gravity of recent events it is still not prepared to step up its defence commitments. It announced a “readiness action plan” to address the most serious military deficiency exposed by Russia’s Crimean adventure. While Russia was quickly able to mobilise tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine and clearly had special forces operating within Crimea and the East, Nato would have taken months to get a “rapid” reaction force in place were a military response required.
The political elites in Washington and across Europe face an uncomfortable summer recess, disturbed by the unwelcome reappearance of geopolitics, challenging the core strategic assumptions of the past 25 years. The consequences have been consistently downplayed in the left-leaning media, which insist that Obama has outmanoeuvred Putin. After the European elections, the notion that it is business as usual for Europe and America is less laughable but just as hollow. Brussels has already discarded the drastic message spelt out at the polls and moved onto fresh internal politicking surrounding the appointment of the new President of the European Commission. However, the European elections have served to underscore the degree of disunity among the continental partners, most importantly between the key countries, Germany and France. The historic rationale for the European project and Nato was famously summed up by Nato’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay: “To keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Nato was the military component of this strategy towards European political and economic integration. By Ismay’s measure, transatlantic security is in crisis and there is no small degree of irony in the observation by the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, “Pro-European Germany is getting more and more powerful­ — and is distancing itself further and further from the rest of the Union.”
The core Nato allies are struggling politically and their ability to increase their Nato commitments has once again taken a back seat to the EU. The Franco-German compact that has been at the heart of the European project for decades is under threat and not just because of the two countries’ differing economic approaches: German fiscal discipline and French public investment.
One of the few uniting factors in the mishmash of extremist parties who stormed the European polls was a rejection of the onward march of European integration, threatening the political stability which Nato was designed to defend externally. The most worrying victory at the European elections was that of France’s Front National, whose leader has loudly courted Putin’s Russia. Marine Le Pen’s success is the most likely to be repeated in domestic elections and if that is the case the European project will probably be significantly compromised, perhaps fatally so. The political forecast is rendered more ominous as the European Central Bank introduces negative interest rates and considers an asset purchase programme to avert continental deflation. The situation represents an existential crisis for Germany in particular. The Germans are perhaps even more worried than their allies about the prospect of a concentration of power in Berlin. At precisely the moment when it must consider the historically explosive topic of increasing military commitments to Nato, Germany’s European partners look weakest both politically and economically. As a result, the greater the threat to the postwar European order that sustained Germany’s economic revival, the less Germany feels able to attend to Nato.
The folly is that Obama’s approach to Europe does not take into account the magnitude of strategic and political change that has taken place in Europe this year. His strategic intransigence has been based on the security situation of his predecessors. Relative peace in Europe meant that Nato’s old strategic paradigm was gradually replaced by “out of area” operations. Indeed, the only time Article Five of the Nato treaty has been invoked involved the alliance sending its forces to Afghanistan. America’s gradualist approach to Nato was that the European partners should shoulder their share of the burden and expense of the alliance. The problem is that Obama stubbornly refuses to accept the gravity of the changed security situation in Europe after Russia’s Ukrainian incursion. Additionally, the historical reality that America has always shouldered the majority of the Nato burden, because transatlantic stability was in US strategic interests, challenges Obama’s worldview. The result is that as Obama pivots to Asia, Europe appears to be pivoting back towards the twin curses of nationalism and economic stagnation.
For some Ukrainians the values of the European Union are clearly worth dying for, but EU diktats and its unaccountable bureaucracy are simultaneously resented in many member nations. The dream of the EU’s founders was that “ever closer political union” was needed to prevent another global war, fuelled by European nationalism. The notion of war between any EU member countries today seems implausible, but war and military conquest is a real threat in the states of the former Soviet Union, as events in Ukraine show.
Ahead of the Nato summit in Wales in September, both sides of the transatlantic divide need to reappraise Nato’s fundamental strategic purpose. While the European project has become dominated by a technocratic obsession with monetary union, increasing the sense of inequality among its members, Nato’s purpose and funding have been allowed to drift for far too long. It is ironic that Nato is currently the most effective organ of European cooperation, precisely because it has not sought to impose a federal grand bargain on its European members. Nonetheless, the Atlantic Alliance needs to be reinvigorated and its strategic purpose reconfigured in order to safeguard the postwar stability of the continent.
While Europe’s political leaders attempt to envisage reform that will answer domestic dissatisfaction with the EU, they must not waver from the task of articulating collective security through Nato. The twin pressures of domestic frustration with a largely economically focused European Union and the challenge to the borders of democracy from Russia should force Nato to return to its founding purpose — the defence of continental Europe and ideals of free trade and democracy.
Due to historic mistrust of the US, France in particular has long believed that the EU needed to assert its independence from Nato, which it ultimately regards as a tool of American foreign policy. So the line of reasoning goes: without an independent European defence force, there can be no independent European foreign policy. These sentiments, though longstanding, have found significant recent support in the Front National.  
Such reasoning has been a continuous tension in Nato. By 1966 President de Gaulle completed France’s gradual withdrawal from Nato’s command structure and it did not fully rejoin until 2009. It is unsurprising that since the  late 1990s France has been at the forefront of trying to develop a distinct EU military capability. The process of defining such a capability has been extremely limited, in part due to American insistence that EU capabilities should be, in Madeline Albright’s words, “separable but not separate” from Nato. In practice, the EU Common Security and Defence Policy has limited itself to the so-called Petersburg Tasks, primarily concerned with humanitarian and peacekeeping missions and crisis management. Nato has effectively remained the sole guarantor of continental European defence.

Europe is in a sense a victim of its own success. Relative political stability means that the EU and Nato have succeeded in keeping peace between member states, to the extent that it seems out of the question that a member state could once again pose a military threat to the others. In other words, war as an instrument of politics has become de facto and de jure unthinkable. This seems to have also translated into Nato’s European domestic security considerations, such that Nato has spent much of the last decade more concerned with “out of area” operations. Where territorial defence has been pursued, it has largely been concerned with the hugely contentious issue of ballistic missile defence, one of the causes of  acrimony with Russia.
The idea of autonomous EU defence seems to have broken down and in practice promise and policy have never kept in step. The first key pillar was supposed to be that a community with a common currency could not leave defence solely in the hands of individual nations. The second pillar was that in times of austerity European nations might be more willing to spend money on their defence rather than on transatlantic undertakings. Given the uneven and now seemingly unpopular level of European integration, the logic behind autonomous European defence is starting to crumble. The European elections, far from undermining Nato, in fact show the need for collective security to be bolstered outside the auspices of the EU.
The danger is that events in Ukraine have unpicked the American side of the bargain as well. Burden-sharing is desirable, but collective defence is only guaranteed if the US is prepared to use force. Only 64,000 US military personnel remain in Europe, compared to almost half a million at the height of the Cold War. Even Obama’s $1 billion pledge won’t substantially change the number of boots on the ground. By contrast, estimates put Russian troop movements during the Crimean incursion alone at about 50,000 men massed on the border, who were able to be rapidly deployed. The incursion was spearheaded by an unexpectedly large number of well-equipped and professional special forces.
Western military leaders have foolishly touted the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq to refocus Western armies on counterinsurgency rather than deterrence. Meanwhile, the response in Russian military doctrine has been to successfully blend a medium-sized conventional force with unconventional tactics to blindside supposedly superior Nato forces. Putin’s masterstroke has been to understand Nato’s political weakness and the European reluctance to use force at all. Russian doctrine exploits this weakness through speed and unconventional tactics. Even if Nato cannot collectively increase its levels of defence expenditure in the short to medium term, the most important first step would be understanding and responding to this change in Russian doctrine. This would allow Nato rapidly to shut down future threats, both in Europe and elsewhere if China or other powers adopted similar military reforms to leverage inferior militaries.
Russia’s Crimean campaign has illustrated that while it lacks the capability to threaten continental war in a Cold War-style confrontation, it is able to shape the proximate environment for its objectives. Nato leaders spoke and acted as if the “red line” for action was the appearance of a Russian armoured column and a stereotypically  heavy-handed Soviet invasion force entering Ukraine. Instead, Russia has turned its doctrine on its head. It has used special forces and intelligence operatives, either in civilian clothing or balaclavas and unmarked uniforms lending a semi-plausible deniability. The tactics were based on impressive political-military coordination.
 This has allowed political destabilisation, the use of proxy “separatists” and the installation of a client government in Crimea, to render the possibility of Ukraine joining Nato or the EU all but impossible. Russia’s 2008 campaign in Georgia not only showed the political possibilities of such lightning strikes but also paved the way for military reform.
The result is the creation of a well-equipped core professional army. Structural reforms have created mobile combat brigades that can move rapidly in under-defended parts of Europe, creating “facts on the ground” before Nato summons the will to respond. The presence of massed Russian forces on the border is not required to invade Ukraine but rather for leverage, to maintain the possibility of escalation in the mind of Nato’s political leaders. Russia’s other Georgian lesson was that the West will not send in troops if Russian forces are on the ground and at combat readiness. While America’s vast military is unable to achieve the country’s political ends, Putin has learnt the opposite lesson from his Chechen and Georgian campaigns, where he has achieved his strategic ambitions.
In this new security environment it is the European allies that face the biggest challenges as the postwar equilibrium based on a Franco-German partnership comes under threat. First, they need to appreciate the seriousness of recent events and link both Russia’s actions and the strategic dimension of popular dissatisfaction with the EU. The EU should no longer maintain a monopoly in the European political imagination as the guarantor of continental stability. Second, they need to reaffirm their commitment to Nato, not just through rhetoric but by putting aside national interest to agree new strategic priorities: defence and deterrence. Third, they will have to increase their share of defence spending and bolster the semi-permanent basing of Nato troops on the eastern edge of the  alliance.
Nato urgently needs to digest the new European military reality. While its future strategy should be a return to collective European defence, the reality is that it will look nothing like the counterinsurgency operations of the past decade, nor the type of planned continental war that defined the previous 50 years. The response will ultimately have to be based on unified strategic agreement, reinvigorated defence spending and carefully rethought changes in the alliance’s force structure, so that rapid reaction really is rapid.
Most importantly as Russia continues to exploit the liminal space between invasion and full de-escalation, America and its European Nato allies need to reconsider their “red lines” for escalating sanctions or possible military action. They also need to re-examine their self-imposed prohibition on the use of force, for without it there can be no effective deterrent to future aggressors.