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Like it or not, the threat of conventional warfare in Europe is back and generals on the continent are worried. At a meeting of the army chiefs of some forty countries at the headquarters of the US Army in Europe (USAREUR) at the end of October, one oft-repeated phrase was ‘it’s like what we were doing as lieutenants’. Most of these generals joined the military in the 1970s and 1980s so their experience as lieutenants involved camping out on the North German Plain on exercises designed to deter a Soviet or – for those raised in the countries of the Warsaw Pact – NATO invasion.
Those days appear to be coming back. At the meeting, one general explained that while nobody in the military wants a shooting war with Russia, its recent aggression against Ukraine means that trusting the Kremlin is no longer an option. While the threat of European war was meant to have lifted at the end of the Cold War, it can now no longer be ruled out. The best way to prevent one from occurring will be to prepare for it. In short, Europe needs to reprioritise the Cold War art of deterrence by signalling that any attack will be met with unacceptable losses. This is a seismic shift in thinking.
Yet the evidence confirms the views of the generals and the overall need for this defence posture. Around Europe’s borders, the post-Second World War settlement is crumbling. Armed competition between local and regional powers is growing increasingly apparent in conflict areas such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Ukraine, and there is the potential for further flare-ups in the South Caucasus, North Africa, the Balkans, Moldova and Kurdish regions in and around Turkey. The situation is characterised by a constant pushing of the geopolitical boundaries by countries such as Iran, China and, above all, Russia – countries that are not afraid of using their military capabilities to achieve political ends.
Moscow has shown it has both the political will to annex part of a neighbour’s territory – on the fictitious pretext of ‘protecting the Russian-speaking population’ – and the military capability to do it. At the same time, it has stationed powerful new S-400 air-defence systems in Kaliningrad and Crimea, allowing it to close the skies to NATO aircraft across a wide swathe of the Baltic and Black Sea regions.With a maximum range of up to 400 km, S-400 units in Kaliningrad could reach across the Baltic Sea to the islands of Bornholm and Gotland, and cover the western half of Latvia, the northern half of Poland and all of Lithuania.
This is more than an unpleasant change: it signals a major shift in Europe’s political and military environment. Russia has shown that it has both the will and the ways to impose border changes on its neighbours through violence. While Russian officials and their supporters deny that theyhave any such intention towards other states, this claim was also made towards Ukraine. Moscow’s word is clearly not an iron-clad security guarantee.
NATO Europe’s Russia policy over the past two decades was built on the understanding that Russia would follow Europe’s rules. With Moscow now repeatedly violating those rules, Europe needs an effective deterrent to ensure that Russia never tries to redraw its borders too.Trusting the Kremlin is not a responsible option.
However, the challenge is complex. Russia’s modernising army has the capability to launch a major conventional strike into the Baltic States which could overwhelm local defences before NATO could come to their assistance. The Russian security services more broadly have shown the ability to foment civil strife in neighbouring states and to support their proxies with direct military intervention. This was most evident in Ukraine: in February 2014, Russian special forces, with their insignia removed, provided the military power for pro-Russian politicians to seize power in Crimea, while in August of the same year, and again in February 2015, Russian air-assault and armoured troops engaged in large-scale combat operations against Ukrainian forces, at considerable cost. NATO Europe therefore needs to deter covert subversion, overt aggression and a full range of conflicts which could fall between the two.
That type of deterrence requires three elements: speed, striking power, and decisiveness. It needs forces that are fast enough to get to a crisis spot in the first days of any conflict and strong enough to respond effectively when they get there. And it needs political leaders and systems which can make swift decisions to deploy those forces in time.
On the military side, NATO has already started to develop plans for deterring Russian aggression. Its Readiness Action Plan, centred on a new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), is an explicit response to the Crimean crisis. It is designed to deter attempts at starting a hybrid conflict anywhere on NATO territory through the deployment of up to 5,000 troops on the ground within a few days of a crisis beginning. Over a number of weeks, they could be followed by some 30,000–40,000 troops from all services in the enhanced NATO Response Force.
Developing that conventional capability is a useful first step. However, significant obstacles to the force’s freedom of movement remain. For example, diplomatic-clearance procedures for the movement of military equipment across Europe in peacetime are cumbersome; overflight clearances for military aircraft can take almost as long. Moreover, as generals pointed out at the headquarters of USAREUR, the VJTF, by itself, is not enough to deter an attacker which has the option of punctuating a low-intensity conflict with local bursts of high-intensity fighting – as Russia did in eastern Ukraine when it sent heavy-tank formations into combat against Ukrainian forces near Debaltseve in February.
NATO needs to address three key challenges in order to tailor its conventional deterrence posture to the Russian threat.
First, Russia already has the ability to deny NATO aircraft access to the airspace over the Baltic and Black Seas, thanks to its air-defence bubbles in Kaliningrad and Crimea. The VJTF is unlikely to deter Russian aggression unless NATO also has the ability to counter these systems. According to generals at the meeting, this will require the Alliance to make a very considerable investment in heavy weaponry, especially long-range rockets, artillery and drones. Yet Europe is still divesting itself of such military equipment. For example, an article in Jane’s Defence Weekly on 30 April stated that Denmark recently halted the acquisition of a new 155-mm self-propelled artillery system, citing financial constraints.
Second, Russia has shown that it has the ability to muster over 100,000 troops in snap exercises across its territory, and to deploy tanks to Ukraine from over 3,000 miles away. If NATO cannot prove its ability to muster similar forces in a similarly short time, Russia may be tempted to believe that it can pour heavily armoured forces into a potential battlespace faster than NATO, and will therefore be able to score a decisive victory by rapidly escalating its involvement and exhausting the Alliance’s ability to match its military pace.
Europe’s ability to counter such an armoured threat has been eroding in recent years. In 2011, the Netherlands decided to sell off its fleet of main battle tanks. The same year, UK media reported that the British Army was under pressure to scrap all but fifty of its tanks as part of a sweeping spending review, although the policy was not implemented. After withdrawing its remaining tanks from Europe in 2013, the US reversed that decision and sent units back to the continent in 2014. However, even with a restored tank presence, Washington cannot use its specialised transporters to carry its heaviest armour on European roads because of axle-weight restrictions in many European countries, and has had to hire or borrow equipment from European allies.
Thirdly, Western forces have spent a decade training for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a generation of younger and middle-ranking officers has never trained for high-intensity manoeuvre warfare. One general said he had recently spent time training subalterns in the basic skills of extended field deployment because Afghan operations had been built around permanent forward bases to which patrols could return each night. Neither mid-ranking officers nor non-commissioned officers had experience of ‘living out of a backpack in the forests for three weeks’.
Another said his mine-clearance troops were magnificent at defusing improvised explosive devices, but had never dealt with an anti-armour minefield, even on exercise, while a third said his staff is ‘having to learn manoeuvre warfare for the first time’. After twenty years of dismantling the skills and capabilities they developed to ward off a Soviet attack, NATO’s armies face having to rebuild them in months.
The same applies to NATO’s politicians. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed in October that the Alliance has ‘increased the efficiency of decision-making’ to reduce its reaction time in a crisis. However, questions still remain over the willingness of member states to go to war to protect NATO’s front-line countries – a reluctance highlighted in a public-opinion poll conducted by Pew Research last spring. With such surveys to hand, and widely differing appreciations in Europe of the threat Russia poses, the Kremlin elite is hardly likely to believe Europe’s commitment to collective defence.
The best way for the West to restore that credibility will be for its troops to exercise the most demanding collective-defence scenarios, and for its political leaders to show their commitment to deterrence by joining them. A number of generals at the meeting emphasised the part played by then-UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in NATO war games during the 1980s. According to those officers, Thatcher would allow a subordinate to play the role of prime minister in the early stages of the exercise, but she would insist on taking the role herself at the moment nuclear options were discussed. She argued that as she would have to authorise the use of nuclear weapons, it would be advisable for her to understand the procedure. In the view of the generals, her participation was itself a deterrent measure, as it showed the Soviet Union that she was serious enough about collective defence to practise it herself.
While the prospect of a strategic nuclear war is still far beyond the current threat horizon, a commitment by European political leaders to play a role in NATO’s conventional collective-defence exercises would send an equivalent deterrent signal, indicating, in effect, that they are ready to lead the conventional defence of their countries in person and have practised how to do it. As Stoltenberg reiterated in a speech given on 6 February, ‘there is no contradiction between defence and dialogue. A strong NATO is essential if we are to engage Russia with confidence.’
Deterrence raises another question: money. The only way for the West to reinvent deterrence will be by investing in the capabilities and skills that would convince potential aggressors that any attack on Europe or its allies around the world would incur unaffordable military costs. However, before the continent’s defence ministries set out to buy billions of dollars’ worth of new equipment and invest in new exercise programmes, they will have to sell the idea to electorates which have not yet grasped the substantial changes in the security environment. They will have to explain why Russia is now a threat and how to make sure that threat never turns into an armed conflict. Above all, they will have to make the case to a generation which has grown up in peace as to what deterrence actually means, and why it is worth the cost. If they do not, voters will be all but certain to reject calls for substantial spending increases – and Europe will have to hope that Russia never chooses to use its new military capabilities west of Ukraine.
Analyst of information warfare and hybrid warfare, and former journalist and NATO press officer.