Mark Galeotti of New York University -
The recent Nato summit in Wales saw much discussion of the need to prepare to meet the “Russian threat,” of red lines and "little green men," of tough-minded resolve and unshrinking unity. At a time when most of Nato’s agenda is crowded with disasters of its own making – Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq – it must come as something of a relief to be facing the revival of an old and familiar antagonist. However, while the Ukrainian crisis has breathed new life into the alliance, it has also demonstrated its essential limitations, and the risks of simply exacerbating current tensions with Moscow.
Nato is, after all, a military alliance. Despite its often ill-fated excursions into peacemaking and peacekeeping, in essence it remains a structure developed to deter if possible and resist if necessary a direct military attack. Article 5 of Nato's founding treaty, after all, stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
That was all well and good when the real threat appeared to be Soviet tanks spilling through the Fulda Gap into West Germany, when unity seemed the only defense against a Warsaw Pact that could throw more troops, tanks and aircraft into the field. But the age of such conflicts, at least in Europe, is mercifully over. Now, the challenge is from non-linear warfare, a subtle and deliberately complex blend of political, military and economic means.
To the soldiers, the lessons to be learned from Crimea and eastern Ukraine are that force needs to be met with force, promptly and decisively. “Just shoot the first ‘little green man,’” I’ve heard several of them say, “and you deter the rest.” All well and good, and certainly one of the reasons why the Russians were willing and able to take Crimea so quickly and easily was that the Ukrainian military did nothing to resist: Kyiv issued no clear orders and the commanders on the ground appeared uncertain how to act in the absence of those directives.
But the form that the Russian incursion took was, as much as anything else, shaped by the opportunities presented to them. Once it became clear the Ukrainians weren’t about to take up arms and sally from their bases, why not use the Naval Infantry marines and Spetsnaz commandos to take the peninsula? When faced with a less amenable foe, though, the Russians are likely to adopt rather more roundabout tactics that place Nato in a less comfortable position.
What, for example, if the first sign of a new Russian adventure is not a camouflaged soldier, even if he has taken off his badges, but a teenage girl waving a placard calling for rights for the Russian minority? Or a Caribbean-based front company trying to buy a strategically-located island, secretly on behalf of a Russian state-affiliated corporation? Or divisive and extremist political groups agitating for a withdrawal from Nato, who seem mysteriously well funded? Or firefighters crossing the border seemingly by accident as they battle a toxic fire when a tanker full of noxious chemicals accidentally drives into a frontier post?
The essence of Russia’s new game plan is to prevent making Nato's life easy by presenting a direct and incontrovertible threat. No one is going to shoot a placard-waving teenager, nor a firefighter battling a blaze, and Nato has no power to scrutinize the ultimate beneficiaries of property sales or backers of fringe lobby groups.
Nato is unsure of its footing when the threats are more subtle and the responses less clear. Just ask Estonia. In 2007 it was hit by a massive wave of cyberattacks clearly encouraged and orchestrated by the Russian state, but largely carried out by so-called “patriotic hackers.” Faced with the difficulties in proving beyond doubt which machines launched the attacks, let alone that the Kremlin was behind it, and unclear how it could react — Nato could hardly launch cruise missiles against computer geeks vandalizing government websites — then the alliance did very little.
And now, Estonian security officer Eston Kohver is sitting in a cell in Moscow, having been kidnapped from Estonia in a cross-border raid by Russian commandos. Is this an act of war, a challenge to Article 5? Suffice it to say that Nato tanks are not on the move to get Kohver back.
Ultimately, the Kremlin’s new non-linear tactics are an evolution of the time-honored ones of asymmetric war, whereby the weaker side seeks to ensure that it fights in a way and at a time that suits its more powerful enemy least. But they are also intensely opportunistic. Had the new government in Kyiv that replaced Yanukovych been united and determined, had the military chain of the command been trusted and sound, then it is doubtful that Putin would even have tried to seize Crimea, let along stir up trouble in the east.
Of course, Nato still has a role, not least to ensure there is no temptation for rather more robust pressure from Moscow on Europe. But to think that it can or even should try to respond to the full range of challenges of the new age of conflict is foolish — and even dangerous.
First of all, the task of inoculating bordering states from potential Russian mischief — whether stirring up disgruntled minorities, subtle destabilization or unsubtle economic pressure — is more properly handled by other agencies. National governments, obviously, need to pay more attention to what, in military terms, would be called “target hardening.” Those minorities need to be integrated, due diligence should identify flanking Russian buyouts, political finance regulated. The trouble is that this means not just taking action now that Russia looks problematic, but sustaining it — turning away potential investment, alienating a neighbor and so on — even when things look quieter.
Of course, the EU could also play a positive role here, but to date the EU’s capacity to mobilize and maintain this kind of action is also questionable.
But the second serious concern is that the more Nato eases itself comfortably back into its role as the defender of the West from the Russian hordes, the more it consolidates the current dangerous and zero-sum confrontation. It also plays to a nationalist, even xenophobic constituency within the Russian elite, especially strongly represented within the security agencies and the Orthodox Church, who actually appreciate any opportunity to cut themselves off from the West and its dangerously infectious notions of egalitarianism, transparency and rule of law. This faction is currently in the ascendant, but it need not be so, especially given the evident concerns of many within the Russian business community at the prospect of being locked away from the West.
This is the challenge. Nato patently still has a role. But it is far too blunt an instrument to be able to deal with the range of subtle, deniable or downright devious tactics Russia would deploy. Instead, the West will have to develop new, more appropriate defenses — and try to avoid playing into the hands of the ultra-nationalist wing in the Kremlin happy to find excuses to see their country surrounded and beleaguered.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs, School of Professional Studies, New York University, who writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows.
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