Sat. Nov 26th, 2022

•NATO has superior force at its disposal and an abundance of intelligence, and yet it cannot use force to alter the crisis in Ukraine. It must revise the threshold for resisting Russia militarily, if it is to find a way out of this ‘escalation trap’, argues John Raine

In the battle for Ukraine, NATO’s strategy has been a careful balancing of its defensive mission, its credibility and the need to avoid escalation. The last of these has proved dominant: NATO is currently unable to use force, even for humanitarian purposes, for fear of an escalatory response from Vladimir Putin. Against that, NATO members have, greatly to their credit, shown unanimity, dramatically increased defence spending and sent generous and effective military aid to Ukraine. However, adhering to a policy of non-intervention for fear of escalation risks damaging NATO’s credibility and undermining the value of what it has already done. In the long term, it also risks impairing NATO’s ability to defend itself. Is there a way out of this ‘escalation trap’? 

Reconsidering the definition of an ‘armed attack’ 

There are of course grounds upon which NATO would enter the conflict, but they are currently restricted to the event of an armed attack by Russia, which would trigger an Article 5 response. The definition of an ‘armed attack’ has been periodically revisited as the nature of warfare and hostilities has developed. The original treaty did not anticipate an attack on New York by a terrorist organisation based in Afghanistan, but that was the last and only time Article 5 has been invoked and it led to a decade-long NATO deployment in Afghanistan, a country with no border with NATO and of limited strategic value.  

There isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a hard definition of what constitutes an armed attack. It is a judgement for NATO members and the Secretary General advised by legal counsel. But while the definition was broadened in the case of al-Qaeda to include a non-state actor perpetrating a terrorist attack, in the case of Russia it has tended to narrow. Russia has intruded aggressively into NATO states through sabotage, assassination operations and interference in democratic processes. It has, most graphically, used weapons of mass destruction and radiological weapons on UK territory to assassinate political opponents. In none of these cases was the aggression considered to be an Article 5 trigger. Meanwhile, on NATO’s periphery Putin has brutally reinforced or extended his reach. So far in his increasingly penetrating projection against NATO, he has neither been deterred nor contained by a NATO response.  

Receding red lines 

Putin’s expansion has exposed two uncomfortably parallel trends: NATO’s growing fear of escalation and the weakening of its defence culture. The appetite and capabilities required for a conflict with Russia have diminished to the point where the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson can, in response to impassioned pleas for help from a Ukrainian journalist, only make the categorical statement that ‘we cannot fight Russia’. While his reasoning was, within conventional deterrence policy, respectable and will have offered reassurance to many in NATO, his words will have given Moscow a different kind of reassurance: that the red line is once again receding.  

NATO has an opportunity, if not a duty, to revisit the threshold for resisting Russia militarily. It has already done so in extending military assistance, but it may need to go further. One lesson so far from Ukraine is that the Kremlin cannot be deterred from using conventional weapons at scale by NATO’s current posture nor by unprecedented sanctions. The difficult conclusion for the Alliance must be that it is not possible to stop Russia from waging conventional wars on its European border unless NATO shows that it is prepared to respond militarily at some point and that it has overcome its fear of escalation. 

Responsibility to protect 

Why should NATO want to stop Russia, or anyone, fighting wars on its border? The obvious answer is to prevent the humanitarian suffering it causes, now seen graphically in Ukraine. This responsibility to protect life is keenly felt by member states, for many of whom it is central to their foreign policy. To be reduced to well-informed bystanders will be for them morally if not politically untenable.  

But, secondly, being unable to stop Russian expansion on its borders damages the credibility of NATO as a bulwark against aggression, and Russian aggression in particular. For Russia’s military command, there will not only be no evidence that NATO was prepared to fight Russia, but also a consistent line that it will always avoid escalation and direct conflict. Russia will feel licensed to repeat its expansionist operations elsewhere.  

Thirdly, if Russia’s wars are successful, it will convert the territory it acquires into forward military and intelligence bases, as it did in Syria, the principal purpose of which will be to give it strategic advantage over NATO. Doing that in Ukraine will allow Putin to eat away, at his leisure, at the softer edges of NATO.  

If Putin is allowed to continue to assume that he can expand with impunity because it will not trigger a NATO response, that will leave non-NATO countries in Europe that constitute NATO’s buffer, and NATO countries into which Russia has cultural reach, in the deep shadow of a power that has a licence to use intimidation and indiscriminate violence to get its way. Intimidation is a favoured instrument for both Putin’s domestic and foreign policy, well evidenced in the performances of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He will use it to ensure that the buffer becomes Russia’s buffer, not NATO’s. 

Allowing Russia to take Ukraine will also buttress a Kremlin narrative of an aggressive NATO being defeated by the victorious forces of the Russian army protecting its own people. Moscow will use this narrative aggressively to destabilise in particular Russian-leaning populations in Eastern Europe. To aid this, Russia will have on its border a battle-hardened army conditioned by the brutally controlled narrative of NATO aggression. That narrative will be pernicious within European NATO.  

NATO’s dangerous predictability 

NATO needs, therefore, a Strategic Concept which includes ‘forward defence’ and gives it latitude to intervene in its periphery. That would build on previous NATO out of area operations, the clear imperative felt by members to respond to humanitarian crises and the evolving nature of threats to collective security from an expansionist Russia. The grounds for not doing this will be that forward defence as a doctrine and in practice would be escalatory. That argument will have sway but it is worth reflecting on the nature and course of escalation with Russia.  

At root, the fear is that any conflict with Russia could escalate ultimately to the use of nuclear weapons. This is technically correct in that both sides possess nuclear weapons, but NATO’s fear of a nuclear exchange as the inevitable or even likely ‘terminus ad quem’ has been ruthlessly leveraged by Putin. He has used it to create a very large space in which he can wage conventional war in Europe without a military response from NATO. Theories of escalation assume conventional warfare sits on the same continuum as nuclear, that is to say that the decision to use a nuclear weapon will flow directly from the earlier decisions to escalate. It is, however, of an entirely separate nature.  

The US and Russia have form on nuclear de-escalation, both in the graphic instance of Cuba and over time through treaty-based arms-limitation measures. Moving to a nuclear exchange would be a monumental step for either side. It fits neither Putin’s plan to restore the Russian dominion as his legacy, nor the West’s to contain him, nor both sides’ desire to survive. The evidence is not that he wants to pull the knife of a nuclear exchange, but that he wants to use the threat of it, occasionally even letting us see the blade of his knife, to give him the freedom to pummel his adversaries with his fists.  

In Ukraine, the resistance is punching back. Escalation holds no fear for them. Supporting them has been seen as a moral duty by an inspiring number of NATO governments and individuals, but those supporters of Ukraine are constrained in the help and scale they can give by the escalation trap. As the requirements have increased, so too have the constraints begun to chafe. That private individuals from NATO countries are prepared to fight in Ukraine’s international brigade is telling of the extent to which the moral obligation to fight is, at the popular level, not subordinate to the desire to avoid risking escalation.  

A further consequence of the escalation trap is that NATO is dangerously predictable. It has no means to surprise. This has given confidence to Putin that he knows the edges of his manoeuvre space. What NATO might need to regain the advantage is an unheralded adaptation of its defence posture and possibly its doctrine. It must change the perception of NATO as a static treaty organisation around which Putin can manoeuvre with confidence. It has a chance to do so at the NATO summit scheduled to be held in June in Madrid. Member states will have differing perspectives on how or whether NATO should lean into Russia rather than out and negotiations may be difficult. But now is not the time for a lowest-common-denominator strategy designed not to provoke Putin. It should be clear by now that leaning out leaves space that Putin will occupy.  

Revised framework for intervention   

A combination of initiatives may have the desired effect without splitting the Alliance. Firstly, NATO must do much more of what it is already doing by supplying materiel, which will affect the strategic balance of the conflict. It must be resolute in securing physical supply lines, legal authorities and a robust narrative. This will be harder as Putin controls more ground and lines of communication. But that is also when it will have its higher value. The narrative too needs to be sober and consistent, avoiding emotional spikes and over-promising. Hesitancy, as was evidenced over the subsequently abandoned proposal to supply Polish MiGs to Ukraine, will be interpreted as flickering resolve and will only embolden Russia. The narrative must, above all, be constant over the long duration of the conflict.  

Secondly, NATO must adopt a concept of humanitarian intervention that enables it effectively to project force to protect life. That doesn’t necessarily mean a no-fly zone, but NATO needs both an immediate humanitarian package and a long-term formula for humanitarian intervention if necessary protected by NATO force.  

Thirdly, it needs to create a legal and policy framework for pre-emptive action on the grounds of imminence. Concern that this will play into the Russian narrative of NATO aggression may now be misplaced – that narrative is already beyond reversal thanks to the state control of the media in Russia. It is also tragically true that Putin now has escalation headroom. He knows he can escalate several rungs up the ladder without forcing a costly response from NATO.  As we now know from disclosed intelligence, as well as the bitter experience of Aleppo, that serial escalation could also include the use of WMD by Russia. That must be deterred and, if it cannot be deterred, pre-empted, and if not pre-empted, met with a wounding response from NATO. Of all the licences he enjoys, the ability to use WMD is the one he must lose.  

A revised framework for intervention will be challenging. But a similar step was taken by the US and other NATO members to establish the legal framework required to intervene pre-emptively against terrorists when waiting for a terrorist attack to happen before acting in self-defence was too late. There is a parallel now with Russia. The abundance of intelligence on Putin’s intent and capabilities compared to the inability to act is leaving NATO exposed to embarrassment and moral hazard. It will be more than embarrassment if, thanks to intelligence and courageous media reporting, NATO has full visibility of Russia as it destroys Ukraine city by city but cannot act. It will be damage to NATO’s credibility and authority at a time when it is most desperately needed.  

John Raine CMG OBE is researching current and emergent themes that cross geographic boundaries, namely the use of proxies, the use of non-kinetic force as a means of projecting power, and the potential of alternative approaches to conflict resolution. In addition, he is looking at how an understanding of these themes can help governments, armed forces and multinational businesses to mitigate risk.

Credit | IISS

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