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DIIS conference: NATO after Ukraine – back to basics?

September 10, 2015

Summary: There are many evolving and complex global challenges facing the NATO Alliance. Russian fears and vulnerabilities have pushed it into overt and heavy-handed military adventures. But the military threat to NATO posed by this activity is more about accident and miscalculation than about an existential threat to the NATO Alliance, despite the concerns of Eastern European member nations. For NATO to design its future expenditure, planning and training solely around the notion that “it is just about Russia” would be misguided.

NATO symbol, flags and HQThe North Atlantic treaty Organisation (NATO) was established in 1949, shortly after the massive power shift in Europe brought about by the conclusion of the Second World War. Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” saw the expansion of Soviet military power right into the heart of central Europe. Western powers wanted security agreements: “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down”.

Its prime raison d’etre was Article V of the Treaty which declared that an attack on one member was an attack on all. It was written at a time when there could be only one enemy: the Soviet Union.

NATO expansion through the agesThe official line now: “It is often said that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union. This is only partially true. In fact, the Alliance’s creation was part of a broader effort to serve three purposes: deterring Soviet expansionism, forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent, and encouraging European political integration.”

NATO remained in existence after the demise of its former foe, the Soviet Union. It was involved militarily in the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s, notably the bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, there has been much debate about what NATO’s role could and should be. Many saw it as a natural progression for NATO to develop an expeditionary capability that could allow it to operate “out of area”. Article V has thus far been invoked only once: in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 suicide attacks on the US mainland by the international Islamic terrorist group, Al Qaeda. NATO forces, as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), deployed to Afghanistan in 2001 and remained there formally until December 2014, engaging in a complex and costly counter-insurgency campaign against the Taliban.

With the return of a seemingly more obvious threat from Russia, following its annexation of the Crimea and its sponsorship of a conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region, there is a sense amongst many commentators that, after a deeply unpleasant “out of areas” experience, NATO should perhaps get back to basics and concentrate on European security.

I attended a conference organised by the Danish Institute for International Studies on Tuesday 8th September to hear a discussion addressing precisely this point.
“NATO after Ukraine: Time to go back to basics?”

The speakers were:

Karsten Jakob Möller (General Rtd., DIIS senior analyst)
Flemming Spidsboel (DIIS Senior Researcher)
Trine Flockhart (Prof. International Relations, University of Kent)
John Deni (Research Professor, US Army War College)

How things change. The introduction noted that the 60th anniversary of NATO, in 2009, had been a very different world. NATO was heavily engaged in Afghanistan and many NATO members were also operating in Iraq. There was a global financial crisis unfolding and the talk was of NATO expanding and finding/developing new roles.
It was also pointed out that, even relatively recently, in 2002, a DIIS paper had considered the possibility (under the title “Thinking the Unthinkable”) that Russia might even end up joining NATO.

How serious is the Russian threat?

Karsten Jakob Möller

• Important to consider the perspective from Moscow – it feels threatened – an extension of Russia’s historical insecurity of the “enemy at the gate”.
• Putin has been warning about the West’s arrogance. In 2007 he spoke of Western exceptionalism, bending the rules of world order to suit Western agendas. He warned NATO not to expand any further.
• Ukraine as an “open wound” – Russia cannot understand why Ukraine wants independence and sees the Ukraine revolution as a Western/CIA-orchestrated plot. The conflict in Eastern Ukraine will keep a certain level of instability to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.
• Military muscle-flexing is being applied by Russia towards Sweden and Finland, to prevent them entertaining ideas about joining NATO.
• But the Russian Army still has problems – it has poorly educated conscripts but is trying to field increasingly high-tech weapons systems.
• The Baltic states and Poland are very concerned – Russia has a habit of delivering very heavy-handed warnings.
• There is not so much that is new about “Hybrid Warfare” but it does raise the question of how NATO addresses Article V when it is increasingly difficult to define an attack.
• Russian military doctrine has not changed so much from 2010.
• Despite the Russian budget increases and investment in new hardware, they will never catch up with the US and are currently doing no more than trying to make up for the lack of investment in the 1990s.
• The real risk comes from a war by accident.

russian soldiers on paradeFlemming Spidsboel

• Russia’s perspective – the West/US monopolising international systems to intervene as it wishes.
• The 2008 war with Georgia possibly intended as a warning to the West. Russia’s “quasi-ideology” of political competitiveness – a state goes to the wall if it cannot adapt and change.
• NATO only started to crop in Russian military doctrines as “the threat” by 2000. It is becoming the excuse – the threat to distract Russians from all their internal problems.
• Military threat from Russia: it does not pose a threat t NTO – not even in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and not into the long-term. The Russian defence budget is mainly “catch up” and corruption, kickbacks and other inefficient use of the budget will hamper its full impact.
• The non-military threat – increasingly sophisticated propaganda – Sputnik radio station. But Lithuania was short-sighted when it closed down access to Russian media. It is difficult to find evidence that Russia is a threat to NATO’s internal cohesion.
• But we do have another Cold War and need to revise training and expenditure.


What did NATO get wrong? We didn’t consult enough with the Russians and we under-estimated the extent to which NATO was being made the culprit for a range of Russian problems. The West has been “extremely arrogant” – a large part of the world no longer wants to accept this.

Back to Basics in a changing strategic environment

Trine Flockhart

• The “back to basics” narrative has arisen in the aftermath of Crimea/East Ukraine – the idea that NATO should return to its core value of a defensive alliance. But this is flawed.
• The Ukraine crisis did not come out of nowhere – there are huge global changes underway of a greater impact even than the end of the Cold War.
• The NATO Summit in Wales in 2014 approved, amongst other things: Readiness Action Plan, 2% spending goal, collective defence (and training for it) and an enhanced ability to counter hybrid warfare.
• The problems with “Back to Basics”:

o It implies that going back is possible
o It emphasises only one aspect of a changing environment
o It defines what is politically possible but ignores what is strategically necessary
o It is effectively “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” when what is really needed is a dry dock overhaul…

• The B2B narrative is therefore flawed: NATO was always a defensive alliance, it was always about collective defence (Art V) and collective security (Art II). Since the Balkans, NATO has been an expeditionary security organisation engaged in crisis management: “Out of Area or Out of Business”!
• If NATO was purely about defence it would have disbanded in 1992, but it has three legs that allow it flex – defence, cooperation and crisis management.
• B2B hearkens back to a mythical era that was not there.
• There are other symptoms of bigger changes/challenges:

o Changing global power relations – decline of Europe and US
o New forms of international actors – eg ISIS
o Challenges to Western liberal principle and practice
o Lack of legitimate global institutions, eg UN, World Bank
o Changes in demographics/migration
o Changes in technology and access to it
o Environmental change
o New and emerging threats
o New practices in war – cyber and hybrid

• Julianne Smith talks of an “era of compounding complexity” – challenges grow exponentially rather than by addition. Complex trends interact with one another and new security challenges emerge.
• Ironically, NATO has a lot of good, forward-looking, horizon-scanning, planning capability (Allied Command Transformation, Comprehensive Strategy Guidance, Defence Planning, Division for Emerging Security Challenges, Policy Planning Unit…). But still the B2B narrative dominates.
• The international order is going through a period of major transformative change: from multi-polar (pre-WWII), through bi-polar (Cold War, 1945 – 1990), though uni-polar (US dominance from 1991 to present) to multi-order.
• In this coming multi-order world there will be major challenges for NATO. B2B gives a politically convenient framework to make it look as if something is being done…
• NATO should:

o Implement the agreements made in Wales but do not see that then as “job done”, but rather the bare minimum.
o Understand the new transatlantic bargain – Europe must take more responsibility for itself as the US pivots to the Pacific – new division of labour and political willingness to get hands dirty.
o Understand the importance of partnerships as a diplomatic tool – values-based partnerships as an alternative to membership – eg Georgia and Ukraine?

John Deni

• NATO is rebalancing after a long time of imbalance – COIN, reconstruction, Afghanistan…
• Many allies want the Capacity to undertake Out Of Area operations as well.
• How can NATO effectively do all three of its legs – collective defence, crisis management and defence cooperation?
o Collective defence: there is a credibility gap. NATO has problems projecting its power around Europe – high readiness forces often found wanting (failure to be able to deploy in response to Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968). NATO’s ability to undertake combined manoeuvre warfare has atrophied.
o Crisis Management: NATO needs to maintain a security horizon beyond Europe and be able to undertake expeditionary and stability operations.
o Cooperative security: NATO can spread itself too thinly – too many initiatives coming out of Wales summit (establishing 21 “Centres of Excellence”?) particularly as manpower and budgets shrink.
• It is clear the Russia is not interested in partnership with NATO and pursues a zero-sum game. Geography is driving Russia’s foreign policy – Russia’s lack of defensible borders.


The most interesting engagement at the end came from a representative from the Russian Embassy asked two questions:
Q1: Why at this sort of conference, have Russian speakers not been invited – it is much better, surely to have a dialogue? KJM answered – we have tried so many times to engage with Russian speakers. Often they are booked and simply do not turn up.
Q2: It is clear that NATO intends to have as many members as possible – what is the assessment of the readiness of Ukraine and Georgia? JD answered – it is entirely inaccurate that NATO wants as many as possible. And, in any case, NATO has a rule that a country may not join NATO if it has an ongoing armed conflict. Mr Putin has very effectively exploited this by ensuring, with slow-burn conflicts in both Ukraine and Georgia, that it is not possible for either to join.


A very useful set of complimentary and clear-eyed presentations. It was perhaps a little surprising to hear the military threat from Russia downplayed quite as much as it was – small comfort to tiny Baltic states that could be swallowed in a gulp by even a quarter-way competent Russian military force. I can see some analytical divisions on this between Western and Eastern European member nations (the next NATO summit is due to be in Warsaw in 2016, if there is a clue there as to likely agenda).

But Trine Flockhart’s wider contextual thoughts on the growing complexity of global challenges in the multi-order world – and how NATO should throw off the naivety of a back to basics approach – were particularly compelling.

From my own local perspective, it was also interesting that Sweden and Finland waere mentioned at several points – albeit briefly – as a) potential NATO members and, therefore, b) possible targets for Russian “heavy-handed” demonstrations.

The “vicious circle” nature of the problem is stark:

Country a feels threatened by Russian posturing
Country a joins alliance to improve security prospects
Russia feels threatened by country a joining a security alliance and resorts to more military posturing
Country b then feels threatened…

With the risk of accident or miscalculation ever present at every stage…

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