NATO needs to revive the notion of ‘deterrence’, and soon. The war in Ukraine proves that. The West may have imposed sanctions on Russia and continue to supply more and more weapons to Ukraine – none of this affects Putin’s deliberations.
As Putin’s aggression in Ukraine culminates in massive war crimes, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasizes that the alliance is not part of this conflict and does not want to risk an all-out war in Europe. Economic sanctions and arms deliveries are therefore not carried out by or via NATO, but by individual allies.
How did it come about and how can the credibility of the deterrence be increased?
In the Cold War, “containment” and “mutually assured destruction” kept the Soviet Union at bay. Even though NATO had to stand idly by the brutal repression of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, among others, it successfully deterred the Soviets until the collapse of their empire. She sufficiently convinced Moscow that a direct attack on NATO allies would fail; the price would be too high in any case.
This has required political determination, continued military readiness and massive investment in defense.
In the decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, deterrence was less important. After all, the alliance’s existence was not threatened. There were local conflicts in the Balkans, followed by security problems in the form of terrorism, piracy and organized crime. Then the threats emanating from the Middle East and North Africa spread to Europe and the United States. These prompted NATO and individual allies to intervene several times. But it was always about voluntary intervention; time, place and severity were a matter of choice.
Since 1990, the notion, culture and vocabulary of deterrence have been eroded. The West left Russia’s attacks on Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 largely unanswered. NATO even stated in the Strategic Concept from 2010 Russia as a ‘true strategic partner’. And when President Barack Obama designated the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a red line in 2012, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, with Putin’s help, used them against his own people. Despite a heated debate, nothing happened.
All this has not gone unnoticed in the Kremlin.
Reassuring new allies
NATO’s first response to the 2014 Ukraine crisis was its agreement to “assurance measures† more exercises and more surveillance of the airspace in the Baltic states were mainly intended to reassure the new allies. The ‘deterrence and defence’ agreed at the Warsaw summit (2016) went a step further; this also included a (very) limited advance troop presence in combination with the ability to rapidly increase strength. Not least because the restoration of NATO’s conventional deterrence went hand in hand with a further withdrawal of US troops from Europe.
The alliance’s hopes for a better relationship with Russia and the realities of Central and Eastern Europe were overtaken by reality in 2021. The US and NATO expressed concern about Russia’s intentions, but only threatened sanctions if Putin started another war against Ukraine. When the possibility of a military response was dropped, NATO was sidelined – with no return from Russia.
The threat of sanctions has not repented Putin. On the contrary, he concluded that he could attack Ukraine without incurring military consequences. That choice turned out to be a serious miscalculation.
The understanding, culture and vocabulary of deterrence are being eroded
Since Putin invaded Ukraine, US President Joe Biden, Jens Stoltenberg and other leaders have expressed their unwillingness to fight against Russia, because that would lead to a third world war† Putin’s brutal moves, combined with the threatening (nuclear) rhetoric, have prevented NATO from taking decisive action. And even if it is by no means clear whether a Western military response would immediately lead to a major conflict or even a nuclear strike, NATO itself is shying away, limiting itself solely to its Article 5 commitment to protect every inch of NATO territory. to defend.
But that’s not the point. The point is that there is a massacre in Europe, in our backyard, and that the strongest military alliance in the world stays out of this. We shy away, not Russia.
Also read: Pressure to intervene in Ukraine is mounting, The question is how far Putin dares to go
‘Responsibility to protect’
It is true that Article 5 does not apply because Ukraine is not a member of the alliance. But the right to self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter does indeed hold true and very clearly confirms the existence of ‘the right to individual and collective defence’. On this basis, the UN Security Council gives a mandate, for example to NATO, to intervene.
In addition, the UN standard also applies Responsibility to Protect, the responsibility to protect. It was specifically developed to prevent genocide and war crimes such as in the wars in the former Yugoslavia (1991-2001).
NATO deterrence must be achieved in the context of clear, intended results and not just aiming at an end to the fighting. And if NATO’s task of collective defense is not at stake, its other task of responding to a crisis may well justify commitment. NATO can then respond with a UN mandate, as in Libya in 2011, or without, as in Kosovo in 1999. Or take 1995, Bosnia. There, NATO deployed IFOR peacekeeping force specifically to end the genocide and prevent massive refugee flows, even if this was outside NATO territory.
There are clear lessons to be learned from the current conflict in Ukraine. The first is that Putin is not deterred by Western sanctions, and that he regards neighboring countries without the NATO security guarantee as outlaws. Moldova and other non-NATO countries are rightly afraid. Putin can even bet that a risk-averse alliance would hesitate to defend smaller allies like the Baltic states. Using the considerable clout he has built up in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, he could attempt to isolate these three small countries. While Western leaders are doing everything they can to convince us that the Baltic countries will be defended, the most important question is whether Putin is convinced of that.
Frankly, we don’t know.
Elsewhere in the world, too, the message will have been heard that NATO does not want to fight a nuclear-armed Russia outside its own territory. Other countries with weapons of mass destruction (China, North Korea, Iran) will not be impressed by threatening language if NATO does not stop Russia in Ukraine now.
The NATO summit of government leaders in Madrid on June 29 is an important one. Because even if the Russian offensive in Ukraine appears to be more difficult than expected, the threat posed by Putin’s Russia (and other countries with possible military ambitions) will remain. Regardless of the outcome of the current conflict, we must prepare for a period of heightened threat – from northern Scandinavia to eastern Turkey. A number of measures are necessary for this.
Deterrence must be stepped up. Political determination is indispensable in this regard. NATO must be ready to act. This also means that the alliance will not allow opponents to divide the allies on economic (Germany), political (Hungary) or strategic (Turkey) considerations. Promises to defend allies’ territory must be backed up by strike power and the intention to deploy it. That means Ukraine needs to get all the weapon systems it can operate. And that vulnerable countries like Moldova and Bosnia can count on NATO if they threaten to become the next target of Putin’s aggression.
Deterring with a force majeure
Furthermore, defense spending must accelerate to 2 percent of national income and higher. The West must face Putin as intransigently as during the Cold War and deter him with a force majeure (deterrence by denial† This will require serious growth in strike capability, increased military deployment in Central and Eastern Europe (including a significant permanent army of NATO forces) and higher levels of preparedness that entail intensified exercises. All this is very expensive.
NATO’s new Strategic Concept, to be adopted at the Madrid summit later this month, should clearly state how the alliance will defend the international rule of law and contribute to preserving safe and open global domains (on the high seas) , at strategic maritime passageways, at the North Pole, and in (cyber) space). And it should say that NATO meets the UN standard responsibility to protect as a guiding principle when considering acting in its neighboring countries.
When it comes to the threat of nuclear deployment, NATO has lost its strategic reflexes – the alliance doesn’t even know how to talk about nuclear power anymore. With an adversary willing and able to escalate a conventional conflict by (threatening with) the use of nuclear weapons, we must renew our ‘nuclear culture’, regain control of rhetoric and plan and conduct exercises in which that escalation nuclear included. If NATO refuses this out of fear of escalation, that is (paradoxically) an escalation in itself.
We can infer that from Putin’s behaviour. We need to get started.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of May 21, 2022