NATO is massively increasing its overall military footprint to deter Russia from any acts of aggression beyond Ukraine: NATO’s 2022 summit has transformed the alliance’s approach to Russia after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The organization’s updated strategic concept says the Russian Federation is the most significant and direct threat to security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area. ‘It seeks to establish spheres of influence and direct control through coercion, subversion, aggression, and annexation,’ the concept says. This is a marked shift from the 2010 concept which focused on terrorism as the main threat and saw Russia as a ‘strategic partner’.
The view of Russia as a major threat to Europe is backed by changes to force posture flagged before the summit by secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg who said forward defenses would be strengthened. Stoltenberg said NATO would enhance its battlegroups in the eastern part of the alliance up to brigade levels, and increase the number of high-readiness forces to well over 300,000 from its current 40,000. He said this constituted the biggest overhaul of collective deterrence and defense since the Cold War and flagged a significant boost in spending with the target of 2% of GDP ‘increasingly considered a floor, not a ceiling’.
The Biden administration will significantly increase the US military presence in Europe. This includes deploying additional destroyers to Spain’s Rota naval base, establishing a permanent headquarters for the US Army’s V Corps in Poland, placing an additional army brigade in Romania, increasing rotational deployments to the Baltic States, sending two additional F-35 squadrons to the UK, and providing additional air defences to Germany and Italy. This represents a substantial boost to the existing US military presence in Europe, which currently numbers more than 100,000 troops.
The United Kingdom looks set to follow, with the chief of the general staff General Sir Patrick Sanders announcing ‘Operation Mobilise’ in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute that will see a focus on preparing to fight Russia to deter Russian aggression. Sanders warned:
‘This is our 1937 moment. We are not at war—but we must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion. So surely it is beholden on each of us to ensure that we never find ourselves asking that futile question—should we have done more?’
Sanders’s reference needs to be treated with some caution given that Russia is regarded by many as a declining power while Germany in 1937 was on the rise. However, Russia does have the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Sanders went on to say: ‘We don’t yet know how the war in Ukraine will end but, in most scenarios, Russia will be an even greater threat to European security after Ukraine than it was before.’
The summit backed the bids by Sweden and Finland to join NATO in the face of growing threats to Baltic and Arctic security, highlighted by Russian threats against Lithuania as it implements European Union sanctions against the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The decisions of Finland and Sweden to join NATO are perhaps the most important development, representing a decisive shift by two neutral states to actively support the alliance in the face of Russian aggression. Given that one of Putin’s declared rationales for invading Ukraine was an expanding NATO, it’s ironic his aggression has generated an even larger alliance. This spectacular own goal by Putin also reinforces the importance of the Baltics and the Arctic as key new areas for NATO’s operational focus.
NATO’s strategic concept didn’t just focus on Europe. It noted that China’s ‘stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values’, it highlighted the ‘deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order’, and identified the ‘systemic challenges posed by the PRC to Euro-Atlantic Security’. Meia Nouwens, of Britain’s International Institute of Strategic Studies, suggests NATO will seek constructive engagement with Beijing, but also work with allies to enhance resilience and preparedness against Chinese coercion that seeks to undermine that order, including freedom of navigation. NATO efforts would include enhancing dialogue and cooperation with partners in the Indo-Pacific on ‘cross-regional challenges and shared security interests’. There’s an important role for Australia working with NATO to support efforts to counter the challenge posed by Beijing, given its ‘enhanced opportunities partner’ status. This will be explored in a future post.
The recognition of Russia’s broader strategic ambitions beyond Ukraine, as noted by Sanders, reinforces the importance of NATO’s decision to return to its traditional role of deterring major-power aggression, specifically as posed by a revanchist Russia. NATO must make firm commitments to avoid the worst-case outcome—a Russian attack on a NATO member such as a Baltic state or Poland.
Russia cannot be allowed to achieve any degree of victory in Ukraine, and it’s vital for NATO and its partners across the globe, including Australia, to sustain and expand military support to Kyiv to blunt Moscow’s ability to sustain operations in key areas. This will be challenging given the very long timeframe now emerging. US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines suggests the war will continue and Putin’s objective is still to capture most of Ukraine, with immediate Russian efforts focused on the Donbas.
A failure of Western resolve to sustain support for Kyiv and expand the shipment of materiel to defeat Russian advances would probably see a Russian breakout from the Donbas and a renewed offensive towards Kyiv. Defeat for Ukraine would be catastrophic for European security. Accepting any degree of Russian success, including by offering ‘off ramps’ as part of efforts towards a negotiated settlement, would embolden Putin to launch further acts of aggression.
And with that requirement to ensure Russia is decisively defeated, NATO must consider a growing risk that Putin will be tempted towards either vertical escalation, by using weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine, or horizontal escalation, by attacking supply lines of NATO support, including those beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Moscow could also continue to make implicit and explicit nuclear threats to coerce NATO, such as Putin’s announcement that Russia will transfer nuclear-capable Iskander-M ballistic missiles to Belarus, while also raising the threat of hybrid warfare against NATO members. Lithuania and Norway are already coming under cyberattack from Russian-based hackers and Putin is set to ruthlessly exploit food and energy as weapons to coerce NATO states into stopping support for Kyiv.
NATO needs to mobilize for possible war by deploying sufficient force to deter Russian aggression across its eastern frontier while strengthening resilience against hybrid and grey-zone threats. It also needs to boost the credibility of its nuclear deterrence against Moscow. The naming of ‘Operation Mobilise’ is apt, but NATO must face down Russia to avoid an even larger and more disastrous European war.
Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst at ASPI, where this first appeared.