international analysis and commentary

NATO Facing Russia: Deterrence, Escalation and the Future



“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

Article 5, North Atlantic Treaty, April 1949

The tipping point

“60 Minutes”, Russia’s flagship ‘news/propaganda’ programme on Rossiya 1, does not pull its punches. It is shocking even by the low standards of Putin’s main propaganda program. On one recent edition the anchor, Olga Skabeyeva, had several guests, but the show was dominated by a bombastic, nationalist motor-mouth. His child-like self-pitying thesis was that the sinking of the Moskva was a tipping point in the Russo-Ukraine War because the Ukrainians had had the temerity to attack the ‘Motherland’. He conveniently forgot that it was the ‘Motherland’ that had just invaded a neighbouring democratic country that borders both the EU and NATO. He also suggested that Russia was already fighting World War Three because “NATO’s infrastructure” was being used to arm Ukraine’s defence. Russia, he suggested, would be perfectly within its rights to attack targets such as railway junctions in Poland through which Western arms and supplies were travelling en route to Ukraine. Russia he said, should decisively escalate to de-escalate.

What if Russia did attack NATO Poland? First, NATO would respond. The North Atlantic Council would meet in emergency session to decide what specific action would be needed to restore deterrence. No response would pretty much mark the end of NATO. Second, the NATO response would need to be decisive, tailored and proportionate. Third, NATO would need to embark on an extensive ‘strategic communications’ campaign to explain its actions to citizens and the Kremlin alike.

A woman protesting against Russian occupation in Kherson, Ukraine


Donbas “sitrep” (situation report)

Russian forces are now increasing military pressure on fortified Ukrainian forces in the Donbas. The strategic aim appears to be to seize the whole of the Donetsk region, destroy the salient between Izium and Donetsk, surround some 20% of Ukrainian regular forces in the region, and finally seize Mariupol thus reinforcing the so-called ‘land bridge’ between the Russian Federation and Crimea.

However, the mauling Russia’s spearhead forces suffered during the first phase of the war has significantly reduced Russian fighting power. The British estimate at least 15,000 Russian troops have been killed many of them from elite formations. The consequent hollowing out of Russian land forces and the reduction in their stocks of missiles, allied to the conduct of intelligent defence by Ukrainian forces, is evident in the slow progress of the Russian advance in the Donbas.

Russia’s longer-term strategic aim is to seize Odesa and extend the land bridge to Transnistria. However, because Russia has not ordered a major mobilisation it is unlikely that objective will be achieved in 2022. More likely, Russia will consolidate any gains it makes in the Donbas and then pause until spring 2023 before it launches the next major offensive. An operational pause would enable Russian land forces to re-group, reconstitute and re-arm.

Options and contingencies

NATO would also need to confront several internal issues which go to the very heart of Allied deterrence now and into the future. Would there be sufficient political cohesion within the Alliance to overcome the escalation aversion that not unreasonably exists, particularly in parts of Western Europe? Take Germany as THE example of this profound question. Faced by a hard left faction within the SPD, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ‘defence revolution’ is already stalling and his commitment to Ukraine’s defence is wobbly at best.

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What would be the exact nature and scope of a NATO response? There would be several options all of which would be both proportionate and risky. If Russia attacked critical railway junctions in Poland, American and British nuclear submarines could launch cruise missile strikes on Russian railway infrastructure vital to the supply and re-supply of Russian forces or the ‘reconstitution centres’ at which they are massing for the offensive in Eastern Ukraine. The Suwalki Corridor between Belarus and Kaliningrad could be closed and an attack of similar scale mounted on the enclave’s air defence systems. NATO could also blockade the Black Sea and conduct a missile strike against a Russian warship.

The degree of warning, if any, of the above courses of action would depend on what level of warning the Russians gave prior to their initial attack on NATO soil and the strength of message NATO leaders felt compelled to send to Putin. However, given the fevered atmosphere inside the Kremlin and President Putin’s head any NATO military strike on Russian soil or a Russian ship would almost certainly lead to escalation of the war, possibly beyond Ukraine.

Are there any alternatives? The answer to that question goes to the very heart of NATO’s core purpose and the very meaning of deterrence.

Mention the words NATO deterrence to most thinking people and immediately nuclear deterrence comes to mind. Here, Russia has NATO over a barrel. By repeatedly breaching the now defunct 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty Moscow has been able to illegally develop a whole family of tactical and intermediate-range nuclear missile systems. These weapons sit somewhere between conventional military power and the world-destroying strategic nuclear systems typified by this week’s propaganda test of the new Sarmat (Satan 2) intercontinental ballistic-plus nuclear missile. On the face of it they afford Moscow more rungs on the escalation ladder than are available NATO. NATO deterrence is built on a slowly recapitalising conventional defence and the strategic nuclear systems of the US, UK and France.

Restoring deterrence

In other words, there would appear to be a hole in NATO deterrence that even the Russians could exploit. Or is there? The concept of deterrence has become too focused on weapons and not enough on effects. Whatever happens in Ukraine there will be a revolution in warfare over the coming decade or so driven by American and Chinese technology. Whilst the headline-grabbers will be artificially-intelligent weapons and the swarms in which they will operate, the daily perma-war NATO is now fighting will be dominated by information and cyber warfare, both offensive and defensive, and their interaction with military future force.

Future NATO deterrence will thus be built on an effects-based ‘triad’ of deep, machine-led intelligence, offensive defence and defensive resilience, and advanced, hyper speed strike. Critical people and infrastructure protection/destruction will thus be as important as force-on-force engagement in what is already a form of total war. That, is why the Kremlin and its cronies say they are already fighting World War Three. They are. Paradoxically, much of Russia’s self-evident operational incompetence in Ukraine has been caused by diverting limited resources to fund the spectacular at the expense of the militarily capable. It will not always be thus.

Therefore, rather than attack Russia using direct military action NATO could respond to any such attack on, say, Poland by causing the mass disruption of Russian infrastructures and Russian military communications which would clearly be vulnerable to such an attack. In other words, the Allies should respond by demonstrating to the Russians that NATO is developing a new concept of deterrence and escalation as part of an effects continuum that stretches across the mosaic of hybrid, cyber and hyperwar.

People power

There is a caveat that is all too often ignored. NATO deterrence will only work if all of us are prepared to accept that no NATO act in our name can come without risk. As the Kremlin becomes more desperate in the face of its own appalling strategic folly the more likely it is to escalate the war to de-escalate the crisis in line with current Russian political and military doctrine.

It is nonsense, but then again the entire past seven weeks has seen nothing if not an exercise in Russian nonsense. Even the use of a ‘demonstration’ nuclear strike by Moscow in Ukraine can no longer be completely ruled out. The more desperate Moscow becomes for some kind of victory the greater the likelihood of an attack on NATO territory, particularly if the current offensive in the Donbas grounds to a bloody halt.

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Historically severe crises of this sort tend to move inexorably to a tipping point between escalation and de-escalation. That is precisely what happened during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the war in Ukraine seems to be on a similar trajectory. At such points the aggressor needs to be convinced to de-escalate. Therefore, President Putin must fully understand that any and all attacks on NATO territory will be met with a graduated and proportionate response.

NATO deterrence also needs two other realities to be gripped. First, NATO leaders need to be clear that there is indeed a clear link between arming Ukraine and defending the Alliance and establish policy and strategy to that end. Second, and perhaps most important of all, for NATO deterrence to be credible we, the NATO citizens, also need to be strong and suppress the understandable temptation to seek ‘peace in our time’. We must all now take a stand. Yes, it is a scary prospect and I am sorry I feel compelled to write this, but that is precisely the situation that Putin has created for Russians, Ukrainians, the Allies, and the whole world. NATO must not and cannot back down.

Peace through strength!