If NATO Cannot Be A Lion, It Must Be A Fox


Imagine that you are Vladimir Putin. In February 2014, you were met with a weak international response to your annexation of Crimea. That year, your military’s largest exercise involved 150,000 personnel and took place on your western border; by contrast, the largest NATO exercise involved only 16,000 troops drawn from 15 allies. In an October 2014 speech on the theme, “The World Order: New Rules or a Game Without Rules?”, you declared your distaste for NATO, which you see as a “new effort to fragment the world, [and] draw new dividing lines.” You hope to draw your own lines representing your view of Russia’s place in the world. Imagine that you look to ill-defended Latvia, only 150 kilometres from St. Petersburg; why do you decide not to invade when you so easily could? 

Certainly not because you see NATO as a viable deterrent. Rather, because a simple cost-benefit analysis showed you that it was simply not worth it. NATO strategy must be radically altered in order to reflect this observation. 

Russia could not defeat NATO in a total war scenario but could achieve victory before a total war began. There can be no distinction between total war, where all of the resources of the state are dedicated to achieving complete victory, and nuclear war. Russia is capable of achieving limited victory against a NATO ally before the alliance can mobilise its conventional resources. Once limited victory has been achieved, all Russia need do is threaten a nuclear escalation in the event of a NATO response. The question then becomes, “is Latvia worth New York”, leading reasonable domestic political concerns to stall the Alliance’s military response. Delays such as this would allow Russia to seize the strategic initiative, making any future conventional attempt to liberate the occupied nation more difficult. It is clear, then, that given the indivisibility of nuclear and total war, NATO does not pose a significant deterrent to Russia.

Failure to respond to an invocation of Article 5 would secure NATO’s downfall. Since the Alliance exists primarily to provide collective defence, its credibility would be irreparably undermined if it failed to do so even once. A quick limited victory followed by a threatened nuclear escalation could, therefore, lead not only to conquest, but to the collapse of NATO in its current form. 

Why, then, does Russia not invade one of its weak Baltic neighbours?  The answer is that, in contrast with western media conflation of the apparent irrationality of Putin with that of Russia as a whole, Russia is a rational actor for whom the costs of an invasion significantly outweigh the benefits. The direct cost of an invasion would be small, especially if hybrid tactics were used to weaken the adversary before conventional forces were deployed. The indirect costs are far more considerable. 

Were Russia to cause Article 5 to be invoked by invading a NATO ally, it would become a pariah state. There is already little doubt in diplomatic circles that Russia is an illegitimate actor on the international stage: in 2014, the European Court of Human Rights delivered 129 judgments against Russia and the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ordered Russia to pay $50 billion to the former shareholders of the oil company Yukos, which was illegally bankrupted by the state. Most notably, of course, the world awaits the publication of the Dutch Safety Board’s investigation into the MH17 crash. The cost to the Russian economy of withdrawal from the international stage would be immense. Clearly, then, Russia would derive little benefit from a Baltic invasion, even without the direct cost of an occupation.

Successful annexation cannot come simply from defeating an army or by deterring NATO. In order to be successfully annexed, a nation must be occupied and stabilized. As NATO so painfully learnt in Afghanistan, an occupation perceived to be illegitimate is enormously costly to maintain and unlikely to succeed. There is no doubt that a Russian occupying army would be obstructed and that the capital of the invaded nation would be damaged during the invasion phase. This increases the cost and decreases the benefit, respectively, of the annexation of a NATO ally by Russia. 

NATO cannot legitimately decrease the benefit to Russia of annexing an ally, but it can increase the cost. As I have shown above, the doctrine of tripwire defence, whereby NATO stations troops in its threatened allies, cannot increase this cost given the potential for nuclear escalation. At current levels of defence spending, NATO cannot be a lion; it must be a fox. 

Rather than meeting asymmetry by preparing to fight a new, symmetric, Cold War, NATO should prepare to fight against Russia’s weaknesses, which are the same as its own.  Rather than attempting to improve its conventional capabilities without increasing defence spending, a futile pursuit, NATO should invest in preparation for asymmetric defensive warfare in its threatened allies. Following the Swiss model of national defence, NATO must encourage the introduction of national service in its threatened allies. 

National service achieves two aims: firstly, it provides a larger regular and reserve army than would otherwise exist. Equally important, when the threat of hybrid tactics is real, it provides a common experience that strengthens the sense of national identity within a state, reducing the potential for extraneous forces to sow division. On NATO’s most vulnerable border, the Baltic, Estonia and Lithuania both operate systems of national service, though Latvia does not. 

The real value of national service is not in the overt preparation for conventional operations that it makes, but in the potential for that army to employ asymmetric tactics. Even with a conscript army, any of the Baltic states would crumble in the face of the might of the Russian army; once that army entered the occupation phase, however, the conscript army could wreak havoc, hugely increasing the cost of an invasion, and so making one less likely. 

In the Swiss model, all fighting age males and female volunteers capable of military service receive 18 weeks of mandatory training followed by seven three-week recalls over the following ten years. There is, therefore, a large citizens’ militia to complement the small full-time military. They retain their personal weapon after their initial mandatory training, and ammunition is stored centrally at canton level. In the event of an invasion, and with the benefit of training and equipment, this citizens’ militia would not only increase the cost of occupation, prevent stabilization and so reduce the likelihood of successful assimilation, but would reduce the likelihood of an invasion happening at all. 

The alliance must play by the new rules recently established by Putin. In the event of an invocation of article 5, NATO must involve itself in the process of resistance. In order to ensure its survival, it must demonstrate that it is fully committed to collective defence. As I have shown above, however, it cannot do this overtly for fear of nuclear escalation. It must publicly increase special operations training in order to demonstrate that it can deploy the capability to support and supply resistance against an invader, fulfilling its commitment to collective defence while reducing the likelihood of a confrontation. NATO cannot deter by playing the lion, but it can deter by playing the fox. 

Image: British soldiers take part in NATO exercise Saber Strike in Latvia, June 2015. Source: NATO.