Why NATO Isn't Ready to Take on Russia

A German soldier holds NATO flag during a ceremony to welcome the German battalion being deployed to Lithuania as part of NATO deterrence measures against Russia in Rukla, Lithuania February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Now that military tensions between Russia and the West have gone through the roof, most European states find themselves lacking credible warfighting capabilities.

War is being fought in Europe today. It has been going on for more than three years. More than ten thousand people are dead—and some 1.6 million people are internally displaced. NATO—and the EU—have been puzzled with the war in Ukraine with the military framework that has guided their actions during the post–Cold War era. Great-power politics and spheres of influence were supposed to be over. Similarly, long-term large-scale war of attrition using long-range artillery, multiple launch-rocket systems, mechanized forces and proxies have surprised Western statesmen and pundits of strategy.

During the last twenty-five years, the Western strategic effort has focused around humanitarian use of military force, counterterrorist operations and counterinsurgency operations in expeditionary settings. At the same time, the West has got rid of mechanized forces and many other military capabilities and skills related to large-scale warfighting against an advanced peer adversary.

The Twenty Years’ Crisis

Surely enough, Western states (read: the member-states of NATO) have reoriented their views on international security during the past three years. Russia’s actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have forced NATO and its member-states to refocus on defending Europe. This happened after almost twenty years of outright neglect and disinterest in maintaining—not to mention developing—“real” hardcore military capabilities in Europe for scenarios where the adversary would be something other than an illegitimate third-rate regime committing large-scale humanitarian abuses without any modern military capability.

Military crisis management—or crisis response operations—together with stability operations, humanitarian interventions, comprehensive state-building operations and counterinsurgency operations had the limelight within the Western military framework from the 1990s until 2014, when NATO was exiting Afghanistan and Russia surprised everyone by actually executing its policies militarily according to the logic it had previously been advocating at the rhetorical level. By the time Russian troops took hold of Crimea, the member-states of NATO (and the EU for that matter) were doing some serious soul searching about what would constitute the “new” Western military framework after Afghanistan (2001-), Iraq (2003-) and Libya (2011) had convinced almost everyone that the era of exuberant out-of-area operations is coming to a close.

A decade earlier, in the late 1990s, a lot of effort was placed to dismantle the Cold War era military capabilities and perspectives to warfighting. As the 1999 NATO Defence Capabilities Initiative noted, “many Allies have only relatively limited capabilities for the rapid deployment of significant forces outside national territory, or for extended sustainment of operations and protection of forces far from home bases.”

Stating the fact more brutally, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson mentioned in a speech in 2003 that “In a nutshell: we have more than 1.4 million regular soldiers under arms in Europe and Canada, plus a million or so reserves. Yet the vast majority are at present useless for the kind of missions we are now mounting.”

While NATO was focusing on surviving the post–Cold War era through the development of Crisis Response Operations and after 2001 the terrorist threat, high-intensity warfighting capabilities and skills were neglected. With decreasing defense budgets European states produced less military power with their small(er) underfunded armed forces. After 1999, we have witnessed—among others—the Prague Capabilities Commitment, Smart Defence Initiative and the Connected Forces Initiative. None of these—or any other initiatives, action plans, roadmaps or final communiques—have produced the alliance-wide, large-scale, high-intensity warfighting capability that many in Europe have been dreaming about ever since 2014.

‘Big War’ is Back

By the time Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula, most Western states were thinking about how to formulate a new narrative on defense that would assure western citizens that defense after unsuccessful operations in Afghanistan and Iraq still mattered. Russia’s actions has provided the foundations for a new narrative on Western military activity, but the downside is that new capabilities take more than a decade to build. The post-Crimean military tensions—and even a potential military conflict with Russia—will be handled with the atrophied military capabilities that Western states (mostly in Europe) have left of their armed forces.

From the perspective of NATO’s relevance, in Ukraine Russia provided—in a gruesome manner—a “new” (read: old) logic according to which the Alliance and its member-states could redefine their approach to international security in general and military security in particular. Thus, with the shadow of Afghanistan et al. in the rearview mirror, and the traditional attritional military conflict raging in Ukraine, the external and internal conditions were conductive for NATO’s member-states to renegotiate the Alliance’s role in the world and to rejuvenate its take on “military defense and hard warfighting.” NATO was back, but not with a vengeance.

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