NATO’s Achilles Heel: Russian Political Warfare
NATO must overcome its eclipsing bias of seeing the Russian threat as one of aircraft and tanks to one of malware and spies.
Adm. Mike Rogers recently testified, “President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay” for Russia’s influence operations, and that “what we have done hasn’t been enough.” And the senior U.S. military officer in Europe, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, later added, “Russia aggressively uses social media and other means of mass communication to push disinformation, test the resolve of the United States, and erode our credibility with European partners.”
In spite of these warnings, Russia continues to exploit the transparency essential to democracy and wages political warfare. Russia can paralyze the politics in NATO member states to undermine the alliance. For its part, NATO seems fixated on the benchmark of defense spending at 2 percent of GDP to deter a Russian conventional attack. This conventional paradigm ignores the cognitive challenge that Russia pursues to weaken NATO from within. NATO must build on its whole-of-nation approaches, public-private partnerships and fledgling cyber capabilities to overcome its eclipsing bias of seeing the Russian threat as one of aircraft and tanks to one of malware and spies.
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Russian Political Warfare
Russia’s strategy has significantly evolved over the past twenty-five years. As the country recovers its great-power status, Moscow sees today’s competition as best waged through political warfare—an application of all national means short of war to achieve objectives—rather than conventional warfare. Russia understands that it currently lacks the military capacity required to conquer and hold territory through military means alone. Further, it understands NATO red lines and the Article Five process, so it focuses on generating ambiguity and deniability to its aggressions. This approach, referred to at times as the Gerasimov Model, asserts the belief that the effectiveness of nonmilitary tools in achieving goals in conflict has exceeded that from weapons, at an approximate proportion of 80 percent to 20 percent.
Russia’s overarching objective is to strengthen its stature and project itself as a world power. To this end, it seeks to weaken, not destroy, the West. Recouping territorial expansionism and influence from the last century underscores the Russian conventional threat, but the peril to most NATO members is more subtle. Gustav Gressel argues, “Russia’s military efforts are embedded in a multi-pronged drive to overwhelm, subvert, and subdue the opposing society.” And the supreme allied commander in Europe, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, reached this conclusion again in March of 2018: “Russia seeks to change the international order, fracture NATO, and undermine U.S. leadership in order to protect its regime, re-assert dominance over its neighbors, and achieve greater influence around the globe.”
The U.S. military has highlighted the conventional threat that Russia poses, but broader efforts to deter Russian political warfare is lagging. Moscow’s approach is focused on blurring civilian and military tactics together—something that is largely eschewed in democracies. This is directly correlated to discrediting and weakening perceptions of Western institutions. It is fair to assume that Russia is actively working to discredit NATO and the EU whenever possible, and may consider further surreptitious seizures of territory. Combined with the will to take boldly calculated actions, Russia has proven to be adept at waging influence operations.
Reviewing conflict from the last decade, it is clear that Russia advances its national interests through government, state-sponsored, private and criminal activities, under a veil of ambiguity and deniability. Russia spreads misinformation, exploits nationalist sentiments and identities or ethnic and religious divides, develops relationships and patronage systems to exert political influence, creates dependencies and strings to pull through critical resources such as energy, and takes advantage of a mix of these as a basis for increased military cooperation. This approach is visible in the Baltics, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans, but the discovery is often too late to affect outcomes.
Of course, exploiting perceptions works across the spectrum of Russian power. It can be seen in the creation of a false narrative of Russia’s economic influence, or the manipulation of history to fuel the belief that the West mistreats select groups or regions. Adding to this fire, along with rising Islamic extremism, groups such as the “clerical fascist” sect of nationalist Serbian Orthodoxy and other neo-Nazi-adjacent movements are also growing. Members have gone to fight alongside Russia in Ukraine. Their approach is to pull on emotional strings to inflame nationalism. At the same time, Russia’s clandestine intelligence networks are coming back to life integrating into the fiber of European societies, which are vulnerable to political warfare.
Moscow’s combination of information and psychological warfare, underwritten with ancillary conventional military capabilities, cannot be countered with NATO’s arsenal of conventional forces. Russia’s political warfare is not invisible, but democracies are usually partially blind to it. In the words of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, “a democracy is always two years behind the dictator.”
Flawed by Design?
Russia is successfully exploiting the transparent nature of democracy and waging political warfare to undermine the alliance from within, and on its borders. As a democracy of democracies, NATO is struggling to counter this political warfare campaign waged against it. While the alliance has upheld ideals of territorial integrity, and collective defense for nearly seventy years, Article Five is frequently called into question. The precariousness of popular support to the alliance commitment is further exacerbated when Russian actions fall below the threshold of traditional warfare that pits tank against tank.
In a highly visible example, U.S. Army Europe has been progressively assertive against the Russian conventional threat, increasing the amount of American forces stationed in Europe, adding a rotational brigade to support four NATO battle groups in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and positioning additional resources in Poland, the Netherlands and Germany. The European Defense/Reassurance Initiative increased from $175 million in fiscal year 2015 to $6.5 billion in the proposed 2019 budget. This conventional approach may deter Russian invasion, but it also feeds NATO’s conventional military biases, blinding the organization to political warfare.
The conventional military paradigm may be too powerful to include countering political warfare in NATO plans. The conventional military role and Article Five responses to declared wars are still of benefit to members. But it is not in members’ interests to allow NATO to be parked on a shelf, waiting to react to Russia crossing a NATO country’s border. NATO must invest resources to counter Russia’s information fight.
This will not be easy, as the alliance’s focus on conventional forces is a result of national preferences and processes laced with intergovernmental friction, focused on the 2-percent-of-GDP spending benchmark. This creates a significant vulnerability, which Russia exploits. Further, there are twenty-nine competing national interests and offer different interpretations of the Russian threat. For example, polling suggests 72 percent of Dutch think supporting an ally against Russian aggression is worth it, compared to just 40 percent of Germans. Merging twenty-nine perspectives into a single course of action leads to slow, indecisive and reactive responses, which are highly vulnerable to political warfare.
NATO Must Change
While game theorists highlight the concept of the first-mover advantage in seizing a larger portion of market share, they also examine opportunities unique to the second mover. If looking at the post–Cold War period, one could assess NATO had this upper hand in the 1990s, then lost its advantage while fixated on the Middle East and Central Asia. Russia then reasserted itself, establishing a new first-mover advantage in Ukraine. It is arguably now setting the foundation for more operations in the Baltics, the Balkans and eastern Europe.
Focusing attention on NATO at its core, it now needs to consider second-mover advantages in its own neighborhood and beyond. As Erick Waage and David Gioe argue, political (information) warfare is not a foreign concept. Rather, “Americans were” once “quite effective at information warfare.” Thinking through its own history, NATO ought to be clear-eyed about the opportunities it has in its hand, address its vulnerabilities, exploit the leverage it has over Putin and comprehensively address Russian power.
To this end, NATO has begun to identify Russia’s strategy as holistic political warfare, and is developing a structure to address it. These are important first steps. In April of 2017, NATO committed to establishing a European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Finland. NATO’s counter-hybrid strategy includes strengthened coordination with the European Union, a new Intelligence Division, more training and exercises, and efforts to actively counter propaganda with facts. Additionally, NATO has appointed a new assistant secretary-general to focus on hybrid-warfare activities. While these are important steps, the alliance should revisit strategic objectives to anticipate challenges at a political level. Further, U.S. military leaders must not conceive of heavy military buildup as the only way to deter Russia, which sees irregular warfare as its way of war.
As the next NATO summit approaches in July, members must embrace the totality of the Russian threat: conventional, nuclear and political. The alliance should use the next NATO summit to outline a new strategic concept, as it did in London in 1990, when the focus was on expanding partners. In 2018, the focus needs to be on recognizing the nature of threats, expanding select tools and adjusting others in its toolkit. Each NATO member has the opportunity to put forth unique or unified messages on this front. As a start, it should consider establishing a working group to address the holistic political warfare challenge the alliance faces, as well as its institutional limitations and problems. This effort must rise above the task of the myriad centers, or even the new assistant secretary general. NATO’s weaknesses and strengths are in numbers, and power rests heavily upon the shoulders of its most influential, with the United States and its military leaders often out front, and key players in Berlin, Ankara, London, Paris and Rome. Strategy need not be about big price tags and burden sharing; it ought to be centered on creative thinking and a full inventory of tools at one’s disposal.