January 20th, 2022. Yesterday, I had the honour of addressing the excellent Vilnius Security Conference to consider Ukraine and the “most probable and dangerous course of action”. My approach was to prepare guidance to ministers focussed on the military-strategic and politico-strategic implications of Russian aggression and available policy options to the Euro-Atlantic community over the short-term (now), medium-term (2025) and the longer-term (2030). The guidance below is based on my Vilnius remarks. Next Tuesday The Alphen Group’s new Shadow NATO Strategic Concept will be presented to NATO senior staff in Brussels (it will be publicly-launched by the German Marshall Fund, the Norwegian Atlantic Committee, and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute on Feb 3rd.). Many of the recommendations in the Shadow Strategic Concept are relevant to generating the proportionate but clear NATO-centric response that are needed now and in the aftermath of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
PART ONE: ASSESSMENT
Russia’s immediate aim is to consolidate its 2014 invasion of Ukraine and thus force Kiev into compliance with Moscow’s European strategy by whatever coercive means necessary, including the possible use of large-scale military forces. All the evidence suggests some form of invasion is imminent. On January 18th the US and UK confirmed that all the necessary Russian forces were in position to launch an invasion of Ukraine, including all the necessary Battalion Tactical Groups, enablers, combat support and combat support services. A Russian attack would be likely to take place along the Chernihiv-Mariupol Axis and designed to ‘slice’ much of eastern Ukraine away from the rest of the country. Russia would probably justify its invasion as a humanitarian act to protect Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority. The occupied area would become a Russian ‘protectorate’ before it is eventually offered the status of a Russian province by the Duma. If successful, such a strategy would give Russia complete control of the Sea of Azov, enable it to seize the port of Mariupol and provide a secure land bridge between Crimea, Sevastopol and Russia.
There is still time using diplomatic channels for the Western Allies toconvince the Russian leadership that the complex strategic coercion it is applying against Ukraine, and by extension Allies and partners, is bound to fail. However, such an approach would require Euro-Atlantic solidarity and whilst there might be some scope for a good cop (France, Germany and Italy), bad cop (US, Poland, UK) stratagem, it is more likely Moscow would see that as weakness. In that light, President Macron’s suggestion that the EU should seek a separate security pact with Russia is more likely to divide the EU than open up a new political path for Putin to withdraw his forces from Ukraine’s borders without losing face. Given the gravity of the situation any agreed policy must thus be both bilateral and NATO-focussed based on a determination that the free nations and peoples of the Euro-Atlantic area remain committed to a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship with the Russian Federation built on the principles of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. However, any such dialogue with Russia must also send a clear message to Moscow that the Alliance will always maintain a force posture to ensure credible defence and deterrence for all of the Alliance, and that Russian aggression and the illegal use of force will have profound consequences for Russia.
PART TWO: MILITARY-STRATEGIC SITUATION
On paper Ukrainian forces could put up a good fight in the event of another Russian invasion of their country, but in reality they are hopelessly out-matched. There are an estimated 130,000 Russian troops deployed along the Ukrainian border from near Hornyel in Belarus to the Crimea. There are also some 32,000 Russian and separatist troops in occupied eastern Ukraine, as well as 80,000 deep strike formations and reserves held back from the border on a jump-off line running north-south centred on Voronezh. Crucially, elite Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) have now been deployed along the border, supported by field hospitals and other combat support and combat support services. At present there are 50 BTGs in situ. These are Putin’s shock-troops and are organised into 168 BTGs and have a ‘grab and hold’ function and are designed to link up with Spetsnaz forces and thus act as a link between Special Operating Forces and the bulk of the Russian Army.
Ukraine has 209,000 active duty troops against 900,000 Russian, although not all Russian troops are facing Ukraine, whilst Ukraine has 900,000 reserves against some 2,000,000 Russian reserves. Ukraine also has 858 tanks against Russia’s 2,840 tanks and 1,818 artillery pieces against Russia’s 4,684. However, whilst Ukrainian forces would continue to fight doggedly and with great courage the relatively flattering force comparison is in many ways false. The training, quality and equipment of Russian elite formations facing Ukraine is far superior. This is because Russia spends $43.2 billion (and probably far more) on defence compared with Ukraine’s annual defence outlay of circa $4.3 billion. Consequently, Russia has 1,160 modern combat aircraft plus other sophisticated drone, missile and other remote and increasingly autonomous ‘kill box’ technologies against Ukraine’s 125 ageing aircraft. By way of further comparison, Russia also has 15 mainly advanced frigates in the Russian Navy compared with Ukraine’s 1 ageing frigate.
The US and other Allies have offset that balance by offering equipment and training to Ukrainian forces, but only to a limited extent. The US has provided $2.5 billion of military assistance to Ukraine since 2014. That has been spent mainly on defensive systems such as small arms and munitions and more advanced systems such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and given two refitted former US Coast Guard patrol boats to the Ukrainians. This week the UK delivered light anti-tank weapons to Kiev. Washington is also considering supplying Soviet-made mi-17 helicopter gunships that served with the Afghan National Army.
Russia’s possible military objectives
It is not possible to read President Putin’s mind, but it is possible to assess Russia’s military strength and posture. There would appear to be two possible objectives and an alternative:
- The US believes the strategic objective could be Kiev and the toppling of the Zelensky government, the release of former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko from prison where he is awaiting trial for treason, and Zelensky’s replacement with a puppet government, possibly led by Poroshenko.
- Kiev is a feint designed to pin the bulk of Ukrainian forces down defending the seat of Ukrainian government. Any attack on Kiev could involve Russian forces in urban warfare for an extended period. Memories of Russian atrocities in Grozny would be rekindled both in Russia and beyond.
- Russia could conduct an extensive cyber war against Ukraine, starve the country of energy and blockade Ukrainian ports.
PART THREE: POLITICO-STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS
The future political and strategic orientation of Ukraine has profound implications for the future security of Europe, most notably Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. There are three possible options:
- Ukraine decides to move towards the EU and NATO;
- Ukraine remains determinedly neutral in much the same way as Switzerland, but not in the manner of Ireland, Sweden or Finland; or
- Russia succeeds in installing a puppet government in Kiev and Ukraine tips decisively towards Moscow, in the manner of Belarus.
The third implication is clearly Moscow’s strategic desire. It is in that light the Russian ‘offer’ of a new European security treaty must be seen. There are three possible interpretations of Moscow’s unacceptable demands therein none of which are mutually exclusive. First, they are designed to test the resolve and cohesion of the Alliance. Second, the willingness of the Americans to negotiate with Russia over the heads of their European allies and Ukrainian partners about their respective critical interests, and thus re-establish a Cold War precedent. Third, they are designed to fail and thus provide Moscow with a casus belli.
The latter implication should not be dismissed. The timing of Russia’s aggressive military force posture, which was rehearsed in spring 2021, is also designed to exploit the Berlin government’s closure of last six relatively modern nuclear power plants and the operational readiness of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline, as well as the French presidential elections and the French presidency of the EU. It is Germany’s (and much of Europe’s) growing dependence on Russian energy that is perhaps the single most important external factor shaping Moscow’s actions. However, given Berlin’s centrality to Russia’s European strategy it is also reasonable to assume Moscow will not invade Ukraine before the forthcoming ‘reset’ meeting between President Putin and Chancellor Schölz.
Putin intends to enter the Schölz meeting from which he regards as a position of overwhelming military strength. Putin also knows that NATO forces would be very unlikely to intervene in Ukraine beyond supplying Ukrainian defence forces with equipment or training. NATO also lacks the political cohesion and the military capability in theatre to mount what would need to be the biggest military rescue operation in Europe since 1945.
The merest glance of a map demonstrates that the politico-strategic consequences of a successful Russian invasion would not just be profound for Ukraine, but for wider European security. If Ukraine were reduced to a Russian puppet state Moscow would have created a strategic salient right into the heart of free Europe. A successful Russian invasion and occupation of a very significant part of Ukraine would also be a big step towards the creation of a de facto buffer between Russia and NATO and the effective ‘Finlandisation’ of EU and NATO states from the Black Sea to an increasingly militarised Arctic.
The security of the three Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would be profoundly weakened, not least because it would appear both the EU and NATO are incapable of influencing fundamental security challenges in Europe. Russia’s ability to exert complex strategic coercion grey zone warfare would also be markedly strengthened and Russia’s use of hybrid warfare against allies on NATO’s eastern flank would doubtless intensify. 5D warfare against the Baltic States combining deception, disruption, disinformation, destabilisation and coercion through implied or actual Russian military action could become sufficiently acute that it in effect forces the three Baltic States into Russia’s sphere of influence, irrespective of their formal affiliations and memberships.
Whilst the US may respond by deploying two or three more Brigade Combat Teams to Europe the Biden administration is unlikely to do more. This would be partly due to the worsening over-stretch of US armed forces caused by the seemingly inexorable rise of blue water China in the Indo-Pacific but Russian aggression in Ukraine would also test the willingness of the American people to again confront Russia in Europe at a time when Washington faces a host of domestic challenges. If the Americans fail to meet the challenge, a future Russian invasion of the Baltic States would suddenly become far more feasible, not least because it is clear Germany is not going to confront Russia beyond the demonstrably short-term, non-military, and symbolic.
Policy options must be considered over the short, medium and longer-term. This week, the UK Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon. Ben Wallace, established the principles upon which any response must be based. Russia is conflating it aggression against Ukraine with demand for constraints on the future force posture of NATO. In fact, these are two separate policy-strategic Russian aims which must be seen as such. The Secretary of State also established the non-negotiable principles for a considered, proportionate and measured response to this grave crisis that Russia has chosen to create. First, NATO is a defensive Alliance. Second, all the free states of Europe joined the Alliance freely, which is a fundamental principle that must be defended. The people of Vilnius have the same rights to freedom, security and defence as, say, the people of Viereck in Germany, or Vancouver in Canada. Third, NATO is not encircling Russia as the Kremlin claims. Russian militarisation of the Arctic, its threats to undersea communications, its growing interference in the Western Balkans, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, its abandonment of international treaties and norms, and its deployment of advanced, destabilising weapon systems demonstrate it is Moscow that is not only seeking to further dismember Ukraine but to destabilise free Europe, and decouple Europeans from their American and Canadian allies.
Short-term (pre-invasion and upon invasion)
Prior to an invasion (if possible) the deployment of more equipment and ‘trainers’ to Ukraine by NATO nations would be a clear deterrent. NATO should at least formally launch a Ukrainian Deterrence Initiative to better equip Ukrainian forces over the medium-term and make the Ukrainian government and society more resilient in the face of Russia’s relentless information and cyber-attacks.
The only realistic diplomatic option in the wake of a Russian invasion would be to demand the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, but in return accept Ukrainian neutrality as a reality, perhaps as part of a Franco-German brokered Minsk 3 Accord (Minsk 2 is dead). The political result would be a Ukraine that would look much like Austria during the Cold War and reflect a pragmatic approach much like the US withdrawal of Thor missiles from Turkey six months after the November 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Even with that pragmatic approach there would also need to be an array of tough sanctions applied against Russia immediately, including an end to Nordstream 2 with Germany compensated by imports of US gas. Russia will have war-gamed such sanctions and will be betting that individual countries will dilute them, not least France, Italy and Germany.
If Russia invades Ukraine the balance of military power in Europe will be changed. NATO must respond immediately to demonstrate to Moscow that such actions will always trigger a defensive reaction. One option would be to deploy HQ, Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (HQARRC) from England to near Warsaw. Such a deployment would send a clear signal that NATO will defend itself and reinforce the Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States and Tailored Forward Presence in Bulgaria and Romania.
Over the medium-term (2025) NATO would need to complete and then reinforce the NATO Readiness Initiative allied to enhanced military mobility so that the bulk of Allied forces can move far more quickly to where they are needed. NATO should also move to expand the concept of deterrence across the spectrum of hybrid, cyber, conventional and nuclear threat and help the nations reinforce their resilience against 5D warfare across the bandwidth of hybrid, cyber and hyperwar – deception, disruption, disinformation, destabilisation and coercion through implied or actual Russian military action.
Over the longer-term a new European energy mix is needed that eases dependence on Russian energy. However, it is hard power that the Putin regime most respects. Therefore, by 2030 at the latest, an Allied Command Operations Mobile Heavy Force (AMHF) should be deployed. This would be a mainly European force with European enablers that would act as future core of NATO deterrence in Europe.
The AMHF would consolidate all Allied Rapid Response Forces into a single pool of forces and act as a high-end, first responder in all and any emergency. The AMHF would be sufficiently capable to meet the array of future war threats Europeans will face as emerging and disruptive technologies enter Europe’s contested space. The AMHF would also be sufficiently capable to operate from seabed to space and across the multiple domains of the future battlespace air, sea, land, cyber, space, information, and knowledge armed with the emerging intelligent technologies that will shape the character of future war.
For all and any of the above to be realised European political leaders would need to end what for the past thirty years has passed for lamentable and utterly incompetent security and defence policies. The very policies that have brought Europe to the point where in 2022 Russia is considering undertaking a full-scale invasion of a European country. No more self-deceit.