The War in Ukraine, and the next NATO Strategic Concept

Remarks to the American European Community Association, 26 April 2022

By Former NATO DASG, MG Retired Gordon B. “Skip” Davis Jr

The Russia-Ukraine war has changed where NATO thought it was and certainly where it will go from here.  Many within NATO thought that with the political and military adaptation carried out within the Alliance since 2014, NATO had reset deterrence, reestablished defense, and was now beginning to look beyond the Euro-Atlantic setting to address global challenges. 

The new reality (arguably clear years earlier), which has driven so much NATO effort over the past few months and will shape the European security environment for the foreseeable future, is an aggressive Russia, led by an autocratic president willing to employ violence, intimidation, and malign influence to achieve its foreign policy and defense aims.  Russia aims to undermine what it deems are constraining security and economic structures and create defensive space to the West and South to protect what Russia considers as critical national interests.  Over the past few years, the well-established Euro-Atlantic security order has fractured and been partially dismantled, mostly by Putin but also with help from the last U.S. administration.  That said, when eventually put back together, a revised Euro-Atlantic security order may well be even more constraining for an isolated and politically weakened Russia.

While Russia’s barbaric war is not yet over, it has failed on multiple levels (strategic, operational, tactical) due to major miscalculations and a courageous and effective Ukrainian resistance. 

Ukraine has won round one of this war.  Ukraine foiled Russia’s desire for a lightning fast and low-cost military operation to occupy large swaths of territory, force regime change and establish a Russian-friendly administration in support of Russia’s strategic aims.  Those strategic aims include a Ukraine outside of NATO, Crimea controlled by Russia allowing its Black Sea fleet a secure base of operations, and Russia secure against external and internal threats (read a color revolution inspired by a successful alternative Ukrainian model of governance on Russia’s doorstep). 

Most analysts believe Putin would like to expand his sphere of influence to include as many non-allied countries in Russia’s near abroad as possible (read Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia).  NATO expects Putin to continue his war until he has achieved a revised and more modest operational objective of a Russian occupied Donbas and territory connecting the Donbas to Crimea, thus ensuring multiple lines of communication from Russia to Crimea, a Sea of Azov totally under Russian control, and a punished Ukraine – i.e. the loss of more territory and considerable national resources, destroyed cities and infrastructure, and reduced access to the Black Sea.

NATO has responded pre-conflict and after the initiation of Russian aggression with increasing resolve and effectiveness.  The crisis and conflict have exercised and validated NATO’s political and military adaption since 2014.  But overall, the events of the last nine weeks tell us NATO still has some work to do on deterrence and defense in the Euro-Atlantic Area.

NATO’s primary focus for a year now (when Russia began its first buildup east of Ukraine) has been to assure Allies, deter Russia from aggression against the Alliance, support Ukraine, warn of costs to Russia should it attack Ukraine, then impose increasing costs, and coordinate its responses with EU and other International Organizations (G7, UN, Council of Europe, OSCE).

Over the past year Allies have effectively shared intelligence, consulted, and conducted collective decision-making which benefited from improvements in JISR, Strategic Intelligence and Warning and the NATO intelligence enterprise writ large.  NATO maintained political cohesion with senior leaders meeting since December virtually and in person at a dizzying rate.  NATO dialogued with Putin and Russia, holding a NATO-Russia Council pre-conflict, and communicating with Russian senior political leaders before and since hostilities began (NB:  Russian senor military leaders have reportedly refused to talk to NATO Military Authorities since the start of the war).  NATO reassured its Allies and strengthened its deterrence and defense by raising command and force readiness, activating its Graduated Readiness Plans, deploying the Very High Joint Task Force (VJTF) in record time, generating and deploying forces to the East (40K troops, 140 aircraft, 130 ships including for a time a U.S. Carrier Strike Group and two Allied Aircraft Carriers), communicating coherently with internal and external audiences, and coordinating closely with the EU and G7 on sanctions and with the OSCE and UN on the growing crisis.  With respect to Ukraine, NATO has ensured continued consultation and dialogue at multiple levels and notably increased its military, financial and humanitarian assistance.  Arguably late, Allied military assistance to Ukraine is now at unprecedented levels and with the exception of aircraft and a No Fly Zone is meeting many of Ukraine’s declared needs.  The U.S. sponsored conference at Ramstein today including Allied and partner Ministers of Defense and Chiefs of Defense is meant to gain even greater commitments for military assistance for the current fight and eventual reconstruction of Ukrainian forces post conflict. It may also be meant to gain Allied support for a revised U.S. aim to weaken Russia’s military to prevent it from future aggression.

While the crisis and war has increased NATO cohesion, resolve, and response, the war has also found NATO deterrence wanting.  Many Allies believe that Russian military modernization efforts, its multiple military deployments in recent years, aggressive political behavior and rhetoric, and above all its repeated military operations against Georgia and Ukraine, make aggression against NATO a credible possibility that must be countered with increased efforts in deterrence and defense.  All Allies realize that NATO efforts in cooperative security have not deterred Russian aggression against NATO partners.  The war has forced NATO partners to review their own situation vis-à-vis Russia and the Alliance.  Finland and Sweden are likely to overturn decades of neutrality and request NATO membership.  Switzerland is increasing its defense and military cooperation with the Alliance.  Georgia is quietly working on its recently upgraded NATO assistance package to continue reform and strengthen its defenses.  Moldova which fears aggression and hopes to remain neutral, has very recently applied to join the EU in hopes to solidify its pro-Western trajectory. 

What does this all mean for NATO’s Strategic Concept 2022?  Given recent events and NATO discussions and decisions what can we expect, and perhaps, what should we expect from a new Strategic Concept at such a key point in Euro-Atlantic history? 

First, what can we expect?  The next Strategic Concept will reflect implications of the recent conflict and benefit from related efforts as well as a long period of work characterized by a well-timed Reflection Process, a Secretary General initiative called NATO 2030 to prepare the Alliance for the rest of the current decade, and another crisis, still ongoing – COVID.  The 2019-2020 Reflection Process led to many recommendations affecting current policy work, but also improvements in the quality of consultation and policy development writ large.  The ongoing NATO 2030 initiative has built on the 2020 Report of Experts in several areas and been the subject of significant internal consultation and external engagement.  The COVID pandemic forced NATO to exercise its crisis management procedures and led to improvements in connectivity, virtual collaboration, NATO-EU cooperation, and development of a NATO toolbox for countering Hybrid Information Activities. 

Consultation and policy work over the past two years has solidified consensus on NATO threats and challenges.  Besides Russia, NATO recognizes international terrorism, Iranian ballistic missiles, cyber and hybrid attacks as threats.  NATO has identified several global challenges, two that will continue to grow in scale and breadth of impact, namely climate change and the rise of China.  Others include pandemics and strategic shocks yet unknown.  Regional challenges include instability, illegal migration, trafficking, and arms proliferation.

Second, the next Strategic Concept will be written by the Secretary General and his Private Office, not by a group of experts.  This is a fortunate development.  Secretary General Stoltenberg has consistently demonstrated a bold streak and has shown he is willing to challenge conventional thought and raise political aspirations.  Allies made a good decision to extend his tour by another year.

Third, Allies have provided quite a bit of guidance to date concerning what they want to keep from the 2010 Strategic Concept, such as:  the three Core Tasks (collective defense, crisis management, cooperative security), NATO’s fundamental values and purpose, the importance of consultation and consensus decision making, and political control over the Military Instrument of Power.  They have agreed on the threats and challenges previously laid out.  And they have agreed to incorporate several lines of effort associated with the Secretary General’s NATO 2030 initiative, such as strengthening NATO political power and other non-Military instruments of Power, strengthening deterrence and defense, expanding partnership efforts, reinforcing national resilience, improving cyber defense, addressing climate security, China, innovation, and advanced technology, and increasing common funding. 

NATO has publicly commented on two of these priorities since the outbreak of the Russian war against Ukraine, namely deterrence and defense against Russia and how to account for China’s growing global influence.  For the first NATO has stated it will be taking decisions this year to adapt longer term to the Russian threat and one of those decisions is likely to be a more robust forward defense posture.  This likely means Allies are considering how to deter Russia by denying it the ability to seize terrain before the Alliance could adequately respond.  Secondly, NATO has said it must address Chinese influence and efforts which are counter to Allied interests and values.  These priorities and other associated with the NATO 2030 initiative are likely to be referenced in the next Strategic Concept and detailed in associated NATO 2030 policies endorsed at the June Summit in Madrid.

With this premise on what will likely be in the 2022 Strategic Concept, what should we expect or hope to be in the NATO’s next version of its most important guiding document.  As Winston Churchill said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”  Not that the Russia-Ukraine War is a “good” crisis, but it is both a catalyst and inflection point that should incite serious reflection and concerted effort to prevent future conflict and aggression in the Euro-Atlantic Area.

There are three elements I would commend for inclusion in the next NATO Strategic Concept.  Allies should agree to redouble efforts:  to strengthen deterrence and defense, project stability and promote security to protect the Alliance and reduce the likelihood of conflict in the Euro-Atlantic Area

In NATO terms to strengthen deterrence and defense means strengthening NATO political and military power.  These are both key aspects of NATO 2030.  Much thinking has been done on political power, but less effort has been focused on military power.  

NATO political power has improved. Political cohesion and solidarity over the last few years has benefited from increased means, frequency, depth, and breadth of consultation, and concerted political action.  Increased means of consultation is evident in in terms of the number of venues exploited and modest improvements made in classified communications enabling substantive dialogue between HQs, the capitals, and NATO bodies.  Frequency of high-level consultation has reached new heights (in both physical and virtual meetings of Foreign and Defense Ministers, Heads of State and Government).  There is an untold story of improved depth of consultation on threats and challenges, including intelligence sharing, strategic-level exercises, and scenario-based discussions.  Breadth of consultation with partners close and far has improved as well. 

However, more work should be done in terms of the means and breadth of consultation.  NATO should commit to expanding connectivity and improving the speed and quality of consultation in order to enable timely and quality decision-making and concerted action (i.e. expand secure NATO communications Points of Presence to Ministries of Foreign Affairs and all NATO bodies; improve common virtual tools and cyber security measures; and connect directors in charge of national resilience, climate security and energy security).  EU cooperation deserves deepening in terms of classification and detail to achieve greater speed, synergy and effect in decision-making and concerted action.  With respect to NATO communications, a recognized strength, the Information Environment Assessment tool should be fully resourced and deployed following years in development.

While NATO military power has strengthened significantly since 2014, it is not yet enough to achieve deterrence by denial of an adversary like Russia.  Based on Putin’s behavior to date, the cost of a war with NATO may have deterred him from direct aggression against the Alliance, but not necessarily the employment of hybrid or cyber-attacks or use of intimidation and malign influence against Allies.  The Alliance has been surprised on multiple occasions by Putin’s willingness to use violence and take risks.  Given that Putin could very well remain in power for more than a decade, and even if replaced, could be replaced by an equally aggressive hardliner, the Alliance should plan accordingly.  NATO Military Authorities were tasked in late March to provide recommendations on longer term military adaptation, which will be reviewed by Defense Ministers in time for decisions by Heads of State and Government at Madrid.

            The most important deduction is that the next Strategic Concept should include adjustments in NATO military power to achieve deterrence by denial to have the greatest likelihood of success in changing Russian strategic calculus.   This means being able to defend early and successfully.  It requires action and reaction at speed and the necessary defensive capabilities to deny Russian local and temporal military advantage in heavy conventional forces, long range fires, electronic warfare, and above all missiles.  A more robust forward military presence to the East is very likely and would help deter a lightning land campaign.  However, it would not be sufficient to deny devastating, Russian air, maritime, or missile strikes.

            To achieve such speed and defensive effect, NATO should commit to further adjusting policies and investment in the fundamentals of NATO Military Power:  Posture, Structure & Forces, Readiness, Plans & Concepts, Training & Exercises, Capabilities, and Interoperability.  The 2014 Defense Investment Pledge (DIP), its 2% and 20% goals, need to be met or exceeded by all Allies.  Recent commitments by Germany, Romania, Latvia, and Italy are in the right direction.

            In terms of posture, NATO should commit to improving its Integrated Air and Missile Defense, improving its integrated command and force structure, in addition to a greater forward presence.  NATO air and missile defense capabilities should be formalized into force structure, truly integrated, and established at graduated readiness in locations that defend critical assets.  Forward deployed forces should be augmented in size – regional land brigades in sustainable locations, including dedicated enablers and air and missile defense – and be better integrated in NATO Force Structure.  Joint Force Commands (JFCs) should have regional and rotational NATO force structure headquarters associated for planning, training, and exercises.  For example, NATO Rapid Deployment Corps could rotate through annual cycles of forward deployed elements subordinate to the JFCs and in command of regional multinational force headquarters and national elements as transferred to SACEUR by national authorities.  National Joint Force Maritime Component Commands could be constituted on an annual or semi-annual basis to command NATO Standing Naval Forces.  National Joint Force Air Component Commands could rotate a portion of their personnel to reinforce AIRCOM on a semi-annual basis for training and exercises.  An improved posture would require investments in capabilities, readiness, training infrastructure, and exercise resourcing, and would significantly improve operational interoperability as well as collective defense.

            In terms of readiness, a new scale of response forces is needed as well as clarity of allocated forces and transparency of their training, equipment, and manning readiness levels.  The scale of the NATO Response Force (NRF) and VJTF needs upscaling to respond to simultaneous contingencies in multiple regions of the Alliance.  And SACEUR needs unit level visibility of forces committed to an upscaled NRF and the NATO Readiness Initiative.  He needs an automated and frequently updated Readiness Reporting System.

            In terms of plans, NATO should complete, implement, and regularly refine SACEUR’s AOR-wide Strategic Plan and other associated plans as well as integrate national deployable and territorial forces into these plans.  SACEUR should be provided delegated authority to propose changes in posture and readiness in accordance with existing plans and changing conditions. 

            In terms of concepts, the Deterrence and Defense of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA) and NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept require follow through, refinement, and resourcing.  Allies need unclassified versions of both concepts to align national efforts across defense ministries and armed forces.  Additionally, NATO Military Authorities (NMAs) should develop a concept of NATO Military Innovation to guide how NMAs contribute to maintaining NATO’s technological edge.

            In terms of training and exercises, much has been done to improve focus, scale, quality, and effect – in other words, alignment with DDA.  Work should continue and greater emphasis should be placed in incorporating realistic Russian capabilities, doctrine and Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures at the operational and tactical level to put NATO concepts and capabilities to the test.

            In terms of capabilities NATO must continue to invest in and improve NATO and national C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance), Integrated Air and Missile Defense, national Deep Precision Strike capabilities, electronic warfare, and high-end land enablers currently missing from NATO and national Corps and Division structures.  This is where the 20% DIP will play a role as well as additional common funded resources.  Space-based capabilities should be acquired by NATO to provide persistent ISR, including detection and tracking of hypersonic weapons, as well as operational communications (to improve resilience and redundancy in a contested environment).  NATO’s efforts in innovation and advanced technology must keep the warfighter at its centre, be driven by military requirements, and include robust experimentation and testing by NATO and national commanders and operators to ensure new capabilities are fit-for-purpose and rapidly integrated. 

            In terms of interoperability, material standards deserve the attention operational standards have received over the last decade.  Many issues at the tactical level must be addressed, including enabling real time sharing of data and information, establishing secure mobile communications, enabling integration of air and missile defense, ISR, and joint fires, and enabling cross-leveling of what should be common logistics.  Existing obstacles are due to a lack of material standards, outdated material standards, or a lack of national enforcement of established material standards.  All aspects deserve increased attention, resourcing, and validation mechanisms. 

            The added value of NATO Military Power is its ability to organize and integrate forces and resources for greater affect.  All aspects of posture, structure, plans, training, capabilities, and standards directly contribute to NATO Military Power achieving synergy and the imperative of decisive military advantage. 

            Next, let us address what NATO should prioritize to project stability and promote security, the combined purpose of which is to reduce the likelihood and severity of conflict and shape positive future conditions for peace and stability.

            While the outcome of the ongoing war is anything but certain, in terms of priorities for projecting stability, Ukraine and partner European nations should be the focus of capacity building, defense sector reform, and interoperability efforts to make those partners most threatened difficult to intimidate and costly to invade.

            It is more and more likely, there will be an independent Ukraine at the end of this conflict.  Even if neutral and partially occupied, NATO should be part of the condition-setting to help Ukraine recover, rebuild, and reconstitute its defense capability.  Other partner nations at risk of Russian aggression should receive priority assistance in improving their defense and resilience (i.e. Georgia, Moldova, Bosnia Herzegovina).  Substantive and material military assistance to vulnerable partners would contribute to deterrence of Russian aggression.  If Sweden and Finland apply for membership, a defense and security plan are needed to respond to intimidation and potential aggression while ratification proceeds.  NATO should deepen and broaden defense coordination and integration as if these two Enhanced Operational Partners were de facto Allies.  

            Beyond Europe to the Middle East and North Africa projecting stability should be tailored based on established principles of the partnership adding value to NATO security, responding to partner nation demand, and conducted in cooperation with the EU and regional organizations.  Defense technical and military assistance in terms of training, education, and, where appropriate, trade in defense equipment should result in stronger national defense, regional stability, civilian control, and interoperability with NATO forces. 

            A more structured mission and more resources for NATO Military Authorities to achieve NATO’s political level of ambition in projecting stability are also necessary.

            In terms of promoting security reestablishing dialogue with Russia and reconstituting dismantled elements of a viable Euro-Atlantic security order must be a priority.  While NATO cannot countenance establishing spheres of influence that impinge on the sovereignty of independent nations, it can follow through on proposals to commit to confidence-building measures and greater transparency in arms control, conventional force levels, missile defense capabilities, and training and exercises.  NATO will always pose an alternative model of governance which embraces democratic values and threatens autocratic regimes.  But, it can do more to counter the deeply rooted Russian narrative that NATO Allies pose an existential territorial threat.  This may be difficult depending on the outcome of the war, but remains essential for the long term.

            Other key priorities should be civil resilience, climate, and China.  The former is a critical enabler for deterrence and defense, the latter two are challenges that could develop over the long term into threats to Alliance security.  National commitments to civil resilience should include regularly assessed national targets and increased cooperation and collaboration among Allies and appropriate regional and international organizations.  NATO’s climate related goals are already solid – that is, becoming a global leader in climate security implications and mitigating and reducing the Alliance’s collective carbon footprint from infrastructure and defense capabilities.  Both goals will require policy and capability development, and implementation plans.  With respect to China, the Alliance has taken great strides forward in understanding the security implications of China’s growing political, military, and economic power, including through enhanced dialogue with Asia-Pacific partners.  However, NATO should continue to deepen areas of internal and external cooperation to protect Allied C3 (consultation, command, and control), improve civil resilience, maintain its freedom of action in the Euro-Atlantic region, and preserve a technological edge.  A more formal dialogue with China is in order.  

            Finally, to set the conditions for future security, NATO should continue to contingency plan for strategic shocks such as global pandemics, large CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, High-Explosive) incidents, and regional conflicts outside the Euro-Atlantic area.

            The list of “shoulds” just covered is likely to be far beyond what will make the political cut-off for inclusion in NATO’s next Strategic Concept.  Not the least because such a document should be relatively short and high-level to remain strategic.  Many of these recommendations, however, could be included in policy decisions related to NATO 2030.   Additionally, NATO won’t reach lofty goals without aiming high.  The more key improvements are made to strengthen deterrence and defense, project stability and promote security the more likely the Alliance will protect and secure Alliance territory, populations, and forces as successfully as it has the past 73 years as well as reduce conflict writ large across the Euro-Atlantic area.

Author:  Gordon B. “Skip” Davis Jr is currently a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and a member of The Alphen Group.  He recently served as NATO’s Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Defense Investment.  Prior to NATO, Skip served 37 years in the U.S. Army retiring as a Major General.  Skip’s last military positions were as Director of Operations, U.S. European Command, Commander of Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan, and Director of Operations and Intelligence for Allied Command Operations.  Skip’s professional life included operational and institutional assignments interspersed with study and practice of international affairs and defense issues, primarily in Europe.  Skip participated in operations with U.S., NATO, and UN forces in Europe, Africa, Middle East and Central Asia.  Skip brings practical experience and conceptual understanding of contemporary and emerging defense issues as well as executive-level experience in operations, intelligence, leader development, capability development, and policy development.  Skip holds an undergraduate degree in nuclear physics and graduate degrees in international business, defense and military history, and strategic studies.