Putin the Great’s NATO

By Julian Lindley-French, Chair of The Alphen Group

“I have conquered an empire but I have not been able to conquer myself.”

Peter the Great’s Russian Empire, 1721

Putin the Great’s NATO

The war in Ukraine is at a crucial moment. A bloody race is underway in Luhansk between a severely damaged Russian Army and its separatist supporters, and a tired Ukrainian Army that is slowly being reinforced by Western weapons.  It will likely be early July before the schwerpunkt really meets a culminating point in the current phase of the war, but where is NATO? In the one hundred or so days since President Putin launched his brutal invasion of the Alliance has learnt about the capabilities of the Russian armed forces. At the end of June, the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept will be agreed at the Madrid Summit. Finland and Sweden are on the cusp of joining the Alliance, Turkey permitting, and even countries like the Netherlands have now decided to meet the 2% benchmark of the Defence Investment Pledge (albeit briefly) after years of reality-defying resistance.

This week President Putin made a remark that revealed his anachronistic Realpolitik world-view.  Russia, he said, was merely “reclaiming” the lands of Peter the Great. Perhaps the most crucial decision taken by Alliance Heads of State and Government will be the commitment to a new forward defence force posture. There is a kind of paradoxical perverse symbiosis at play in that Putin will finally get the very NATO he has warned against precisely because of his own calamitous and criminal actions. Putin’s world-view can be thus summarised; “I consent to the West’s sphere of influence which includes all existing EU and NATO members, but only on the condition the West consents to Russia’s sphere of influence which includes Ukraine. If the West contests Russia’s sphere of influence I will contest the margins of the West’s sphere’.

NATO and the US National Defense Strategy 2022

Whither NATO? The NATO Strategic Concept is meant to be the driving force of NATO strategy for the next decade or so. However, given the centrality of US forces to the all-important Alliance deterrence and defence policy the new US National Defense Strategy is perhaps a more useful indicator, and more importantly, a better test of the extent to which NATO will need to adapt by 2030 if the Alliance is to remain credible in its core tasks.

The primary mission of National Defence Strategy (NDS) 2022 is to shape and size the US future force and the budget that pays for it. NDS 2022 thus links resources to strategy to force. For the first time NDS 2022 places a particular premium on the support of allies and partners, and thus implicitly NATO. In short, NDS 2022 implies a far greater role for allies going forward in assisting the US meet its strategic goals and challenges, particularly in and around the European theatre. As such, the language in the NDS would certainly be recognisable to those charged with drafting the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept, although NDS 2022 affords China and the Indo-Pacific a higher priority than Russia and Europe, even though it describes Russia as an “acute threat”.

NATO 2030 and NDS 2022

It will be interesting to see if both NATO Agenda 2030 and the NATO Strategic Concept rise to that challenge. If not, there could well be a large funding and capability hole somewhere mid-Atlantic.  Like the NATO Strategic Concept NDS 2022 is quite a smorgasbord. NDS 2022 follows on from NDS 2018 which switched the US strategic emphasis away from strategic counter-terrorism back to great power competition. Consequently, both the Nuclear Posture Review and the Missile Defense Review have also been incorporated into NDS 2022. The four defence priorities reinforce that shift: (1) the pacing, sizing and shaping of the US future force to meet the challenge of China; (2) the importance of credible deterrence against “strategic attacks” and “aggression”; (3) the need to “prevail (not win) in conflict when necessary”; and (4) the creation of a resilient Joint Force and what is called the “defence eco-system”, a complex network of civilian and military stakeholders and partners. Interestingly, increased resilience is not simply limited to deployed force protection, but also applied to the US home base. NDS 2022 emphasises the vital need of the US to be able to recover from mass disruption caused by both “kinetic and non-kinetic threats”. Sub-strategic threats, such as North Korea, Iran and violent extremism are now to be “managed”, whilst “trans-boundary” threats, such as climate change and pandemics, must be “adapted”.

The US future force also affords the NATO future force a clear direction of travel. The force will be built on three principles, “integrated deterrence” and the generation of credible combat power (including nuclear forces), the capacity to undertake effective campaigning in the grey zone; and the need to build “enduring advantage” by exploiting new, emerging and disruptive technologies.

As ever, the utility of NDS 2022 will depend on the public money invested in it by Congress. There are already some indicators. Whilst the agreed budget for the European Deterrence Initiative for FY2023 will be $4.2bn, the ‘Pacific Deterrence Initiative’ will receive $6bn.  For those NATO allies reading the runes of NDS 2022 the message is clear: if the US security guarantee for Europe is to be credibly maintained going forward Europeans are going to have to share the defence burdens far more equitably, with 50% of NATO’s minimum capability requirements by 2030 probably the least the Americans will expect of their allies. 

Military Implications of NDS 2022 for NATO

In 2019, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) General Tod Wolters, produced the first NATO Military Strategy since 1962, with Russia and terrorism identified as the main threats.  The Military Strategy considers the best use of Allied force in the competition phase, crisis phase and conflict phase. Another document, the Defence and Deterrence of the Euro-Atlantic Area or DDA operationalises the Military Strategy by governing actions inside SACEUR’s area or responsibility (AOR) and relations with partners beyond. The DDA also drives a series of military plans that provide direction for the critical work of the three Joint Force Commands (JFCs) in Brunssum, Naples and Norfolk, Virginia.  With Finland and Sweden soon to join the Alliance a fourth JFC could be established covering the soon-to-be enlarged Northern Flank of the Alliance.  Such a new command would certainly help NATO better align plans with Allies in regions, albeit through yet more bureaucratisation of the NATO Command Structure. Whilst the Joint Force Commands are vital there are still simply too many commands in NATO and not enough force.

Whilst some 90% of SACEUR’s military plans are now complete, it will be the last 10% (as ever) that will prove the most challenging. The task of realising them will fall to the new SACEUR, US Army General Chris Cavioli.  The critical challenge and thus true test of the Alliance given HDS 2022 will be finalising the minimum European military requirements vital to ensuring Allied deterrence and defence remain credible in ALL circumstances, most notably if the Americans are busy elsewhere.

Putin the Great? Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has clearly accelerated and focused NATO defence planning, not least because after some debate the DDA has now been adopted by the North Atlantic Council (NAC). Crucially, more devolved command authority has been given to SACEUR by the NAC which means Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons can now conduct more operations in the competition phase of conflict, thus better preparing the Alliance for both crisis management and war early in the conflict cycle. Further bolstering deterrence is the decision to activate all the graduated response plans (GRPs) and appropriate crisis response operations (CROs) as a direct response to Putin’s aggression. For example, SACEUR now has operational command authority over some 42,000 combat troops, 60 plus warships and 100s of combat aircraft now in Eastern Europe as part of the enhanced NATO Response Force (eNRF).

Forward, Flexible NATO

NATO’s longer-term military posture in the wake of the Russo-Ukraine War is now also being actively considered with Forward Defence and Flexible Response likely to be the mantras. Back to the Future? Since 2019 General Wolters and his Allied team have done a lot to harmonise US and NATO military strategies for the simple vital reason that the Americans remain the hard backbone of Allied forces. NATO authorities also have become markedly bolder than hitherto. A new NATO Military Posture will be adopted at the Madrid Summit that for the first time establishes coherent military command at a level above the forces committed to the Enhanced Forward Presence on NATO’s eastern flank. The new posture will not only help close a command gap between headquarters and deployed forces, but also enable more integrated land, sea, and air operations.

The Alliance and the allies will also further invest in a host of advanced military capabilities in order to meet new and enduring challenges across all operational domains. The aim is for NATO to be able to deliver an array of robust and sophisticated capabilities across all such domains. This will include heavier, more high-end, technologically advanced, and better-supported forces and capabilities at the required state of readiness in sufficient capacity to be rotated effectively for the duration of any crisis. The Alliance will also continue to improve and adapt the sustainability, deployability, and interoperability of its forces at the higher end of the conflict spectrum in a demanding strategic environment, particularly the conduct of high-end operations. National capability development plans will support the full and timely generation of such capabilities, in line with the NATO Defence Planning Process.

Job Done?

However, far more needs to be done by the Alliance.  The NATO Command and Force Structure remains untested. The NATO Readiness Initiative needs to be markedly expanded. The release mechanisms by which national forces are placed under SACEUR’s command need to be harmonised, streamlined and much accelerated. There is also a command and force ‘hole’ to NATO’s south-east in the Black Sea Region.  In short, those inside the NATO bubble need to stop believing their own rhetoric and stop trying to convince the rest of us to follow suit. A good start would be to properly learn the lessons of the Ukraine War, not least the vital need for sufficient stocks of munitions given how quickly modern war eats them up.  War stocks are a vital indicator of credible deterrence.

Above all, NATO really needs to begin thinking far more cogently about future war, the new battlespace beyond 2030 and the very concept of deterrence and defence in the twenty-first century. The automisation and digitisation of warfare across the mosaic of hybrid, cyber and hyperwar will accelerate and possibly exponentially. Above all, the NATO European Allies need to deliver on what they promise. If not, Putin the Great could one day seek to fill the hole between NDS 2022 and the NATO Strategic Concept.

So, good start NATO but much, much more needs to be done. Still none of the above would have been possible without the incompetent ‘statecraft’ of the distinctly un-great President Putin who desperately wants an empire because he is unable to conquer himself.

By Julian Lindley-French, Chair of The Alphen Group

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