In The Media

Putin isn’t afraid of NATO. Here’s how we can change his mind.

by Julian Lindley-French

May 21, 2015

What must NATO do to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin? Russia’s seizure of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine was just the opening gun of a multi-dimensional Russian campaign to challenge NATO and the West.

Moscow is employing strategic maskirovka — the traditional Russian tactic of military deception — against all levels of NATO’s command chain and wider public opinion to keep the West politically and militarily off-balance. And while Eastern Europe is the focus of the conflict, Moscow clearly is attempting to force the NATO nations to consider simultaneous challenges on several other fronts — the high North, the Middle East and the Pacific.

Notwithstanding the world’s understandable focus on Ukraine’s tragedy, President Putin is pursuing a larger strategy which spans four dimensions: conventional warfare, hybrid or non-linear warfare, nuclear strategy and geographical reach. So Russia’s challenge is a test of the NATO alliance’s strategic will and political cohesion. Putin must not be underestimated.

He’s an opportunist. He believes that the West is decadent and declining, and that his use of strategic maskirovka can keep the NATO allies sufficiently divided and politically off-balance to enable him to achieve his primary strategic objective: the creation of a new Russia-centric sphere of influence around Russia’s borders and the ending of ‘frozen conflicts’ in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in Russia’s favour.

Putin also believes that whatever weapons systems NATO has at its disposal, Europeans are so weak and divided that little or no military action will ever be taken against him. Putin may be right; his gamble — for that is what it is — could pay off.

The first step in making sure that Putin’s gamble doesn’t pay off is to disabuse him of his ideas about what NATO will and will not do. That means NATO’s strongest military powers must demonstrate the will and the capacity to meet the Russian challenge. To do that credibly, NATO must become a kind of strategic coalition-builder, with the U.S., U.K., France and Germany (with Canadian support) taking the lead in strengthening NATO’s three key flanks – East, North and West. Some will complain that such leadership is not in line with NATO’s practice of consensual decision-making. But this is a new age, and leadership must reflect the realities of power.

Second, Putin needs to be convinced that NATO is firmly embedded in a world-wide web of secure, mutually-reinforcing democracies anchored on the United States which will act in its collective defence.

Third, defence spending in all the NATO allies must move towards two per cent GDP — so as to quickly demonstrate to Moscow that no amount of money Russia spends on its armed forces will ever beat the allies’ ability to out-invest Russia.

Fourth, NATO has to mean what it says. Strategic unity of effort and purpose is key to deterring Russia. The new form of ‘forward deterrence’ implicit in the Readiness Action Plan agreed to at the Wales Summit is just as important as ‘forward defence’. In the event of a war with Russia — and that can no longer be entirely ruled out — NATO must not trade space for time as the British and French did in the face of Nazi aggression during the Second World War.

Fifth, Europeans in particular must take the lead in efforts to convince Putin that Russia has nothing to gain from such an aggressive strategy. The West offers Russia its only stable border, energy exports to the West count for seventy per cent of all Russia’s income, and Russians share a whole raft of security challenges with their fellow Europeans.

Russia today is a dangerous cocktail of power, over-centralization and an increasingly idiosyncratic president who is reinforced in his prejudices by a security class happy to use the West as the historical scapegoat of choice to justify their own uncertain grip on the Russian state. So NATO must do what NATO has always done: guarantee the security and defence of all its citizens, wherever they may be, and against all and any threat — from whatever direction it comes.

Julian Lindley-French is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Statecraft in London and Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at the National Defense University in Washington D.C.


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