NATO Must Re-Learn Deterrence

Photo: A US marine waves his troops onward after using Dutch landing craft to land near Sandstrand, Norway on 21 March during Exercise Cold Response 22. Dutch, French, and US forces have landed in Norway for the long-planned Exercise Cold Response 22. Credit: NATO via Flickr.
Photo: A US marine waves his troops onward after using Dutch landing craft to land near Sandstrand, Norway on 21 March during Exercise Cold Response 22. Dutch, French, and US forces have landed in Norway for the long-planned Exercise Cold Response 22. Credit: NATO via Flickr.

The Western reaction to the current crisis in Ukraine shows that we will have to revive the concept of deterrence, and quickly.

While Western nations have sanctioned Russia and delivered increasing amounts of weaponry to Ukraine, there is little sign that we are influencing the calculations of Vladimir Putin, regardless of the outcome on the battlefield. Even the entanglement of our economies has not kept Russia’s leader from gambling everything.

NATO operated for decades on the assumption that its combined military might, underpinned by regular displays of unity and solidarity, would dissuade the bad guys from pursuing territorial ambitions. We were able to deny them success, and punish them if denial failed.

During the Cold War, containment and mutually assured destruction kept the Soviet Union at bay. Although we had to stand by and watch the brutal suppression of people within the Soviet sphere of influence (for example, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968), NATO can claim that it successfully deterred the Soviets until their empire collapsed. It effectively convinced Moscow that a direct attack on NATO allies would not succeed, or at least that the price would be too high. This required political resolve, permanent high readiness of our military, and massive investments in defense.

Deterrence was less relevant during the decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. There was no existential threat to the alliance, and after a decade of local conflict in the Western Balkans, security challenges came mainly in the shape of terrorism, piracy, and organized crime. The threats emanating from the Middle East and North Africa spilled over into Europe and the United States and prompted NATO and individual allies to intervene several times in the first decades of this century. These were wars of choice; Time, place, and intensity were optional.

Hence, since 1990 the concept, culture, and lexicon of deterrence have eroded. Today, as Putin’s aggression in Ukraine culminates in large-scale war crimes, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasizes that the alliance is not part of this conflict and does not wish to risk a general war in Europe. Economic sanctions and supply of weapons are not done by or through NATO, but by individual allies.

How did we get here and what can be done to boost the credibility of our deterrence?

The Russian attacks on Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 largely went unanswered by the West. In fact, NATO stated in the 2010 Strategic Concept that it wanted Russia to be a “genuine strategic partner”, something we can now confidently describe as wishful thinking. Similarly, when President Barack Obama said in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute a red line, the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, aided by Putin, gassed his own people. Nothing happened, despite a frenzied debate. All this surely did not go unnoticed in the Kremlin.

NATO’s initial reaction to the 2014 Ukraine crisis was to agree to Assurance Measures. Increased exercises and intensified Baltic air policing were mainly designed to reassure new allies. The Deterrence and Defence posture agreed upon at the 2016 Warsaw Summit took this a step further, including a (very) limited forward presence combined with the ability to rapidly reinforce if necessary emerged as a major challenge. Not least because the restoration of NATO conventional deterrence went hand in hand with a further drawdown of US forces in Europe.

The alliance’s hopes and on-the-ground reality in Central and Eastern Europe began to converge in 2021. The US and NATO voiced concern about Russian intentions but threatened only sanctions should Putin launch a new war of aggression against Ukraine. In so doing, the option of a military response was taken off the table, and NATO was out of the equation, without getting anything in return from Russia. It is clear now that threatening sanctions did not change Putin’s mind. It told him he could attack Ukraine without having to face military consequences. The policy amounted to an unforced error.

And since Putin invaded Ukraine President Joe Biden, along with Stoltenberg and other leaders, has communicated an unwillingness to fight Russia as this would cause World War III. Putin’s bold moves combined with threatening (nuclear) rhetoric have deterred us from taking decisive action. And while it is far from clear that a Western military response would in fact immediately escalate into a large scale conflict or even a nuclear exchange, NATO is self-deterring and focusing intently on its Article 5 commitment to defend every inch of NATO territory.

But that is not the issue. The issue is that a massacre is taking place in Europe, on our doorstep, and that the strongest military alliance in the world is staying out of it. We are deterred and Russia is not.

It is true that Article 5 does not apply because Ukraine is not an alliance member. But the United Nations Charter’s right to self-defense, Article 51, certainly does, and very clearly states there exists “the right of individual and collective defense”. In addition, the UN norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) can certainly also be applied. It was developed exactly to prevent genocide and war crimes like those in the wars of Yugoslav dissolution from 1991-2001.

Our deterrence has to be employed within the context of clear, desired outcomes, versus simply aiming for an end to the fighting. And if NATO’s core task of collective defense doesn’t come into play, its other core task of a crisis response can be applied. This response would allow it to respond, as it did in Libya in 2011 with a UN mandate, or without one, as in 1999 in Kosovo. NATO deployed IFOR in 1995 specifically for the purpose of stopping genocide and preventing mass refugee flows, even though this was outside NATO territory.

There are clear lessons to take from the current conflict in Ukraine. The most immediate is that Putin is not dissuaded by Western sanctions and regards borderland states without the NATO security guarantee as a fair game. Moldova and other non-NATO countries have reason to be fearful. He may even go further, by gambling that a risk-averse alliance would hesitate to defend smaller members, like the Baltic states. He could attempt to cut off the three small states using the significant capabilities amassed in Kaliningrad. So while our leaders do everything to convince ourselves that the Baltics will be defended, the key issue is whether Putin is convinced. And frankly, we don’t know.

Similarly, the message that we won’t fight a nuclear-armed Russia outside our own territory will have been noted in other parts of the world. So regardless of whether Russia is successful in Ukraine, other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) armed states like China, North Korea, and Iran, are watching this closely and are unlikely to be impressed with our deterrent statements if we are unable to stop Russia in Ukraine.

Boosting our deterrence will be key. This requires at least four steps to signal what we will do, rather than what we won’t do.

  • First, is political resolve. The willingness to act must be demonstrated whenever and wherever required. This includes not letting an adversary divide allies on economic (Germany), political (Hungary), or strategic (Turkey) considerations. Pledges to defend allied territory must be underpinned with capabilities and the intent to use them. Currently, it is doubtful whether that is the case, at least in the mind of potential adversaries.

In the current Ukraine crisis, this means supplying all the weapon systems that Ukrainians can operate, and possibly deploying into vulnerable nations like Moldova or Bosnia on their invitation.

  • Second, and this is partly underway, defense spending must accelerate towards 2% of GDP and beyond. The West must face down Putin in a manner every bit as hard-nosed as during the Cold War, in which we aim to deter by denial. This requires a serious increase in capabilities, a more robust military posture in Central and Eastern Europe (including significant permanent basing of allied troops), and higher force-readiness levels, which implies more intense exercising. All of this is expensive, but key to our future security.
  • Third, the new NATO Strategic Concept, to be adopted in June, should clearly state how the alliance will defend the international rules-based order, and how it will contribute to keeping the global commons safe (high seas, maritime chokepoints, the Arctic, space, and cyber) and that it adopts the UN norm of Responsibility to Protect as its guiding principle for acting in its neighborhood.
  • Fourth and final, we need to reconnect the nuclear domain with our conventional domains, cyber and space. Our reflexes have atrophied —we no longer even know how to discuss nuclear capabilities. With an adversary that threatens us with the use of such weapons and is able to escalate along a seamless conventional-nuclear spectrum, we need to revive our nuclear culture, re-master the rhetoric, and integrate exercises and capability planning into our overall effort. Refusing to do this through fear of escalation is (paradoxically) in itself escalatory. 

That much we can conclude from Putin’s behavior. We need to get busy.

Ambassador (retired) Timo S. Koster (@TSKOS) served at NATO as Director of Defence Policy & Capabilities until 2018, after which he was Cyber Ambassador for the Netherlands. He is a non-resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council Washington.

Lt-Gen (retired) Ben Hodges (@General_Ben) was Commander USARMY Europe in 2018, after he served as Commander LandCOM at NATO. He currently holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

May 5, 2022