Riga, Latvia. 15 September. Two thousand five hundred years ago the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote, “To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”. Russia is fighting a war of conquest in Ukraine and it is Europe’s first true strategic test of the twenty-first century. It is an intelligence-led (FSB and GRU) ambiguous or hybrid war in which disinformation, deceit and distraction are the primary tactics. The immediate aim is to confirm the seizure of Crimea as a fait accompli and to create a new Russian protectorate called Novorossiya, the Tsarist-era name for south-east Ukraine. If successful Russia will review the performance of its strategy and the response of the West before it considers if such a strategy can be applied elsewhere around its borders. The over-arching strategic objective is to re-create a new sphere of influence that would strengthen Russian prestige and influence in Europe and create a buffer zone between Russia, the EU and NATO. The dynamic centre of Moscow’s strategy is the modernising Russian armed forces reflective of a Kremlin world view that has abandoned partnership as unfavourable to Russian interests. Instead, Moscow has returned to a zero sum game analysis of power in which only one side can prevail. How can Russia’s ambiguous warfare be countered?
Sitrep: Russia remains as committed to its war aims as ever. This week’s separatist-led attack on Donetsk Airport and the illegal entry of a new convoy into Ukraine marks the beginning of a new phase of Russia’s ambiguous war. The first phase hid behind the strategic denial of European leaders that Russia would undertake such conquest in the twenty-first century Europe. As Europe's leaders have slowly awakened to this reality this new phase hides behind a ceasefire that Moscow claims to back but which is now breached daily.
The Western Response: Do the same to Russia as Russia is doing to the West. In other words the West must as a collective entity prey on Russia’s insecurities as Russia is preying on Western insecurities. Russia insecurities essentially concern costs versus benefits for an essentially fragile state and can be thus summarised: a) Russia is a declining power that must act now if it is to establish a European order that is Russia-friendly and thus prevent in the Moscow strategic mind the consolidation of the EU and NATO on its borders; b) irrespective of current actions Russia will over time be locked out of the European financial and energy markets and must therefore re-establish Russian strategic ‘independence’; and c) in spite of Russia’s military modernisation programme over the longer term Moscow will become relatively weaker compared with NATO. The next decade is decisive.
Countering Russian Strategy: The West must complicate Moscow’s strategic calculations. The aim must be to convince the Kremlin that the survival of the Putin regime requires an accommodation with the West, most notably the EU. Such a strategy would need four elements: a new political strategy; NATO military modernisation; a new NATO Forward Deterrence Concept; and an Allied intelligence-led ambiguous warfare concept.
New Political Strategy: The West must develop a political counter-strategy to contain and roll back Russian aggression. The aim of such a strategy would be to convince the Kremlin that it would be in Russia’s best interest to withdraw from Ukraine (including Crimea) pending talks that are aimed at finding a just settlement for ethnic Russians in Ukraine and the protection of the Russian Black Seas Fleet base in Sevastopol. Such a strategy would preserve Ukrainian territorial integrity and enable Moscow to claim it is acting in the best interests of all the parties to the conflict. However, such a strategy would require first and foremost unity of effort and purpose. Sadly, that is lacking. For example, having supposedly suspended the sale of two advanced warships to Russia at 0430 hours on Saturday the French permitted Russian crews to re-commence training on one of the ships in St Nazaire.
Good Cop, Bad Cop: France, Germany and indeed the EU could act as the ‘good cops’ committed to keeping lines of communication open and offering Russia a new political relationship with Europe. Such open communications would have four objectives: a) to demonstrate to Moscow the political and economic consequences of continued aggression; b) the benefits of respecting sovereignty and close working relationship with the EU; c) the need to re-posit all European disputes within institutional frameworks that promote peaceful and legitimate conflict resolution. The US and UK would, on the other hand, play the bad cops, emphasising the threat Moscow poses to the European order. London and Washington would thus champion the medium to long term strengthening of NATO as a “bastion against madness”, in the words of my good friend Professor Simon Serfaty.
NATO Military Modernisation: The pace and scale of NATO’s military modernisation must be overtly linked to that of Russia. Russia needs to see that the strategic balance in Europe has been affected by its actions but to Moscow’s detriment. Today Moscow believes the Baltic States are indefensible. Moscow also believes that between 2015 and 2020 the so-called correlation of forces will shift inexorably in its favour given its military modernisation programme and lack of any substantive countervailing modernisation in NATO Europe (whatever last week’s NATO Wales Summit said). Therefore, as NATO nations spend four times that of Russia on defence it must be made clear to Moscow that any attempt to establish military supremacy in Europe will fail and thus simply be a waste of money.
NATO Forward Deterrence: NATO must create a Forward Deterrence conventional force concept in support of all the Eastern Allies to underpin strategic reassurance and collective defence. Moscow believes the Baltic States are vulnerable to disruption, destabilisation and are thus effectively indefensible. Therefore, effective collective conventional deterrence is at least as important as effective collective defence. Building on the NATO Wales Summit the Alliance must establish a properly graduated response designed to ensure the West dominates the escalation ladder. A Forward Deterrence strategy would confirm the creation of a trip wire force on the territory of all the Eastern Allies. This force would involve US, UK and other high-end Western combat forces permanently established in the Baltic States and elsewhere. NATO is already doing this to an extent but such a force would need to be properly established within twenty-first century layered deterrence.
Twenty-First Century Layered Defence: The new Spearhead Force must be reinforced by the NATO Response Force which in turn is established on a modernised NATO Article 5 defence that combines advanced deployable forces, missile defence and cyber-defence into an effective bastion. Critical to such an Allied defence strategy would be the reinvention and modernisation of the old NATO REFORGER concept with US and Canadian forces flying from Continental North America to provide reinforcement during times of tension. Such a layered defence would need to be designed, exercised, tested and validated.
Allied Ambiguous Warfare: The West must convince Moscow that its strategy is in fact backfiring. Therefore, NATO must invent its own form of ambiguous warfare. For example, Special Forces in relatively small numbers could be sent to Ukraine as advisers to assist Kiev’s forces in a policing mission in Eastern Ukraine. Certainly, the presence of such forces would complicate Russia’s strategic calculus. The forces could go to Ukraine either under a NATO flag, an EU flag or as part of a coalition of national flags and at the invitation of the Ukrainian Government. The aim would be to assist with a disciplined and proportionate response by Kiev to the threat posed to Ukrainian stability prior to talks over a new constitutional settlement. Russia would not of course object as according to Moscow it is an internal matter for Ukraine and Russian forces are apparently not engaged in Ukraine. The presence of Western Special Forces would be reinforced by a major NATO-led training mission in Ukraine (NTM-U).
The best way to combat ambiguous warfare is through ambiguous warfare. The real test is whether Moscow is right or not. Is there a West and if so does it have the collective political courage and guile to craft and enact such a counter-strategy?