hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 15 December 2016

A Strategic Assessment of the Situation on NATO’s Northern and Eastern Flanks

Date: 16 December, 2016


Given the current 'correlation of forces' and uncertainty over Western political solidarity Russia today poses a greater military threat to NATO’s northern and eastern flanks than at any time since the founding of the Alliance in 1949. Russian aggression on either flank is more likely to succeed than at any time since 1949. The Baltic States, Bulgaria and Romania, as well as northern Norway, face a range of credible hybrid and direct military threats.  In spite of commitments made at the 2014 Wales and 2016 Warsaw Summits uncertainty over the political firmness and relative military power of NATO are contributing to the threat perception.

Key facts:
  •       Russian armed forces conducted 4000 separate exercises in 2016, including major combat readiness exercises on NATO’s northern and eastern Flanks;
  •         Russia remains committed to a $290 bn force modernisation programme aimed at improving and professionalising 70% of its force by 2020;
  •         According to the Russian Finance Ministry in October 2016 the defence budget will shrink from 3.1 trillion Roubles ($50.35 bn) in 2015 to 2.6 trillion Roubles ($45.48 bn) by 2018. This compares with the 2016 UK defence budget of £45.5 bn ($57.1 bn) or 2.1% GDP. However, SIPRI states the real level of Russian defence spending in 2015 was $66.4 bn or 4.5% GDP
  •       In May 2016 Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ‘approved’ the new programme for the development of the military-industrial complex 2016-2020. Medvedev stated: “We are currently upgrading the entire army, air forces, navy with new weapons, there are specific goals to be fulfilled, and of course, the (necessary) to ensure the competitiveness of what we do on a global stage”.
  •      There are currently some 350,000 Russian troops in Kaliningrad and the Western Military Oblast adjacent to NATO territory. Several of these formations are powerful spearhead forces. NATO’s forward deployed forces can best be described as a presence, rather than a defence in the face of such forces.

Military Assessment: In spite of the apparent planned reduction in Russian military expenditure Moscow is close to gaining a decisive military advantage on NATO’s northern and eastern flank

Recent improvements since 2010 in Russian military capability and enhancements to its military capacities, particularly strike and manoeuvre forces are such that NATO would be unable to prevent large-scale incursions from the North Cape to the Black Sea. Russia is close to perfecting through its programme of large-scale, snap and push-button exercises simultaneous operations on both NATO’s northern and eastern flanks. Russia has succeeded in developing an integrated concept of non-linear warfare that includes the use of hybrid warfare (information, cyber and other disruptions) in possible conjunction with conventional and nuclear forces to create a new force escalation ladder. By stationing both short and intermediate nuclear forces in Kaliningrad and close to the NATO’s eastern flank, allied to enhanced anti-access, area denial (A2AD) defences, Russia has succeeded in decoupling NATO’s conventional deterrent from its nuclear deterrent. The stationing of treaty-illegal nuclear forces close to NATO territory is consistent with President Putin’s objective of establishing a dominant ‘nuclear de-escalation’ (nuclear blackmail) strategy that would help Russia consolidate any land seized. Russia has gained critical local force superiority on both NATO flanks and could successfully seize key parts of NATO territory as part of a limited war strategy. However, Russian forces remain ill-prepared as yet for a major, sustained war with the West. Neither the VJTF (Very High Readiness Joint Task Force) nor eNRF (enhanced NATO Response Force) would be able to respond quickly enough or in sufficient strength to prevent Moscow realising its limited war strategy. Whilst the US in particular is re-positioning some forces back in Europe, and pre-positioning others, the scale of the response is inadequate.

Political Assessment: President Putin is close to creating the military conditions that would enable him to ‘change the political reality on the ground’:

The force build-up is in line with President Putin’s stated ambition to create a buffer zone between Russia and NATO that would stretch from Romania through Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, Finland and including northern Norway and elements of the Arctic. The latter is important to protect egress and ingress for the increasingly powerful attack and ballistic submarine forces of the Russian Northern Fleet based at Severomorsk. Such superiority does not of course mean President Putin will use those forces to occupy territory on NATO’s northern and eastern flanks. However, the very existence of those forces in their current posture, and at their current state of readiness, enables Moscow to exert considerable coercive political influence over EU member-states and NATO nations. Moscow correctly assesses both the EU and NATO to be as divided as at any time since 1949.  This is in spite of several well-documented disagreements between the Allies over that period. The strategic rapprochement with Turkey is in line with President Putin’s plan to turn the Russian fleet base at Sevastopol, together with the Russian air and sea bases in Syria, into platforms to stymy NATO operations in the Mediterranean.  The Syrian bases will also serve as platforms for exerting coercive influence in Southern Europe and ‘co-optive’ influence across the Middle East and North Africa.

Possible Courses of Action: Expect little or no change in Russian policy or strategy.

The Russian economy is likely to be sustained by an oil price that is predicted to hover between $60 and $70 per barrel for the foreseeable future. This is enough for Moscow to maintain a basic economy (by Western standards) and a burgeoning military capability for the foreseeable future. Much will depend on the attitude taken by the incoming Administration in Washington both towards the regime in Moscow and the Alliance. Unlike in Washington there are next-to-no political, or indeed any other domestic constraints on President Putin. Therefore, Russian foreign and security policy simply reflects and will continue to reflect his own prejudices, views, and aspirations. Western ideas of what constitutes a rational foreign and security policy are by and large inapplicable. Indeed, applying such ideas to President Putin could lead to yet more dangerous complacency. In the worst-case President Putin might well conclude that an opportunity exists for him to unite his people by correcting an ‘historic wrong’ and re-establish a security buffer zone between Russia and NATO.

    President Putin’s belief in the opportunistic use of force in pursuit of his strategic and political goals would be reinforced if the new Administration in Washington sees US NATO obligations as merely ‘transactional’, US military over-stretch worsens in relation to China, Russia and other potential adversaries, Europeans continue to under-invest in their own defence, and remain deeply divided on how to deal with a resurgent and aggressive Russia. Consequently, NATO’s northern and eastern flanks are vulnerable to Russian military adventurism which cannot at all be ruled out.

     Julian Lindley-French     

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