hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Skripal: NATO’s Next Steps?


“Beware the ides of March”
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Geneva, Switzerland. 15 March. Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement to the House of Commons yesterday on the Skripal attack was proportionate given the status of the investigation and the need for an initial response. The 15 March use of the Russian nerve agent Novichok in the English provincial city of Salisbury during the attempted murder of one Russian citizen and another former Russian turned Briton is an outrageous act of aggression that must be countered.  The next step is to consider a subsequent and consequent set of responses. Yesterday, I was contacted by a senior figure at NATO and asked what I would suggest the Alliance should do in support of the UK. Given that NATO is likely to be in the vanguard of the international response my considered reaction is set out below.

Investigation and Action

In the wake of this attack, a thorough investigation must necessarily form the basis for action. The aim of any response must be to assert that NATO will respond to any attack on an ally in a robust but proportionate manner and to uphold international regimes and law relating to the use of biological and chemical weapons.  May’s decision to expel 23 Russian ‘diplomats’ from London as part of a suite of measures is just such a proportionate response. She cleverly left open the option to escalate to further measures if and when the available evidence hardens as to the source of the attack, whilst offering Moscow the chance to climb-down by ‘admitting’ it had lost control of the nerve agent.

The response must be further divided into two distinct tracks – investigation and action.  The investigation would see NATO in support of the British seeking to establish exactly the sequence of events that led to the attack and identify those who designed and carried out the attack. Whilst there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence that Russia, in some capacity, is responsible for the attack the legitimacy of any subsequent response will be strengthened if due process has been seen to have been followed.

Specifically, it would be useful to set up two expert panels, one under the auspices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (OPCW), and another conducted by NATO allies, possibly led by France which has a similar capability to Britain in countering chemical and biological hazards. Past experience would suggest that Russia will doubtless try to interfere with such an investigation and such efforts will need to be resisted.  Equally, prior to the 2003 Iraq War London was not sufficiently skeptical about Iraq’s supposed WMD capability and locked itself into a political position from which it could not retreat.  

The Maintenance of Proportionality

There has been some suggestion that NATO triggers the cornerstone collective defence Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, the so-called doomsday article the invoking of which during the Cold War would almost inevitably have led to nuclear Armageddon. At this stage, such a response would be disproportionate given the scale of the attack and thus enable Moscow to suggest the Alliance is the aggressor.  On the eve of Sunday’s Russian presidential elections, it may well be that the Kremlin would like nothing more than to suggest to the Russian people that Russia is under attack from NATO. Given the extremely high likelihood that Moscow was involved in the attack it may also be that triggering such a response by the Alliance was central to the political design of the attack.

To invoke Article 5 would also devalue its importance and thus the gravity of its invocation in a crisis. In a sense, the Alliance is already preparing a response that is in the spirit of Article 5. The North Atlantic Council has met and offered its support to Britain re-iterating that an attack on one ally is an attack on all. NATO has also confirmed Britain’s right to self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. The attack has been reported to the United Nations Security Council and the Alliance is considering the subsequent and proportionate action it could take.

NATO Action?

Proportionality does not preclude the preparation of a robust and timely set of actions to deter Russia, or any other state actor, from ever again contemplating such an attack on a NATO ally. Indeed, even if due process has yet to be completed it is reasonable for the Alliance to assume the identity of the attacker and prepare measured and appropriate responses. There is a range of actions I have proposed that would provide a credible considered escalation in the wake of such an attack and thus reinforce deterrence: 

Reinforce the agenda of the NATO Brussels Summit: The Alliance should immediately introduce onto the agenda of the July 2018 Brussels Summit an assessment of the threat posed by what appears to be illegal Russian use of chemical weapons.  Such a debate should also perhaps take place in the context of Moscow’s deployment of new nuclear weapons systems that are illegal under the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Better coordinate and share intelligence: Prevention of attacks on the Alliance’s civilian population would be best facilitated by an effective intelligence-led defence.  Efforts are underway within NATO to improve such co-operation but if such intelligence is to be properly actionable the Alliance needs to become far more effective at gathering, collating and distributing intelligence.

Re-establish effective consequence management: Most NATO allies have lost the ability to quickly identify and thus respond quickly to biological and chemical attack on either military or civilian targets.  In close conjunction with the allies, NATO must move to close that gap in its defences. One idea could be to create bespoke quick response teams of experts that could support national authorities in the wake of a biological or chemical weapons attack.

Instigate a strategic review of Alliance defence and deterrence: A vital question NATO needs to answer is this: in the face of a new concept of coercion how can the Alliance’s citizen be defended against an adversarial strategy that combines disruption, destabilisation, and destruction? Such a review would consider the implications of such an attack across the new spectrum of warfare that Moscow is purposefully engineering and which extends to and weaponises information, cyber, biology, chemistry, space, as well as the eventual or parallel use of conventional and nuclear forces.

Make the Alliance more resilient: The Alliance as a whole must now properly consider how to make critical structures and infrastructures upon which society depends to function far more resilient to an attack. The Salisbury attack might be small in scale but it implied the ease with which a perpetrator could inflict mass casualties on a NATO ally without the use of nuclear weapons.

Enhance NATO’s Enhance Forward Presence: The threat the Alliance is facing involves an adversary who is merging hybrid, cyber and hyper warfare into a new concept of warfare.  Therefore, it is impossible at this stage to know if the Salisbury attack was a one-off or part of some new form of conflict escalation.  It would thus be prudent to strengthen the military defences of the most vulnerable allies Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Accelerate NATO force mobility: NATO is already considering how to better facilitate its ability to move forces across the Alliance in an emergency and how best to reinforce its forces in Europe from across the Atlantic. This attack underlines the importance of that work and the reform of the NATO Command Structure.

Close the NATO deterrence Gap: By deploying short and intermediate range nuclear systems in Europe Russia is both skilful and illegal.  The aim is exploiting a clear gap in Alliance deterrence between NATO’s conventional force and its strategic nuclear forces and thus enhance Moscow’s ability to intimidate allies in a crisis. As I written in these pages before, NATO must actively consider the role of new technologies in closing that deterrence gap using non-nuclear capabilities without joining Moscow in the destruction of treaty-based security.

Power Politics, Russia & Salisbury

When, and frankly from what I have been told it is a question of ‘when’, Russia is confirmed as the perpetrator of the Salisbury attack it will be but the latest of a now long-line of flagrant and blatant flouting of international regimes and law by the Kremlin. Let me be clear; I have a deep respect for Russia and I am firm in my belief there can be no security in Europe without Russia.  My desire is to seek an accommodation with Russia via dialogue to establish a new peaceful order in Europe with which Russia is comfortable and from which Russians benefit.

Russia is also a great power and must be respected as such. However, the attack on my country was an attack on other great power with an economy roughly twice the size of Russia’s.  If Russia really has abandoned a rules-based international order in favour of the anarchy that is geopolitics democracies likes Britain will respond. Like all democracies, there has been a time-lag in that response but when it comes Moscow will quickly discover that whilst Russia might be a great power it is no longer a superpower.  In any such struggle, Russia will lose unless the Kremlin is mad enough to even contemplate that it could win another European war.  

Therefore, whilst Britain and the NATO allies must follow due process, for such process is in effect what divides the Putin regime from its neighbours, and never stop seeking dialogue with Russia, the Kremlin must be under no doubt that the NATO allies accept that the Novichok attack on a quiet provincial English city was both an attack upon them all and an egregious act of aggression that must not and cannot go unpunished. If they do not such weakness would mark the beginning of the end of NATO…something the Kremlin no doubt will also have considered at some length.

Julian Lindley-French

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