“…the Kremlin’s neurotic world-view is the traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity”
George F. Kennan, the Long Telegram, 22 February 1946
13 April 2018Headline:
There are two issues really at stake as the US, Britain and France consider further military action against the Assad regime in Syria: the contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention by Syria and Russia; and the need to counter aggressive Russian expansionism. Specifically, an explicit attack on Syrian forces in support of international norms on the use of chemical weapons will also be an implicit attack on Russia. The window between effective punishment and dangerous escalation is narrow. Therefore, the coalition (other Allies are notable by their military absence) need to be clear about the relationship between the purpose of such an attack and the desired outcomes they seek. The only effective strategy for the West over the medium-to-longer term will be to reinvest with power the international conventions and structures it pioneered. That, in turn, means rebuilding the institutions that underpin such structure, most notably NATO. NATO needs a new Strategic Concept, a new containment strategy that combines both collective defence and collective security and credible mechanisms for the considered application of escalating pressure on adversaries. Such a Concept should be prepared for the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Alliance in April 2019.
The blood work of victims appears to confirm the use of chlorine in the erstwhile rebel-held Syrian town of Douma. The US, Britain and France have confirmed a joint determination to use military action in support of the Chemical Weapons Convention and to punish the Assad regime for crossing ‘red lines’ by again using chemical weapons. This week the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) also confirmed that the nerve agent used in the Salisbury attack was high-grade Novichok. This finding reinforces the circumstantial evidence that Russia undertook a nerve agent attack in Britain and could also be in contravention of the Convention.
There are supposedly eight targets in Syria under consideration. They include air bases, chemical weapons storage and research facilities. This week President Trump who ‘Tweet-o-graphed’ US intentions warned both the regime and the Russians of the nature of any strikes, and implied their extent. Consequently, Damascus has moved to disperse its air and other forces, sending essential units and assets to the Russian air base of Latakia, thus complicating targeting options of coalition planners.
The US, Britain and France already have significant air and sea assets in theatre to launch a military strike. The US has also dispatched a carrier strike group centred on the 104,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. The arrival of that force in the Mediterranean next week would significantly increase the capability of coalition forces and thus, in principle at least, afford coalition leaders the option of more robust intent.
In 2016 Russia established an advanced integrated air defence system in Syria, centred on long-range S-300 and S-400 surface to air missiles with protection particularly strong of Moscow’s air base at Latakia and its naval facility at Tartus. If the coalition deems it necessary to undertake a broader campaign in Syria using manned aircraft, as well as missiles, the suppression of such defences will be vital. The Truman group has the capacity, particularly if used in conjunction with offensive cyber capabilities, such as those the British could bring to bear from its bases in Cyprus, and GCHQ in the UK.
The US, Britain and France believe they must act because by again using chemical weapons against its own people the Assad regime is placing at risk not only the Chemical Weapons Convention, but the entire non-proliferation and counter-proliferation regime that has for a century helped to curb the use of weapons of mass destruction. Given that Russia has (in effect) also been found guilty of such use by the OPCW this week the relationship between action and effect the coalition seeks is complicated, to say the least.
Consequently, the coalition is emphasising the limited nature of any possible strikes. There is no ambition to seek regime-change in Damascus and every ambition to avoid any Russian casualties. So much so that behind the scenes the coalition has admitted to the Russians that Moscow has, in effect, ‘won’ in Syria and removed any meaningful Western influence. Therefore, it is not without some irony that the attack is only likely to go ahead if there is some degree of Russian acceptance, if not collusion in it, particularly when it comes to targeting and warning.
The tension between ‘something must be done’ and ‘what can be done’ also raises a profound set of questions about the political and strategic utility of such a strike and whether it will demonstrate Western resolve or impotence. The US has the military capacity arriving in theatre to escalate by engaging Russian air defences. However, with the US mid-term elections taking place in November and President Trump having indicated a fortnight ago that he wants US forces out of Syria quickly such escalation is unlikely. This is in spite of the White House need to distract from the damage the investigation of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller has already done and is doing to the Trump presidency.
There is, of course, a wild card in this crisis that will be concentrating the minds of those Kremlin driving the war in Syria: the capricious nature of President Trump himself. For that reason, Moscow will also be linking its assessment of the coalition’s intent to the military capability the Trump administration is building in theatre and taking appropriate counter-measures.
Analysis of Strategic Implications
There are two issues really at stake in coalition considerations (the suffering of the Syrian people is sadly now taken as a given): the contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention by Syria and Russia; and the need to counter aggressive Russian expansionism. As of today (13 April) the coalition has little option but to use military force because not to act would be a further blow to the West’s fast-diminishing influence in the Middle East and beyond.
The essential paradox of any such action against Assad is that given the two issues at stake such action only makes sense if it is seen as a part of a wider set of policies and strategies designed not simply to punish a destroyed Syria, or even prevent a wider war across the Middle East, but also contain Russia. A Russia that is not only seeking to forge new anti-Western spheres of influence but is willing to use the most cynical of methods to realise such an end.
Twenty-First Century Containment?
History offers some lessons for Western leaders as they consider their strategic options. The past containment of the Soviet Union, for all its clunkiness, was a considered strategy that established the framework for legitimate collective and effective deterrence and defence. Today, Western powers seem confused or just plain disagree about the ends, ways and means of military action in support of such a defence. As the world gets more dangerous that needs to end. At NATO’s forthcoming July Brussels summit the Allies must consider crafting a new policy of Comprehensive Containment and to that end a new Strategic Concept.
This is because given current trajectories Russia and the West are inexorably heading towards another showdown, be it over Syria or somewhere else. In 1946 George Kennan warned that Stalin was merely using ideology as “…a justification for the Soviet Union’s instinctive fear of the outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for the sacrifice they felt bound to demand…Today they cannot dispense with it. It is the fig-leaf of their moral and intellectual respectability”. Thankfully, Kennan’s famous 1946 dispatch from the US Embassy in Moscow marked the moment that post-war Washington finally began to wipe away the cob-webs of self-delusion and recognise that Churchill was right: Stalin’s Soviet Union was no partner of the West and posed a direct threat to European democracies.
Kennan’s message was essentially simple: Soviet aggression must be contained by strengthened Western institutions and forces until Russia’s inner contradictions brought the USSR to collapse. Thankfully, Kennan’s dispatch was from the right man, writing the right thing at the right time from the right place. The ‘Mr X’ (Kennan) article in Foreign Affairs, the Truman Doctrine, NSC 68 and, of course, NATO all followed as a direct consequence of Kennan’s insight.
For Stalin, today read Putin. Putin’s Russian nationalism is only marginally less dangerous than Stalin’s and if only because of contemporary Russia’s far weaker strategic and economic position in 2018 compared with 1946. Equally, it is that very economic weakness which makes Putin’s Russia dangerous and prone to extreme action. Moscow’s development of advanced military capabilities is also doing a lot to offset such weakness, at least temporarily, even as it exacerbates it. That is why as Washington, London and Paris consider missile strikes against Syria they must also consider who is the real target for such action, by what means, and to what end.
NATO Strategic Concept: Then and Now
If Russia is again to be contained how should it be done? The NATO Strategic Concept is the what, the why, the when, the where, and the how of Alliance action. Last year, in my capacity as Lead Writer for the High-Level Steering Committee preparing the GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Initiative (www.globsec.org) my senior colleagues and I spent a lot of time discussing an essentially simple question: to what end or ends NATO adaptation? The last NATO Strategic Concept was agreed back in 2010 at the Lisbon Summit. It was, like all such efforts, a political compromise between those who placed collective defence at the top of the Alliance agenda, and those who wanted collective security to the fore. In other words, there was a split between those who wanted politico-military NATO to be primarily a military alliance and those who wanted it to be more a political alliance.
Such a division was hardly surprising given that the Lisbon Summit took place against the backdrop of the continuing counter-terrorism and stabilisation and reconstruction campaigns in Afghanistan. There were also growing concerns amongst NATO Allies in southern Europe about the growing instability in Libya and elsewhere across the Middle East and North Africa. At the same time, and in spite of the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, the hope still existed for a constructive dialogue with Putin’s Russia that might once and for all bat the Cold War into the long grass of history.
Since 2010 there have been Russian or Russian-inspired assassination attempts on the President of Ukraine and the Prime Minister of Montenegro, the military annexation of Crimea, the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner with the loss of almost three hundred civilian lives, the destabilization of eastern Ukraine, snap military exercises that threaten NATO allies and EU members alike, cyber-attacks, social media attacks, attempts to interfere in both the US and European elections, and a nerve agent attack in a sleepy English city. If Stalin justified strategic 'overlay' with ideology, Putin makes no attempt to justify such actions at all, other than by offering reality-defying denials of any Russian involvement or issuing dark warnings about US hegemony and NATO proximity.
Containing ‘Future’ War
Russia has designed new strategies designed to exploit the many gaps in Western societies and defences by employing disinformation, destabilisation and destruction as part of a disabling concept of aggression that forms a hybrid war, cyberwar, hyper war continuum. In Russia, such thinking is at the heart of the Gerasimov Doctrine, as crafted by the Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov. In essence, the Gerasimov Doctrine is to use the threat of war with the means of war to force compliance short of war. The Doctrine places a particular emphasis on exploiting NATO’s deterrence gap between relatively weak conventional forces and its last-resort strategic nuclear deterrent.
There is even some evidence Gerasimov foresaw the coming Western missile strikes. A month ago he said that Moscow had “reliable information” that Syrian rebels were planning to use chemical weapons, and that Washington would respond by accusing Damascus of committing an atrocity and launch missile strikes. Russia, Gerasimov said, “…would retaliate against missile and launch systems”. If Gerasimov foresaw today’s unfolding scenario Moscow clearly has contingencies. How should the West counter them?
Strategic Concept 2019 & Comprehensive Containment?
There are no quick fixes. To counter Russia and its proxies the new NATO Strategic Concept must demonstrate the means and the will to defend the Alliance – both in area and out. However, to do so the Alliance must forge a new concept of deterrence across a range of integrated civilian and military options and tools: Comprehensive Containment. The 2010 NATO Strategic Concept is now hopelessly out-of-date and the only reason a new one is not being actively drafted right now is that the Allies cannot (as ever) agree on NATO’s twenty-first century role. This is in spite of the Alliance having one of the most clear-sighted leaders in Secretary-General Stoltenberg it has had for many a year.
Such a Concept would require the merging of the collective defence and collective security means implicit in the current Strategic Concept into a much deeper joint operating model that would also form a new concept of conflict escalation that can exert pressure across policy, diplomacy and economy and in the military domain across land, sea, air, space, cyber, nuclear, information and knowledge. That would mean a much more considered and joined-up Alliance, the strategic use of economic sanctions, strategic communications, support for partner states, offensive cyber capabilities alongside strengthened and more mobile conventional forces, streamlined command structures and other forms of ‘traditional’ but updated deterrence and defence postures, more devolved command authority, as well as preparing for the coming sentient machine warfare.
A US-German Special Relationship?
If Comprehensive Containment is to be realised a new transatlantic special relationship will be vitally needed to provide the political backbone for Comprehensive Containment. In 1946 the United States simply wanted ‘to bring the boys home’ after World War Two. Kennan not only made clear that such a policy was naïve, in dealing with Stalin it was downright dangerous. Kennan also demonstrated that only the United States could lead such a defence of Europe and the West. Today, the Americans are stretched thin the world-over, and facing a policy and strategy dilemma which Moscow is only too keen to exacerbate.
Back in 1946, some in the State Department harboured the illusion that the British could be maintained in strength to lead the defence of Europe. However, Britain in 1946 was broken militarily after six years fighting for national survival. Britain today is not unlike Britain in 1946, a shadow of its former self. Today, London is broken politically and led by people with little sense of either history or strategy whose idea of balance is not about power, but balance sheets.
Therefore, if a new NATO Strategic Concept is to pave the way to Comprehensive Containment it will need to be found on a new ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Germany. However, such a relationship will not be easy to forge. Today, it is not Washington that this time needs a new Kennan, even if it needs an awful lot less of other things (Twitter?), it is Germany. NATO cannot be ‘adapted’ without a Berlin that is far clearer in its thinking about its role in Europe and beyond, willing to be far more assertive in its dealings with Russia, able to separate short-term economic from longer-term strategic interests, and accepts that coercion has a legitimate role to play in the security and defence of its own people and others. The current Groko is unlikely to agree on such ambition for itself or the Alliance, even if it needs to, which is precisely why it is Washington, London and Paris preparing to strike Syria. Where is the German Kennan?
Syria and the NATO Question
To conclude, what is happening in Syria is about far more than Syria, even if some will say the coming Syria strikes will have nothing to do with NATO. In fact, it will have everything to do with NATO. NATO will not survive if it distances itself or offers only tacit support to the actions of some of its key members, and most particularly the actions of its most important member at a moment of strategic crisis. Indeed, one of the biggest threats to NATO is the kind of coalition that is preparing to strike Syria. Worse, without an agreed strategic concept that is more than the lowest common denominator of Allied agreement NATO action will be more the exception than the rule. And, without something like Comprehensive Containment, such action will also tend to be exclusively military and quite possibly futile.
A new NATO Strategic Concept with Comprehensive Containment at its heart would not only help unify the Alliance but demonstrate an Alliance adapting to meet the risks, threats and challenges of the twenty-first century. It would also demonstrate that the Allies really do want to confront such threats seriously, and seriously together, and that the idea of a ‘360 Degree Alliance’ is more than mere summit speak. That, in itself, would be deterrence-in-action.
Kennan once said, “The United States should not jump around like an elephant frightened by a mouse”. However awful the acts of Assad and his cronies in the absence of wider policy and strategy missile strikes on a Syria led by a desperate puppet regime controlled from and by the Kremlin could look an awful lot like three elephants with little idea of what they are aiming to achieve in pursuit of not only a small mouse, but quite possibly the wrong one.