Alphen, Netherlands. 4 August. How can NATO deter Russia? One hundred years ago today Britain declared war on Wilhelmine Germany for invading Belgium and breaching Belgian sovereignty guaranteed under the 1839 Treaty of London. These past few weeks there has been a lot of politically-correct nonsense about the causes of World War One with (as usual) Britain’s BBC at the forefront ably supported by Cambridge professor Christopher Clark and his 2013 book “The Sleepwalkers”. It was nobody’s fault but everybody’s fault goes the line.
The strategic causes were in fact fairly straightforward even if today they are politically unpalatable. The war was caused by the aggressive nationalism and revisionism of Wilhelmine Germany reinforced by the paranoia of the Juncker elite about the emerging labour movement in Germany and the social and political change they were demanding. It was triggered by an opportunistic but failing Austria-Hungary emboldened by its alliance with Berlin and then magnified by the bloc system put in place to ‘balance’ Europe. Scroll one hundred years on and Wilhelmine Germany sounds a bit like Putin’s Russia.
Naturally, the way the outbreak of World War One is being covered has nothing to do with history. ‘History’ (as so often) is in fact a metaphor for today and the deep divisions within Europe concerning Russia’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere. It would be easy to say (as some leaders are indeed saying) that Europe is now immune to big war. That is also utter nonsense. What such leaders are really saying is that for them it is unthinkable that major war in Europe could happen. Think again. The proponents of such an argument like to point to Russia’s actions in Ukraine as somehow a one-off, an enforced adjustment to boundary ‘mistakes’, a realignment of states with nations. If Ukraine is compensated by Moscow for the loss of Crimea and gas supplies assured by Russia Europeans can again live happily ever after. That is to ignore President Putin’s long retreat into nationalism and revisionism as an illiberal regime comes under increasing pressure for liberal change.
Like the causes of World War One the facts of Russian strategy are also strategically-clear but politically unpalatable. Since the $700 billion 2010 Defence Reform Programme was announced Russia has embarked on a major rearmament effort which now consumes some 20% of all Russian public expenditure. Russia is also constructing new tactical and strategic nuclear weapons some of which may be in breach of the keystone 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. In other words, Russia’s actions are those of a state with a clear if misguided strategy rather than a state ‘sleepwalking’ into conflict.
The choice for the rest of Europe is equally clear; deterrence or appeasement? Or, rather what balance to strike between the two. Last week a high-level report came out from the European Leadership Network (ELN) written by several former European foreign and defence ministers. The report warns against escalating the conflict in Ukraine to create a twenty-first century ‘doomsday’ scenario whereby systemic war between adversarial great powers could be inadvertently triggered in Europe as a result of escalation caused by the actions of smaller third parties. Recognise it?
Now, hard though it may seem to the people of Ukraine 2014 is nothing like the powder-keg Wilhelmine Germany had created at the heart of 1914 Germany. And yet, some of the strategic principles remain the same. What action to take? What does escalation actually mean? Above all, is an accommodation possible with Moscow and is Moscow in a position to offer compromise given internal pressures?
Professor Clark would have it that it was the pre-1914 arms race that created the conditions for World War One rather than per se the aggressive politics and militarism of Wilhelmine Germany. That is to ignore the one dynamic strategy that drove all others. The situation in Ukraine has been triggered similarly by the aggressive politics and proxy/closet militarism of Putin’s Russia and Moscow’s correct belief that their fellow Europeans are now so weak and divided that they can do very little to stop Russia. Even the much-heralded enhanced sanctions agreed by the EU last week have so many loopholes in them that Russia is already driving the latest T90S tank through them.
Therefore, in such circumstances it is vital that European leaders do not confuse legitimate circumspection with appeasement. Indeed, de-escalation before escalation looks awfully-like surrender, i.e. the abandonment of any real determination to demonstrate to Moscow that rapacious land-grabs that herald a shift in the European balance of power will be resisted. First European leaders need to understand and then critically agree why Russia is doing this.
The reasons for Moscow's actions are again strategically clear but politically unpalatable. Driven by a deep sense of nationalism allied to manufactured grievance over EU and NATO enlargement the Kremlin believes that unless it changes the orientation of states on its borders by extending its sphere of influence Moscow will be cast to the margins of influence. The method is the use of actual and implied military intimidation to force Eastern European states to look not just to the West but again East. Few if any of these states want to do this beyond being good neighbours of Russia.
Therefore, facing clear strategic but unpalatable political truths is again the real challenge facing Europe’s leaders. Are they up to it? Right now Europe is again dealing with fundamental issues of power and principle, war and peace even though some leaders would rather not admit it, whilst some are even unable to recognise it. Rather, they seek solace in a new kind of appeasement; that somehow Russia can be bought off. This is particularly the case in Berlin which still carries the yoke of the legacy of both Wilhelmine and Hitlerian Germany even though neither has much if anything in common with modern Germany.
The problem is that history in Europe today warps politics and undermines strategy. Appeasement prior to World War Two failed to prevent war just as much as Professor Clark would claim that pre-World War One arms races caused war. Today’s Europe is somehow lost wandering between the two and both strategy and politics reflect that. However, war is not prevented by simply refusing to prepare for war. Tough though that may sound to western European leaders many of my Russian colleagues would totally understand that.
A March 2014 spat between Britain’s then former Defence Secretary (now Foreign Secretary) Philip Hammond and NATO’s then Deputy Supreme Allied Commander (DSACEUR) British General Sir Richard Shirreff highlighted the dangerous division in Europe between the strategic class and the political class. Now, I must declare an interest at this point. I was a contemporary of Hammond’s at University College, Oxford and although I would not claim to know him (few would) there is a protocol between Old Members of my Oxford College. Equally, I used to support Richard Shirreff and he is a friend. So, I will be ruthless in my analysis.
Hammond threatened Shirreff with disciplinary action because the latter had suggested that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were a “paradigm shift” and that NATO was not up to the task of defending Alliance members against Russia. His statement simply reflected a classified assessment by NATO of NATO that Hammond found politically inconvenient. Last week the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in a new report effectively agreed with Shirreff saying that “…events in Ukraine seem to have taken the UK government by surprise”.
On Saturday Prime Minister Cameron wrote to all other NATO members urging them to “…make clear to Russia that neither NATO nor its members will be intimidated” and hinted at possible increases to the British budget. He also called for a strengthened NATO Response Force (a real NRF would help) and a reassessment of relations with Russia.
On the face of it Cameron is doing what all good leaders should do in light of changed circumstances; adapting. By contrast Hammond’s tetchy response to Shirreff in March demonstrated a refusal to adapt precisely because if properly understood Russia’s action would get in the way of his policy priority – cutting the British defence budget. To be fair to Hammond fixing the British economy was London’s strategic priority when he came to office. Equally, Hammond had to sort out the notoriously incompetent British defence procurement process and committed Britain to a £160bn military equipment budget.
However, implicit in Hammond’s public put-down of Shirreff was a refusal to reconsider strategy in light of changed events precisely because it might interfere with political dogma. Shirreff told me recently that NATO was unable at present to fulfil its collective defence mission. Today, there are very real questions as to whether the Alliance could even fulfil its deterrence mission. Not only have NATO’s conventional military capabilities become hollowed-out to the point of irrelevance the de facto decoupling of the US from European defence is now fact.
All of this points to a loss of strategic judgement for the sake of political expediency. Indeed, over the weekend Sir Richard said to me that his experience had “…been an interesting case where the duty of strategy-makers to speak truth unto power conflicts with political expediency!” On the one hand, there will be those in the Clark school of thinking that will point to the argument of General Moltke and the 1914 German General Staff who believed that unless they attacked very quickly the forces ranged against Germany would become stronger possibly irresistible. In other words 1914 was the moment to act. This is a little like Israel’s argument for acting against it sworn enemy Hamas in Gaza. With only Qatar left able to offer Hamas support there is no ‘better’ time for Israel to act than now. On the other hand, for Europeans collectively to do effectively nothing either to counter Russia’s illegal actions or to respond to Russia’s arms build-up would look dangerously like appeasement, especially to those driving policy in the Kremlin.
So, what to do? For once Britain does matter precisely because Britain is a European power (even if my country might soon fall apart). At the September NATO Summit in Wales Prime Minister Cameron must demonstrate that he is playing strategy not politics. He must back the words of his letter of this weekend with action and lead by example. In addition to the committing of 1300 British troops to more robust and realistic NATO exercises, Cameron must also commit Britain to the 2% GDP NATO baseline on defence expenditure for at least the next decade. He must also confirm that because of Russia’s actions British troops will be stationed in Eastern Europe. And, because of the major investment underway in the Russian Navy (with the assistance of France) Cameron must confirm that the second British super-carrier HMS Prince of Wales will join the fleet as planned. Then Moscow might sit up and take notice that at least one European power is preparing to counter the high-end military force President Putin seems determined to construct.
Something else must be done in Wales– a new high-level dialogue with Russia must be started. The ELN report said that crisis management lessons from the Cold War needed to be re learnt. However, the report actually missed perhaps the Cold War’s key lesson; a constructive and essential dialogue with an aggressive state can only be realised from a position of strength. The INF Treaty was realised in 1987 because many political leaders had resisted popular panic to deploy nuclear forces to Europe. At the same time they opened the so-called “Dual-Track” negotiations with Moscow that led to the Treaty and eventually helped end the Cold War. Dual-Track at one and the same demonstrated a will to deter in parallel with openness to talk. It is precisely those qualities which are needed now if the Allies are to convince President Putin that the costs of his strategy will far outweigh any possible benefits Moscow’s expansionist/militarist lobby are claiming for it right now.
That is how wars have been prevented in the past and there is nothing to suggest that today’s Europe is that much different from August 1914 Europe. To put it another way, do Europe’s leaders have the political courage to face an unpalatable and potentially uncomfortable strategic reality or has political correctness so infected the chancelleries of Europe that self-delusion is now the order of the day. God help us all if it is the latter.
NATO needs strategy if it is to avoid sleepwalking into another European disaster because strategy implies reasoned judgement which in turn is the foundation of policy. The need for judgement is above all else THE lesson from August 4, 1914.
Therefore, one hundred years on from the outbreak of World War One the aim of NATO must not be to fight Russia but to deter it. For deterrence to work will, capability and above all unity of effort and purpose of all the Allies is and will be vital.
The Guns of August? NATO Needs Strategy not Politics.