Richard Sokolsky, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia Program, and a 36-year veteran of the US State Department who served in many posts including director of the offices of Strategic Policy and Negotiations, Policy Analysis, and Defense Relations and Security Assistance in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, has written a timely analysis of NATO’s Eastern Front for Foreign Affairs. It is not, he suggests, all quiet on that front, but he thinks it should be … quieter, at least. Despite my firm support for strengthening NATO’s Eastern European forces ~ it, not ‘out of area’ operations like Afghanistan is NATO’s raison d’être, after all ~ and for having Canada step up and provide a substantial force there, I take his point about a need to deescalate tensions in Europe before someone makes a mistake that leads to combat.
“In a pre-retirement interview on May 1,” Mr Sokolsky begins, “NATO’s top military officer, General Philip Breedlove, warned that the Russian military might not be ten feet tall but was “certainly close to seven.” NATO’s war planners are right to worry about the Russian military threat to its eastern flank. Fortunately, the alliance may be in a stronger position than it thinks—and although its leaders may not realize it, what is important is that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals almost certainly do … [and] … NATO’s efforts to build a stronger deterrent and defense posture in the east are necessary and long overdue. But they may not be enough to de-escalate the alliance’s confrontation with Russia and reduce the risk of a direct conflict. Two years after NATO launched plans to beef up defenses on its eastern front, a midcourse correction is needed to reduce the risk of a collision with Russia.“
He explains that NATO’s perception of Russia has changed in the past couple of years , and: “As a military alliance with a collective security commitment at its core, NATO should be reinforcing its exposed eastern flank with a more persistent presence of heavier forces to reassure these countries of NATO’s resolve and capacity to make good on its Article 5 commitment. Military organizations are prone to plan conservatively, and NATO is basing its plans on a worst-case scenario.“
But, and it’s a BIG BUT, he goes on: “From the Kremlin’s perspective, in its decision to spread east, NATO has muscled in on Russia’s traditional turf. Meanwhile, Moscow believes the United States seeks to subvert the Putin regime by promoting democracy in and around the country. Russia’s estimates of the military balance with NATO are permeated by a deep sense of inferiority in terms of conventional Prompt Global Strike capabilities, nuclear weapons, missile defenses, cyberweapons, and even the much-hyped hybrid forms of warfare. The Russian general staff, like NATO’s military planners, are basing their plans on worst-case thinking as well.“
So, we have two opponents each panning for the worst case from a position that each sees as inferior to the other’s.
“The situation, he says, “has become less rather than more stable, and tensions will continue to grow unless both sides find ways to climb down from the escalatory ladder they are on … [and] … betting on the current standoff to become a new normal is not a good option, given the stakes for both sides and how fragile the normalcy is likely to be. Nor does it help that each side is misreading the intentions and the capabilities of the other. The Russian threat to the alliance’s eastern flank is probably not as grave as is commonly assumed. And for its part, Moscow often deliberately misrepresents NATO’s threat to Russian security for domestic political purposes … [but] … Paranoia about NATO’s intentions blinds the Kremlin to several key factors: NATO is a defensive alliance. It is inconceivable that the governments of all NATO members would approve a deliberate and unprovoked attack on Russia (as would be required by the alliance’s charter). Further, with enough time, NATO could generate a robust deterrent against Russia, but an offensive against it would require a substantially greater investment in force improvements and resources than the alliance currently plans. Although the alliance’s conventional precision strike, nuclear, missile defense, and cyberweapon capabilities are a formidable deterrent, they simply can’t wipe out Russia’s strategic forces in a disarming first strike.“
Mr Sokolsky then outlines three Russian considerations:
- “First, the Kremlin takes NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee very seriously,” and it (Putin) “already considers the Baltic states “lost.” That was not the case with Ukraine, so it was willing to take risks to “save” it;
- “Second, NATO’s preoccupation with the order of battle on the eastern front overlooks the fact that a Russian decision to wage war against the Baltic states would be a political choice, not one made by Russia’s generals based on the number of tanks, troops, and aircraft along Russia’s border with NATO. The Russian elite’s paramount concern is the survival of the system it has built and in which it is so invested, and it harbors a deep-seated fear of political instability and U.S. designs for regime change;” and
- “Third, for all of Putin’s vaunted unpredictability and proclivity for risk taking, he has demonstrated caution when he judges that the costs and risks of Russian belligerence are too high.“
But, he cautions, “the dynamics between NATO and Russia are a recipe for increased tensions, unintended consequences, and a growing risk of accidental conflict arising from the escalation of a military incident. Moreover, military steps taken to bolster deterrence and defense could make the task of de-escalating a crisis more difficult.” Therefore, he suggests, we need to de-escalate.
Mr Sokolsky suggest that “To get out of the escalatory spiral, NATO may need to go beyond the narrow, military-centric approach to bolstering deterrence and defense on its eastern flank. As Breedlove has recommended, the alliance needs to reopen a “line of communication” with the Kremlin. Both sides also need to show more mutual and verifiable restraint in their military activities and exercises along their shared borders. Toward this end, NATO and Russia should launch serious exploratory discussions on the negotiation of new arms control and confidence-building measures to limit and reduce the risk of war in Europe.“
He concludes that “NATO has a rich historical legacy of standing firm against the Soviet Union with defensive preparations while holding the door open to diplomacy to maintain peace … [and] … The July 8–9 NATO summit in Warsaw would be an opportune moment for the alliance to invite Russia to start moving together down this rocky but necessary path.“
I agree, in general. De-escalation is, usually, preferable to escalation, when force is involved … peace is better than tension and tension, a cold war, is better than fighting. But, I think that while we are trying to find ways to de-escalate, to build confidence, not mistrust, we also need to prepare for the worst case … to deter Putin/Russia from the sort of opportunistic adventurism that obvious allied weakness might encourage. NATO is right to “be prepared” for the worst, even as I believe it should follow Mr Sokolsky’s advice and invite Russia to start moving down the path towards trust and peace; and, therefore, Canada is right to contribute to that preparedness.