Europe’s security posture is evolving in the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. After two years of war, NATO is preparing for a long standoff with Russia. NATO planners understand that Russia’s aggression ‘broke the rules’ of international relations and may encourage other powerful nations to take similar action. NATO’s response to this change is extending its area of interest and building new relationships to protect its global interests.
Additionally, NATO faces a new and unexpected threat; American isolationism. Short-sighted US domestic politicking is already interrupting the flow of support from America to Ukraine, creating uncertainty and giving Putin confidence that if he ‘holds on,’ and continues a strategy of attrition he can win. Further, this year’s US Presidential election could lead to another Donald Trump presidency, creating great uncertainty in international politics. NATO’s evolution has security impacts across the world. How will Russia respond and does the alliance’s evolution make Europe safer?
Finland and Sweden, NATO’s immediate expansion
The most widely reported change within NATO is its expansion to include Finland and possibly Sweden. Finland’s application to join NATO in 2022, was quickly accepted and the nation is now part of the alliance. Sweden’s application to join has taken longer, Turkey and Hungary objecting to it. The Turkish objection recently resolved itself and now only Hungary’s agreement is required to ratify Sweden’s membership. The military significance of these nations joining NATO is immediate. Finland’s military is both well-trained and well-equipped but the most significant impacts of its membership are geographic. Finland’s acceptance extends Russia’s border with the alliance by about 1,300 km, more than doubling the existing border. The new border is close to the road and rail lines that connect Russia’s large Arctic naval bases at Murmansk and Archangel to St Petersburg and Moscow.
Map of the Baltic, showing NATO’s dominance of the region, especially with the inclusion of Finland and Sweden in the alliance. The red line is Finland’s border, the yellow line represents road and rail routes between Russian Arctic ports and Moscow. The blue circle indicates NATO’s ability to close the Gulf of Finland to Russian ships and submarines.
Source: Own work using Google Maps
Since Finland’s acceptance into NATO on April 2023, the alliance’s ability to blockade Russia’s Baltic naval forces or to threaten the Artic nuclear submarine force located on the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk has increased significantly. In simple terms, NATO forces based in Finland and Estonia can close the Gulf of Finland to Russian ships and submarines and can also easily strike the supply lines of Russia’s primary strategic deterrent, the Northern Fleet’s nuclear submarines. Finland changing its historic policy of neutrality is an immediate strategic challenge for Russia.
Sweden, if admitted will bring a powerful, modern military into the alliance. The Swedish Navy has a long-history of catching Russian submarines operating covertly in its territorial waters. The nation’s air force is modern and well-equipped, its indigenous Grypen fighter plane is well-regarded around the world, joining a long line of successful Swedish designed fighter aircraft. On the ground, the Swedish army is well-equipped courtesy of the local arms industry and although a mixed force consisting of a small number of regular soldiers supported by conscripts and reservists, it is reported to be highly- motivated and professional. If NATO accepts Sweden’s application to join, this force will enhance the alliance’s ability to dominate the Baltic.
NATO’s increasingly global outlook
Russia will also be carefully following and interpreting NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept, particularly its evolving doctrine of NATO’s world-wide interests and partnerships. Already, this change in philosophy has impacted in Ukraine. NATO’s Pacific partners participating in planning and providing military support. Ranging from Australian surveillance aircraft helping monitor Ukraine’s airspace, to New Zealanders training Ukrainian soldiers in the UK and military supplies and equipment being sent to Ukraine from Australia, Japan and South Korea. NATO using its Pacific partnerships to support its objectives in Ukraine.
Forward deployment of NATO troops and preparation for conflict
NATO is also bolstering its borders, deploying military force into areas like the Baltic states, Poland and southern Europe. Soldiers from NATO nations already reinforce borders from Norway to Macedonia. And, the pace and tempo of their operations is increasing rapidly. In early-2022, the US Army re-established its V Corps headquarters in Germany, providing the command-and-control functions required for large-scale American operations on the continent. Currently, the UK plans to practice deployment of approximately 10% of its army across Europe between June and April this year.
Notably, late last year Germany announced plans to station soldiers permanently in Lithuania. Reuters reporting on 18 December 2023 that “A permanent German brigade of about 4,800 soldiers in Lithuania, on the Russian border, will be combat-ready in 2027, defence ministers of both NATO members said on Monday after signing an agreement on German troops’ first permanent foreign deployment since World War Two.” Until recently the idea of German soldiers being permanently deployed overseas would have been far-fetched. Modern Germany and the current European geopolitical structure were built from the ground up specifically to mitigate against a revival of German militarism and territorial aggression. This deployment, with its acceptance of German soldiers being stationed overseas represents a significant change in European thinking.
Across Europe, there are calls for mobilisation both industrial and social. The UK’s retiring Chief of General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders made world-wide news last week by calling for the UK to start development of a larger and more capable defence force stating “Within the next three years, it must be credible to talk of a British Army of 120,000, folding in our reserve and strategic reserve. But this is not enough. ” The general also urged creation of a ‘citizen army,’ or in lay terms a large conscripted army. The previous week Dutch Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of NATO’s military committee told a meeting of European defence ministers “We need a warfighting transformation of NATO,” and called for members to prepare for the potential of war.
At the same time, European Union Internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton confirmed that European artillery ammunition production is increasing and will soon match US production, about one million shells per annuum. He also announced a 100-billion-euro, European Defence Investment Programme to increase European defence industry capacity.
NATO nations are starting to prepare militarily, socially and industrially for a period of insecurity. All with measures that appear to be designed to mitigate both the threat of direct confrontation with Russia, and the risk of US support for NATO decreasing or disappearing if Donald Trump is elected US President.
The Russian perspective
Understanding the impact of NATO’s evolution requires us to see the situation from a Russian perspective. A key historic feature of Imperial Russian, Soviet and Modern Russian diplomacy is a fear of the West. An understandable position after centuries of European conflict with Russia. This activity includes medieval crusades by the German Teutonic Knights and the establishment of the Hanseatic League, a German trade empire around the Baltic. Later, Napoleon’s 1812 invasion, the Crimean War and Hitler’s 20th century invasion all contribute to the idea that the West is aggressively orientated towards Russia. It is understandable that Russia is wary of Western objectives and militarism.
Russia’s position is aggravated by its geography because it lacks easily defended frontiers and ice-free ports that provide year-round access to maritime trade. Further, Russia is a nation that struggles with the current rules-based order, the structures of international trade, finance and law limit the power of larger nations. Russia knows it is more powerful negotiating bi-laterally because it can use its economic and military power to over-match individual nations. Therefore, it seeks to disrupt or ignore the rule-based order that provides collective economic and security structures that protect smaller nations. Russia probably perceives the post-World War Two order as an American tool, designed specifically to limit the power of the Soviet Union and ipse facto modern Russia.
Essentially, Russia is easy to blockade or invade and believes it faces an international rules-based order designed by the West to disempower it. Historians and commentators often argue that Russia is paranoid and too often Western policy makers under-estimate this argument. Essentially, Europe finds it difficult to comprehend that Russia could see it as a threat and therefore misjudges Russian motivations. NATO’s activities are a good case study, European nations see the expansion of NATO as a sensible precaution, after all NATO is never going to invade Russia. However, Russia’s interpretation of history is that Europe continually invades or intervenes in Russia and so, interprets NATO’s activity as hostile and aggressive.
Russia’s response, a war in Europe?
Putin and his advisors may be paranoid about NATO’s intentions but they are not stupid. In a direct confrontation NATO’s military power is vastly superior to Russia. So, the chances of a major war breaking out in Europe are slim. However, NATO’s weakness is not military, it is the alliance’s cohesion. NATO is a disparate group of different democratic nations, some progressive and liberal others conservative. All with different political tensions and diplomatic goals, so the potential to split the alliance exists and NATO needs to be preparing for hybrid war. In lay terms, Russian attacks on its cohesion using a full spectrum of activity, from direct military action to covert social media campaigns.
Already, in the US we can see the impact of long-term Russian information operations. In October 2016, US intelligence agencies confirmed the existence of an organised campaign using ‘Troll Farms’ in Russia to spread disinformation supporting Donald Trump. A campaign that likely continues unabated and that is probably encouraging voters to embrace Trumpian isolationism. Specifically, to question the value of alliances like NATO and of US support for Ukraine. Now approaching the 2024 Presidential election the world is holding its breath, support for Ukraine stymied in Congress and the potential of a Trump presidency creating great uncertainty about the future of US foreign policy.
Around the world liberal democratic government’s face similar de-stabilising, covert social media campaigns designed to undermine state institutions. Russia’s long-term objective being to test NATO’s cohesion by creating situations in which allies fail to support each other. Perhaps a small military intervention in the Artic, or along the new Finnish border or an attack on seabed infra-structure designed to trigger discussion about a response under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Presenting the alliance with a challenging key decision, either to risk full-scale war or to let the aggression slide. If the US or any other NATO partner refuses to meet its Article 5 obligations then the alliance is split, its cohesion undermined. NATO nations are then forced to fend for themselves and can be bi-laterally engaged by Russia. A situation that gives Russia much greater influence than trying to influence a united group of nations.
History already provides an example of a similar Russian operation. In 2014 Russia’s ‘little green men’ crossed the border into Ukraine and Europe ‘looked the other way.’ At the time, the potential costs of engaging were deemed to be too high and Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk were absorbed into Russia. A decision that probably contributed to Russia’s 2022 invasion by indicating Europe feared Russia and was unwilling to provide Ukraine with military support.
NATO faces existential challenges in coming years, starting with the possibility of a US ‘step back’ or even possibly a withdrawal. Concurrently, it is also managing with Russia’s challenge, that although unlikely to result in major war in Europe will involve a range of possible threats. For instance, political interference via social media or even small military challenges, all designed to fray relationships within the alliance. History indicates that Russia perceives NATO as a threat and is therefore likely to continue operations designed to break the alliance’s cohesion.
Regardless of Russia’s motivations, history tells us that the only way to manage a threat is to deter it. If NATO loses its cohesion and appears weak it incentivises Russian aggression, and a united NATO (even just its European members) is strong enough to deter Russian escalation. Currently, NATO states appear to be aware of the risk and that regardless of American politics, the alliance’s members will need to remain committed to their Article 5 obligations, willing to act immediately against Russian aggression no matter how small, or how remote.
Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack