How the West would recognise, and respond to, a Russian offensive
The overarching assumption is that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, flushed by the success of annexing Crimea and prising away Ukraine’s Donbas region, moves on to something even more ambitious. His goal: to undermine NATO and the European Union, by concentrating his well-honed techniques of hybrid warfare on two Baltic states that share a land border with Russia—Latvia and Estonia.
Hybrid warfare brings together military and non-military instruments to discombobulate the target state. Unlike Ukraine, the Baltic states are members of both the EU and NATO and are covered by the military alliance’s commitment to collective security under Article 5 of the 1949 Washington treaty that deems an attack on one as an attack on all. But this was conceived in an era when there was no doubt whether a country was under military attack or not. The big question is whether it is fit for purpose in dealing with 21st-century Russian tactics, which use ambiguity and deniability to make it hard to gauge whether an attack is really under way. Only once in NATO’s 66-year history has Article 5 been invoked—after the attacks of September 11th 2001—and at the time it was controversial whether this was a proper use of the alliance’s biggest stick.
ARTICLE 5 WAS CONCEIVED IN AN ERA WHEN
THERE WAS NO DOUBT WHETHER A COUNTRY WAS
UNDER MILITARY ATTACK OR NOT
This is how Mr Putin might test it. Working to its established game plan, Russia starts by stirring up the resentments of “Russians” in Estonia and Latvia (by some reckoning, about a quarter of the population in both countries), bombarding them with propaganda about the discrimination they are supposedly subjected to. Using agents provocateurs to foment pro-Russian demonstrations in the capitals, Riga and Tallinn, Russia does all it can to undermine the authorities in both countries. Ethnic Russians from Estonia and Latvia who were encouraged to fight with their “brothers” in eastern Ukraine stand ready to carry on the fight back home.
As the situation deteriorates, Mr Putin orders snap exercises of elite troops on the Russian side of the border, giving him the option of military intervention with little notice. Drills of this kind were a critical element in the destabilisation of Ukraine. Cyber-attacks are stepped up, adding to confusion, and NATO faces a huge increase in incursions into allied airspace in the region by Russian aircraft. Next, “self-defence forces” start forming in areas with many ethnic Russians, organised by soldiers wearing the same green uniforms shorn of insignia as the “little green men” who suddenly turned up in Crimea.
Estonia and Latvia ask NATO to declare that an Article 5-invoking event is under way and thus to commit all the alliance’s members to come to their defence. But, unsure that a full-scale response is justified at this stage, and with Mr Putin warning that any escalation by NATO could force Russia to consider using nuclear weapons to defend itself, the alliance’s “parliament”, the North Atlantic Council, cannot reach the required consensus of all 28 countries. The insistence of Germany that all political means of defusing the crisis must be brought to bear before going down a path that could lead to a major war in Europe finds many supporters. Thus, the bedrock assumption on which NATO’s credibility and thus the security of Europe rests has been tested and found wanting.
Not so fast, Vladimir
How likely is such a scenario? Perhaps Mr Putin regards the risk of taking on NATO as too great. Even his Ukraine escapade has stretched Russia’s military resources.
But the allies cannot afford to rely on that. They have drawn up plans to hold the NATO Response Force, which has at its disposal 40,000 well-equipped troops, at a much higher state of readiness. A “spearhead” force of about 5,000 troops will be deployable at the first sign of trouble, possibly within hours, on the order of the alliance’s supreme commander, General Philip Breedlove, without the usual requirement for consensual political approval. NATO’s new secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, says it is also helping its front-line states improve their intelligence-gathering and situational awareness. Knowing what an aggressor is planning and understanding early on what is happening on the ground are vital.
Heinrich Brauss, NATO’s assistant secretary-general for defence policy, stresses the need for speedy decision-making: “One week”, he says, “could be too long in the event of a hybrid attack. We are now significantly accelerating our procedures.” He refuses to define what might trigger Article 5. “Some ambiguity is necessary,” he says. But an adversary “must know that NATO is capable and willing to act”.
Correction. The original version of this story included a misleading reference to the numbers of “Russian-speakers” in Estonia and Latvia, which we have removed.