NATO’s response to the Putin Doctrine will shape its operations for years to come

If one good thing is to come out of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is that NATO now has a clearer picture of Russia’s foreign policy goal. President Vladimir Putin justified his decision to militarily support the Donbas breakaway republics with reference to the allegedly artificial land drawings during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The withdrawal of NATO troops from the Baltic States and Poland was one of Russia’s key demands in negotiations with the West prior to its invasion of Ukraine.

The ‘Putin doctrine’ will be NATO’s most important adaptation challenge toward the upcoming Madrid Summit at the end of June. Deterring Russia in the Baltic States and Poland hinges on absolute clarity about NATO’s resolve and ability to deny a Russian attack. This is so because of the much higher cost of having to liberate territory after a swift Russian seizure of NATO territory and because NATO’s resolve may be in jeopardy, should Russia follow up with a threat to use nuclear weapons.

Successfully defending — and thus deterring — a Russian invasion without yielding significant territory requires NATO to reach a force-level ratio of at least 1 to 3 relative to Russia’s forces stationed in its Western Military District and Belarus, which face allied territory. NATO needs to strengthen its standing force posture, notably by increasing the number of tank and artillery units which are in significant understrength at the current force levels.

NATO can no longer rely on the existing battlegroups in Poland and the Baltic States, which are designed as a “tripwire” for war with NATO, but not for denying Russia. Improving NATO’s standing deterrent will likely require permanent bases in Eastern Europe and, thus, abandoning the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which was concluded in 1997 to prevent tension in the post-Cold War order, but whose both word and spirit Russia has now definitively broken. Reaching the traditional 1 to 3 ratio for a successful defense cannot cause objective concern in Russia that the NATO forces could be used for offensive action against it.

In addition, NATO needs to improve the reinforcement capabilities to deter renewed Russian troop build-ups or otherwise give reason to suspect aggression against allied territory. The NATO Response Force would need to increase from the current 40,000 to probably no less than 100,000 troops to match Russian numbers. A troop build-up is easily detectable by satellites and would allow NATO sufficient time to react with such a reinforcement capability, judging from Russia’s preparation for its invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, NATO cannot separate its preparation to withstand Russian aggression from the rise of China. As U.S. military resources are increasingly drawn toward Asia, it falls on the European allies to assume the main responsibility for the defense of their own continent. They will continue to rely on the United States for a reliable command structure, strategic airlift and, not least, nuclear umbrella. They would also greatly benefit from continued access to U.S. intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities. However, enabled by the increase in their defense expenditure following the Russian invasion, it falls on the Europeans to provide the bulk of the ground and tactical air forces, where they can relatively easily strengthen existing capabilities.

As NATO builds up its conventional deterrence beyond the summit in Madrid, it will be important that it does not neglect the possibility of grey-zone warfare. Russia will likely be more cautious about trespassing in NATO than non-NATO territory and still prefers to rely on disinformation and subversion to stir ethnic-political discord in the Baltic States as well as special-operation incursions as an initial destabilization strategy — similar to its seizure of Crimea in 2014. NATO needs deterrence across multiple domains of warfare by structuring and training a part of its future forces for grey-zone eventualities that may precede Russia’s application of large-scale kinetic force.

The ‘Putin doctrine’ took NATO by surprise. The United States demonstrated impressive intelligence in uncovering Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine, which also sapped Russia’s propaganda effort. However, NATO must get much better at understanding its intentions: The enormous human and economic costs of seizing parts of Ukraine by force seem ludicrous with Western eyes but not from the perspective of Vladimir Putin. NATO allies must now rebuild a Cold War-style intelligence capacity and enhance their strategic thinking about the Kremlin, Russia and the entire post-Soviet space. This will require renewed intellectual investment in think tanks, foreign services, and international institutions in the coming years.

Moscow had a sound understanding of the West’s redlines during most of the Cold War. Today, it sees lines rather as an invitation to test its rhetoric and resolve. The West cannot trust Russia as long as Putin remains president and should use NATO as the cornerstone for its containment.

Henrik Larsen, Ph.D., is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. He is the author of the book “NATO’s Democratic Retrenchment: Hegemony after the Return of History” (Routledge, 2019).

Tags NATO Poland Politics of the United States Russo-Ukrainian War Vladimir Putin

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