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Foreign Policy

NATO and the New War: Dealing with Threats before they become Kinetic


I’m enjoying the privilege of attending this year’s Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn and already there have been fascinating discussions in both formal sessions and informal conversations.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Needless to say, despite the intention on focusing on the Baltic as a potential “mare nostrum,” Ukraine hangs heavily over the whole event. Many who were once considered hawks are able to, if I may extend the analogy, preen a little and feel that Moscow has justified their concerns admirably. And I cannot blame them. If once the divide was between those who saw Russia as a problem, even a potential partner, rather than a threat and those who simply saw the threat, then I wonder if now the divide that is opening up is between those who think purely in terms of “old wars” rather than new.

In Ukraine we have seen a distinctive evolution of old forms of political-military, covert-overt conflict. To be sure, the Ukrainian situation was distinctive and extraordinary: a state in virtual collapse, a large Russia-looking minority, a disgruntled and scared eastern elite looking for a new krysha (‘roof’ – protection) and seeing it in Moscow. We do not see this in Europe. If Cossacks or Night Wolves motorcycle gangers rolled into Narva tomorrow, not only would the Estonian security forces be perfectly able to deal with them, but it they would have the support of the overwhelming majority of Russophone Estonians in doing it, too.

Instead, the response to any potential threat of “little green men” at the conference tends to focus on kinetic capacities: special forces, precision weapons, command and communication, etc. Understandable, and I agree that if foreign paramilitaries or special ops teams try to make their way into your country, these are the guys you want to unleash. Likewise, there’s is still certainly a value to a credible conventional and nuclear deterrence: had Ukraine’s forces been more capable and Kiev more decisive, then maybe things would not have reached the current stage.

But my point is that the Russians–if they really did want to make incursions into Europe–would only unleash such tactics after they had already created suitable conditions. Just as in Ukraine, they’d need already to have created pretexts, disorder, confusion, local allies.

In other words, the real conflict would not be so much PGMs vs LGMs (Precision-Guided Missiles vs Little Green Men) but a shadow one of ensuring that Russia’s abilities to create the preconditions for incursion could be deterred, detected and dealt with. The soldiers of this war are spies and criminals, cynical lobbyists and gullible commentators, businesses desperate to make a profit from Russia, and populations eager not to see themselves engaged in any civilizational struggle.

I appreciate NATO is not the obvious instrument with which to combat this potential threat, that is better suited to developing those kinetic solutions to the actual military stage of any conflict. But given that it is, at present, hard to see the EU able to muster the will, strategy, resources and cohesion to do the job, I wonder who else can fill the role of identifying and addressing this form of asymmetric warfare? If it comes to shooting, then I agree that the West needs smart, well-trained shooters. But given that the shooting stage would be the final one of an escalating campaign of subversion, division and misdirection, I’d rather this be headed off Putin’s guerrilla geopolitics before it reaches such a stage.

This article was originally published in In Moscow’s Shadows.