NATO and the challenges of implementing effective deterrence vis-à-vis Russia


In the run up to the July 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, the British and Polish Embassies in Copenhagen, hosted by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, organised a one-day conference on ‘Transforming NATO in an Unpredictable Security Environment’. At the event in March I gave a talk on a topic related to one of my current research areas, specifically on the challenges to NATO of effectively delivering deterrence vis-à-vis Russia. This piece briefly summarises the thrust of the talk and some of the emerging themes of the research.


Clearly there are many challenges that confront NATO in the context of developing and implementing effective deterrence vis-à-vis Russia going forward. Six are singled out here.

  1. Understanding Russian strategy including what comes, or may come, next
  2. Political asymmetry and deterrence credibility
  3. Deterrence in the broader picture
  4. Non-military means of deterrence
  5. Nuclear stability including missile defence
  6. Relearning deterrence across the Alliance


  1. Understanding Russian strategy and what comes, or may come, next

Russia is the principal challenger to the status quo in Europe and is the one actor that could, currently, pose an existential threat to NATO states because of its significant and diverse nuclear assets. This places an imperative on the understanding Russia piece, which is central to the Alliance establishing what NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg has described as ‘modern deterrence’.

To effectively deter requires getting inside the head of any actor that is the target of deterrence, in any given context. It requires what Matt Waldman refers to as ‘strategic empathy’ – to understand and to take into account the position and perspective of the challenger. This is important not only for figuring out what might deter, but also for forecasting the types of scenarios within which deterrence may be called upon to play a role. But such forecasting is clearly challenging – Russian action in Crimea and Syria took the west by surprise. But in retrospect — and things are always more straightforward looking backwards of course — Russian actions in both contexts are explainable when situated within President Putin’s domestic and international narrative, and an assessment of Russia’s traditional strategic interests.

Given President Putin’s penchant for strategic surprise, it is indeed difficult to forecast what may come next. Wisely and understandably, NATO is now very much focused on the Baltics and the challenge Moscow may pose to Alliance members bordering Russia. But there may be other scenarios that NATO needs to think about. This necessitates understanding what drives modern Russia, and President Putin in particular, and therefore understanding the underlying political and economic interests of both the Russian Federation and the current government. It means seeking to develop insights from an analysis of these interests — and how Russia and the Putin government have acted previously to secure them – in order to forecast Russian motives and intentions going forward. The domestic realm is of upmost importance here, particularly the role of domestic politics in determining the current government’s external behaviour. Is it all about Putin staying in power? How important is the narrative of national humiliation and of Russian encirclement by the west? Addressing these and related questions clearly need to inform assessments of the possible scenarios that NATO will confront in the future.

  1. Political asymmetry and deterrence credibility

A second challenge involves the political asymmetry between NATO and Russia, notably in terms of unity of effort. Under President Putin, Moscow has in recent years been able to coordinate all levers of national power and influence in pursuit of its goals, be it consolidating Russia’s interests and influence in the Middle East through its Syrian deployment, or annexing Crimea and destabilising Ukraine. Actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have demonstrated Russia’s effective co-ordination of diplomatic, information and economic levers of power in tandem with irregular and conventional military forces, and nuclear sabre rattling in the background. When wrapped in a cloak of ambiguity — as in Crimea and eastern Ukraine — this coordinated approach can be difficult to counter for those on the receiving end of Russian coercive actions, primarily because of the plausible deniability it is designed to offer Moscow. Deterring a challenger that seeks to maintain such ambiguity is not a straightforward task and NATO is confronting this challenge right now.

The Russia example stands in comparison to NATO, which as an Alliance of 28 member states must do everything by consensus. Indeed, there exist many and varied views within NATO on the nature of the challenge posed by Russia, as well as on how its belligerence and growing assertiveness should be countered. On this latter point, the core question of how to deter Russian adventurism against the Alliance itself has elicited different views – for example, between Poland and the Baltic states on one hand, and states further to the west on the other, regarding how best to militarily bolster the eastern part of the Alliance in order to deter any future Russian moves against NATO. While Poland and the Baltics favour a more substantial forward presence to bolster deterrence this view is not shared across the alliance, far from it. This issue is clearly to the fore ahead of the Warsaw Summit and it poses the question of to what extent such internal debate weakens the Alliance’s credibility by demonstrating divergences over how to deter and, therefore, potentially over the resolve of all members to directly counter any future Russian aggression whatever form it takes.

In short, the challenge here involves a 28 member, consensus based organisation with multiple perspectives and interests seeking to deter a unified challenger with a grand strategic approach to using and coordinating all its levers of power in a coherent and effective way.

  1. Deterrence in the broader picture

A third challenge is working out how deterrence fits within a broader approach for dealing with Russia and its potential for adventurism against NATO. Deterrence is rarely the only strand in approaching strategic challenges and it must be considered alongside dialogue and diplomacy as a means to address the challenge posed by Russia. Reassurance is also important of course, specifically establishing what type of reassurance might be relevant to President Putin – what could be communicated to Moscow in terms of what the Alliance will not do if deterrence remains intact? Alongside what the Alliance will not tolerate and will directly respond to?

  1. Non-military means of deterrence

Deterrence is not just a military endeavour of course. Other levers of power and influence can play a role. At one level there is the obvious question related to how the nuclear and conventional military elements should relate to one another. Economic pressure — through sanctions — is also important in terms of building a comprehensive approach to deterring bad behaviour, with NATO’s relationship with the EU clearly very important. Resilience in those Alliance states bordering Russia is another area where deterrence by denial can be bolstered. For example, Lanoszka (2016) makes an important argument about developing civil society in member states on the borders of Russia to counteract subversive Russian activities, as well as law enforcement and intelligence capabilities to detect and counteract any such behaviour. The challenge of course is to establish how these different elements operate in combination to achieve the overall desired effect of preventing a Russian challenge to NATO integrity and credibility.

  1.  Nuclear stability including missile defence

The growing risk of confrontation between Russia and NATO brings with it an increased risk of nuclear use of course. In addition to Moscow’s nuclear sabre rattling of recent years, Russia has placed a greater emphasis on sub-strategic nuclear forces and its strategic doctrine now provides for possible employment of pre-emptive or preventive, as well as de-escalatory, nuclear strikes. Coupled with known current or future Russian capability developments — nuclear modernization, a new aerospace defence system, violations of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and deployment of dual-capable missiles to Kaliningrad or Crimea – a key challenge for strategic planners in NATO is how to preserve nuclear stability within this rapidly evolving context. Moreover, while missile defence is unlikely to feature prominently on the agenda of the Warsaw Summit, the next administration in Washington is due to review US nuclear and missile defence posture within its first 12 months, and this is likely to be followed by a review of NATO’s approach to missile defence. The 2010 US Ballistic Missile Defense Review stated that the US and Russia are “no longer enemies” and there is “no significant prospect of war between them”. Given the fundamental changes that have occurred in the US and the Alliance’s relationship with Russia since 2010, this is yet another issue that requires serious thought related to the maintenance of strategic stability going forward (Ivanka Barzashka and I are currently working on a project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York examining missile defence and nuclear stability).

  1. Relearning deterrence across the Alliance

A sixth challenge involves relearning deterrence. NATO is being forced to rapidly relearn how to deter after two and half decades of neglect. There is a human capital challenge here, of course, with many of those policy and military officials with direct experience of thinking about and practicing deterrence either retired or close to retiring. Another element of the challenge involves establishing the role for cross-domain deterrence vis-à-vis Russia, and demonstrating resolve without unnecessary and unintended escalation and provocation. On this latter point, however, it will be challenging for NATO to develop a credible deterrence posture vis-à-vis Russia unless the Alliance is demonstrably ready and willing to escalate in the event of a Russian transgression against it.


Image: BALTIC SEA (April 12, 2016) A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by USS Donald Cook (DDG 75). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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