NATO’s deterrence moves in the Baltic States: falling into Russia’s trap?

Dr Rod Thornton

NATO has decided to increase the number of troops it has operating (technically, either training or exercising) in the Baltic States. Included  in this contingent will be no less than four British tanks. The stated reason for this deployment is to ‘deter’ Russian aggression against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All well and good on first inspection, but scratch the surface and such actions might appear outmoded, more reminiscent of the 19th century than appropriate to the conditions of the 21st.

What are these new forces intended to deter? The answer, seemingly, is a full-scale Russian invasion of a Baltic country. Yet it is far from clear whether this danger is a realistic one. Is it likely that the Kremlin will send tanks rumbling over its neighbours’ borders any time soon? Putin and his generals are perhaps not that maladroit. They will have done the maths. Where such an action is concerned, the cost-benefit balance is very much in favour of the former. Major war is not part of Russian plans – but they do want to create the impression that it might be. Hence, we now have the likes of Moscow’s sabre-rattling; its high-profile preparations for nuclear war, and its bellicose actions in Syria. Such Russian aggression has two goals: 1) to make Russia – aka Putin – look more powerful, and 2) to create divisions in opponents over how best to deal with this aggression and to thereby weaken these opponents.

The Baltic States are on the front-line of all this. For several years now, they have been the target of a substantial Russian (thus far non-violent) hybrid warfare campaign. All manner of means are being used – from information warfare (including cyber warfare); through the funding of pro-Kremlin academics and right-wing groups, and all the way up to using agent provocateurs who organise protest movements and strikes. The overall aim is to raise tensions and to thereby create the divisions that destabilise these targeted states: governing structures are weakened; faith in authority is undermined, and individuals made to turn against each other. A state becomes divided against itself. An ‘inner decay’ is created. And the greater the degree of decay then the more easily – so the theory runs in the case of the Baltic States – it is that Russia can leverage events in these states to its own advantage. Indeed, the ultimate goal of this Russian hybrid warfare is undoubtedly to foster the election of national governments who would look more favourably on Moscow and, by extension, less favourably on NATO and the West.

In essence, the Russians would see a truly successful hybrid warfare campaign as being one that does not involve the use of any external military force. But in the case of the Baltic States it is of enormous benefit for Moscow that its troops are regularly exercising just beyond their borders; that new missiles are being placed in the Kaliningrad exclave, and that Russian ships and aircraft regularly test regional defences. Merely the latent character of such force can create a profound psychological pressure that helps raise the level of tension and thus of instability within these three states.

Moscow, moreover – and here is a crucial element – has another and more convenient way of increasing the level of tension in the Baltic States: namely through the use of Russian minorities within those countries. Ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers constitute over a quarter of both Latvia’s and Estonia’s total populations. Riga and Tallinn, cities where the populations are almost 50 per cent Russian, have voted in mayors with links to Putin’s own political party. Thus, there is plenty of support for Putin and for Russia within the capital cities of these two NATO member-states. It is also worth noting that Russian minorities are mostly denied the chance to vote in national elections, but can do so in municipal ones.

These minorities are referred to as ‘compatriot Russians’ by Moscow and they are worked on assiduously as part of the hybrid warfare campaign. Of course, many of these ‘compatriots’ are quite content with their lot and are not minded to agitate in any way. A substantial number are, however, not content and it is not unimaginable that having been subject to the intense propaganda of a Moscow-directed information warfare campaign for a number of years they will eventually turn against their Baltic hosts. Moscow would probably like nothing more than to see these ethnic Russians protesting on the streets and then being subject to attacks by right-wing groups or to a violent clampdown by local security forces. This is how Russian troops will, if they ever do, re-enter the Baltic states – not in an outright invasion, but rather in a ‘humanitarian’ operation to ‘protect’ fellow Russians. The scenario often raised here relates to a possible reaction to trouble in the Estonian city of Narva. The city is 90 per cent Russian and lies just over the border from Russia itself. Would Russian troops stand idly by if ‘compatriot Russians’ were being killed in disturbances within sight of the border?

If the raising of tension in order to drive divisiveness and instability is a prime factor in any hybrid warfare campaign then the best way that the Russians can do this is through the inculcation of fear. Fear will, in particular, create the overreactions that destabilisation programmes thrive on. The fear of war is obviously a crucial variable in this respect. Moscow’s media messaging to both native Balts and to the Russian minorities plays on this fear. Included in this messaging – this signalling – are reports of everything from Moscow schoolchildren conducting their nuclear-protection drills to the bombing of Aleppo. In particular, this bombing, ostensibly designed to kill ‘terrorists’ in situ, also acts as a means to advertise to others who might oppose Russian interests just how ready Russia is to use lethal force. The Balts naturally do not want their own countries to become subject to the same use of force – to become the battlegrounds they have so often been in past wars. It could be argued that they would do anything to avoid this – including developing friendly relations with Russia. Thus, the more that Russia can stoke up a fear of war in the Baltic States the more likely it is – in theory – that Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians will, in national elections and to lessen the likelihood of that war, bring to power governments that are more amenable to Moscow.

Here is the main threat to the Baltic States from Russia. It is in the creation, though non-violent modes of hybrid warfare, of internal processes that lead to outcomes that suit Moscow’s interests. This Russian threat is an internal one, far more than it is an external one; i.e. from a military invasion. Russia does not need to invade to achieve its strategic objectives.

Indeed, Russia has played a very steady hand so far in its hybrid warfare campaign against the Baltics – there has been, for instance, no creation of terrorist incidents (a ‘late stage’ aspect of any hybrid warfare campaign), which clearly the likes of the FSB, SVR or GRU could organise if they were so inclined.

Thus, it could be argued that what matters most in terms of thwarting the Russian threat to the Baltics is to keep tensions down. This is why sending extra NATO troops to the region at this time may be seen as problematic. It is an easy sell now for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to generate angst among the Balts by providing pictures of long columns of NATO vehicles with the strapline of, ‘here is NATO – all ready to fight a war in your country!’ And to the Russian minorities it is even easier – ‘here are NATO forces – arrived with their tanks to deal with you – the Russians!’

Moreover, there are now four MBTs in the Baltics. These are the only tanks of any description in these three states – and they are all British! So, who is then going to be made out to be the ‘aggressor’ by Moscow in the Baltic States?

Yes, of course, a deterrence posture has always to be maintained by NATO vis-à-vis Russian activities in regard to the Baltic States. But it could be argued that the few NATO ‘composite battalions’ who are already there are sufficient in deterrence terms – low-profile but sending the right signal to Moscow. That is, they were a tripwire – attack the Baltics and you attack NATO itself. Fine. So just what extra deterrent value comes from having a few more troops but who are still so small in number that they still represent nothing more than the same tripwire? Where is the logic given the propaganda coup it is for Moscow?

In essence, NATO has to do its own cost-benefit calculation – to what degree do deterrence measures become part of the problem and not part of the solution? In its new deployment of forces to the region, has NATO merely done exactly what Moscow wants it to do in terms of raising tensions – and thereby fallen into a trap? NATO needs some 21st century thinking.

Image: Russian President Putin Listens as Secretary Kerry Speaks During Their Bilateral Meeting Focused on Syria and Ukraine in Moscow. Courtesy of US DOS Flikr.

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.



Ever since the annexation of Crimea in February-March 2014, and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, military analysts have debated the nature of ‘hybrid war’ – or ‘non-linear’/’ambiguous warfare’ – and whether it represents the military strategy of choice for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Polish, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian militaries in particular are using Ukrainian-style scenarios involving internal subversion and incursions by ‘little green men’ for defensive exercises, and pundits fear that ‘hybrid warfare’ may be exploited by Russia to weaken the alliance cohesion of NATO, threatening its outliers such as the Baltic States, and playing on the apparent unwillingness of European publics to honour Article Five in the event of Russian aggression against an Eastern member of the Alliance.

The concept of ‘hybrid warfare’ originally emerged nine years ago with Frank Hoffman’s paper on this topic, and was heavily influenced by Israel’s inconclusive war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. But it is now treated as being mainly about Russia, its undeclared war in Ukraine, and its apparent intentions towards other former Soviet states. Its characteristics can be described as follows:

  • Information operations – or ‘propaganda’, to use the old-fashioned term. Russia and its state media concoct a narrative that disguises Moscow’s involvement in the subversion of a neighbouring state, blaming a crisis on internal factors so as to deflect any international condemnation. The takeover of Crimea by Russian naval infantry and spetsnaz (‘special designation’ troops) in unmarked uniforms was depicted by Russia as a spontaneous revolt by local citizen militias, while the revolution that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 in Kiev was portrayed as a ‘fascist’ putsch.
  • Political intrigue – Russian operations in Ukraine have been accompanied by a constant diplomatic and political effort to encourage discord between NATO and EU member states, to play on national differences over contentious policies (notably the economic sanctions imposed on Russia from the spring of 2014 onwards), and also to buy or suborn support by populist political parties on the far-left and far-right who will act as apologists for Russia’s actions, muddying the waters and confusing the public debate. Moscow will also try to exploit public concern in Western Europe about the risks of a potential confrontation with Russia.
  • The use of special forces – the spetsnaz of the GRU (Russian military intelligence) and the elite units of the Russian armed forces are used either in plain clothes to organise separatist militias (as per the ‘Donetsk’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Republics) or in unmarked uniforms to seize government buildings, military bases and other key locations from indigenous security forces, and to prop up a ‘pro-Russian’ administration that will automatically appeal for help from Moscow. The use of ‘little green men’ rather than an overt invasion by regular troops will confuse the international community, leading to prolonged debates about whether an act of state-on-state aggression has actually occurred, paralysing any Western military response until the Russians and their proxies have consolidated their position on the ground.
  • Sabre-rattling – at the background of these operations Russia will mobilise its military forces, massing them on the borders for ‘exercises’ just as it did with Ukraine in the summer of 2014. Threats of escalation will be used to frighten the adversary and its allies, to undermine any will to stand up to Russian incursions, and also in an effort to intimidate weaker alliance partners. Flights by Russian aircraft into foreign air-space have also been used as a tactic to bully neighbours as well as NATO states.

All of the above has happened over Ukraine, and Western governments, militaries and defence analysts would do well to examine them and define the appropriate package of responses that NATO and the EU should follow. But none of us should be fooled into thinking that any of these tactics are new. They all have parallels in the Cold War.

Firstly, information operations. Russia Today and other organs of Putin’s state media are a lot slicker and more professionally produced than the turgid output of Radio Moscow and TASS back in the Cold War. The ‘troll farms’ of geeks who will post pro-Russian propaganda on Facebook, blogs and other social media are well–resourced, and the Russian state is seeking a wide array of political partners in Europe to push its narrative – whether with extreme-right parties such as the Front Nationale in France or Jobbik in Hungary, or far-left movements such as Syriza in Greece.

Yet throughout the Cold War the USSR was using sympathetic Communist parties as well as ‘fellow travellers’ to push its propaganda. The KGB and Warsaw Pact intelligence agencies like the East German HVA sought ‘agents of influence’ in politics, the media, academia and in peace movements to persuade Western publics that East-West tensions were all the fault of their governments, rather than the ‘peace-loving’ USSR. More controversially, it is clear that some terrorist groups such as the German Red Army Faction and the Italian Red Brigades got their training from behind the Iron Curtain. Putin was not the first Russian leader to attempt to undermine Western morale by any means available, or to try to manipulate public opinion against their own governments.

Secondly, with political manoeuvring and skulduggery. Again, throughout the Cold War the USSR did its utmost to play on intra-Western differences. In its diplomatic contacts with Norway and Denmark, it tried to encourage both NATO members to follow Sweden and Finland and adopt neutrality, making pointed remarks about how geographically isolated both countries were on the Atlantic Alliance’s Northern flank. Moscow sought to exploit Greco-Turkish animosities, particularly over Cyprus, and the KGB engaged in ‘disinformation’ operations to undermine allied unity, whether by fabricating rumours that the CIA had a hand in assassination attempts against French President Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s, by publishing a fake US Army manual that purportedly advocated setting up ‘false-flag’ terrorist groups to discredit the European left, or by devising smear stories that blamed the outbreak of HIV/AIDS on American biological warfare experiments.

Thirdly, special forces and shaping operations. When the British government expelled 105 Soviet ‘diplomats’ from the USSR’s London Embassy and Trade Mission in October 1971, the direct pretext was a defector’s revelations about the KGB’s war-time plans for sabotage attacks across the UK. These plans were embryonic, but they indicated an intent by the Soviets to cause maximum disruption behind enemy lines in the event of an East-West crisis leading to World War Three. The 1980s saw what could be called the ‘spetsnaz scare’, including sensational press reports about the extent of Soviet and Warsaw Pact SF penetration in the West – my own favourite story involves the phantom female spetsnaz infiltrating the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common.

Post-1945, spetsnaz did see action in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 – as the vanguard of Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces suppressing the Prague Spring – and in Afghanistan in December 1979, where the KGB’s Alfa Group assassinated President Hafizollah Amin. Both these operations can be compared to Ukraine in 2014 because firstly Soviet/Russian forces either had a presence on the ground before intervention took place, or were geographically proximate (Russia already had the Black Sea Fleet in place in Crimea, complete with a brigade of Naval Infantry troops that conducted the takeover of the Peninsula in late February-early March 2014). Secondly, like Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 Ukraine was ostensibly a Russian ally, and saw no threat from its neighbour; its armed forces were facing West, not East. Thirdly, in the same way that the USSR had sympathisers within the Czechoslovak military and security police (StB) in 1968, and the Afghan armed forces and KhAD in 1979, Russia’s securocrats had developed considerable influence over the Ukrainian security forces during Yanukovych’s Presidency – particularly with the SBU (intelligence service) and the Berkut (paramilitary police) both of which provided proxies both during the February 2014 revolution and its aftermath.

Finally, with the conventional threat. One interesting difference here is that currently NATO’s military capabilities are superior to those of Russia’s – at least as far as raw figures of troop numbers and materiel is concerned – than was the case during the Cold War; although the Russian armed forces are of course theoretically able to achieve conditions of local superiority by (say) massing units near the Baltic States and also in the Kaliningrad Enclave. The USSR was also prone to ham-fisted displays of naval and air power to intimidate neighbours – recent exercises near Swedish air-space and in territorial waters bring back memories of the ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ affair of October 1981, when a Soviet diesel submarine was beached near the naval base at Karlskrona.

Critics of NATO expansion claim that the Alliance’s expansion Eastwards has been untenable, and that it cannot defend the Baltic States – or perhaps even Poland or Romania – from Russian attack. Much the same concerns were expressed forty to fifty years ago about the security of Norway, or indeed the vulnerability of West Berlin to the Soviets and East German allies. The Berlin Crisis of 1958-1961 led NATO to prepare its contingency plans (BERCON) for the seizure of the French, British and American sectors Norway’s vulnerability was the reason why the Royal Marines got its Arctic warfare role in the late 1960s-early 1970s, with its commandos being earmarked for a deployment to the Northern flank in the event of a Soviet offensive.


Image: Border guards of the former German Democratic Republic on patrol, January 1979, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some analysts have suggested the possibility that Russia may test NATO’s will for collective defence not with an outright seizure of one of its newer members, but with a limited territorial land-grab that compromises territorial integrity without (at least initially) threatening state survival; the seizure of the Estonian city of Narva, with its ethnic Russian majority, is one potential scenario. Again, this is not a new conceptual challenge. From the 1960s NATO planners wracked their brains about how to deal with a contingency dubbed the ‘Hamburg Grab’, in which Warsaw Pact forces conducted a limited offensive to take over an enclave of West German territory, only to subsequently adopt a defensive posture and to dare the USA and its allies to respond. The fear at that time was that NATO members would not wish to escalate to nuclear war in a scenario short of an all-out Soviet bloc invasion, and that Article Five would become a dead letter. Change the names, and you can see similar concerns in Brussels and in allied capitals today.

This is not to say that the answers to all NATO’s current problems with Russia – and that the Alliance’s response to future Ukraines – can be found with a quick search through the archives in Brussels and SHAPE. But it is important to remember that the tactics described in ‘hybrid war’ are not novel, and that previous iterations of ones which the Atlantic Alliance had faced before. After all, why should we be surprised that a government headed by a former KGB officer might very well be using combinations of diplomacy, subversion and military pressure that the old USSR exploited in repeated East-West crises?

Image: An armoured column from the Polish People’s Army during the Martial Law era, winter 1981-1982, via Wikimedia Commons.

SDSR and the Return of Deterrence


The National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015 has brought deterrence back to centre stage for the United Kingdom more than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. The primary context for this in SDSR 2015 is the resurgence of state based threats. This is both understandable and unsurprising given Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Moreover, the UK’s increased emphasis on deterrence was presaged, most notably in the Prime Minister’s priorities ahead of the NATO Wales Summit in September 2014:

6 months after Russia illegally violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of her neighbour Ukraine, we must agree on long-term measures to strengthen our ability to respond quickly to any threat, to reassure those allies who fear for their own country’s security and to deter any Russian aggression.

The nature of Russia’s confrontational approach places the deterrence challenge in stark relief. Through its ‘hybrid’ methods – as typified in Crimea and eastern Ukraine – Moscow has sought to prosecute its strategic objectives through a combination of conventional and unconventional means, wrapped in a targeted and effective information campaign, and which has sought to camouflage its direct involvement and complicate deterrence efforts against it. Moscow’s nuclear sabre rattling – which has taken many forms, including the concept of potentially using nuclear weapons to de-escalate conflicts – has added a menacing element to the challenge facing the UK and allied defence planners.

The SDSR’s answer to this challenge is to place an emphasis on using ‘the full spectrum of our capabilities – armed force including, ultimately, our nuclear deterrent, diplomacy, law enforcement, economic policy, offensive cyber, and covert means – to deter adversaries and to deny them opportunities to attack us’. Full-spectrum deterrence is certainly not a new concept, far from it. But it has been a key topic of discussion in UK defence and security circles over the past 18 months, and rightly so.

Developing a credible full-spectrum posture, however, is no straightforward task. It will require in-depth knowledge and understanding of potential adversaries (their strategic intent and their domestic political imperatives), including but not confined to Russia, in order to ensure that the requisite deterrence capacities are in place, that they are shaped into a coherent whole and their application is effectively coordinated across government agencies and with allies.

One of the main challenges here is that – outside of a very small community of military and civil service personnel, as well as a few academics and think tanks – for a quarter of a century, little serious and systematic thinking has been applied to the role of deterrence as a British approach to conflict prevention and international security management. Most recent post-Cold War thinking prior to SDSR 2015 has been limited and primarily focused around the rationale for retaining the nuclear deterrent in the long-term. This general lack of attention is not a challenge unique to the UK of course and it is shared with other NATO allies.

There are clearly some intellectual requirements that flow from SDSR 2015’s renewed emphasis on deterrence:

First, there is a need to ensure that personnel at all levels across government and the armed forces are given the opportunity and the time to relearn deterrence: its core tenets, how it has been applied in the past, how things are different now and the challenges of developing a full-spectrum approach and effectively communicating this to potential opponents.

Second, there is a requirement to reinvigorate thinking, research and debate around deterrence as a tool the UK can apply for security management and conflict prevention. What should the balance be between punishment/retaliatory and denial-based approaches to deterrence? Many non-western countries, for example, have increasingly focused on denial-based approaches in recent years. China’s anti-access and area denial (A2AD) approach to deterring external intervention in a regional contingency is one prominent example.

Third, the full spectrum approach will require new and innovative deterrence thinking particularly in terms of cross-domain linkages and interactions. Addressing specific challenges such as attributing attacks in the cyber domain further demonstrates the complexities involved.

SDSR 2015 states that within NATO the UK will ‘lead a renewed focus on deterrence to address current and future threats’. Addressing these intellectual challenges should be at the heart of Britain’s leadership push in this area.

Wyn Bowen is author of ‘Deterrence and Asymmetry’, Contemporary Security Policy, 25 (April 2004) and co-author with Jasper Pandza of ‘Radiological Terrorism: Is There a Role for Deterrence?’ in Andreas Wegner and Alex Wilner (eds), Deterring Terrorism: Theory and Practice (Stanford University Press, 2012).

Image: A Trident II D5 missile is fired from HM Submarine Vanguard during tests in the Western Atlantic in 2005. Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons.

Reflections on Deterrence and the Lessons of History


The reflections of ‘Cold War warriors’ provided prescient insights into the wider application of deterrence during a recent Witness Seminar organised by the Defence Studies Department and the Institute for Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research.

The term ‘deterrence’ is often used by policy makers, academics and the media to encompass a more complex construct beyond purely deterring an adversary to encompassing acts of ‘compellence’.  While the two terms are subsets of coercive practice, the distinguishing feature of deterrence is that the aim is to maintain the status quo, while compellence involves seeking to modify an extant situation and usually requires an escalatory approach involving the threat of force and its application if required; deterrence fails, of course, at the point an adversary pursues a course of action which the deterrer was seeking to avoid.  Both deterrence and compellence can be based upon threatening either to punish an adversary or to deny its objectives.  It is important to understand that such approaches can only work if they are deemed to be credible on the part of the adversary. This applies in the realm of both conventional and nuclear strategies.

It is commonly assumed that Britain’s approach to deterrence in the Cold War primarily relied upon the threat of nuclear retaliation, but the Witness Seminar demonstrated that a major element of the British deterrence posture involved conventional forces.  In particular evidence was presented about deterring Indonesia during the Confrontation under Plan Addington in 1964.  This saw a complex series of tactical and operational plans to target critical Indonesian infrastructure utilising the RAF’s V Force in a conventional role.  The plans were heavily dependent on tanker support and raised questions about the effects that could be achieved, which has resonance with some of the planning considerations that affected the bombing raids against Port Stanley in 1982.  The evidence challenged some assumptions about the effectiveness of the deterrence of Indonesia; there have been suggestions in recent years that the Indonesians did not fully appreciate that Plan Addington was meant to deter them. However, the evidence of witnesses points to the apparent delay in certain Indonesian troop deployments which took place once the V-bombers had been withdrawn; this hints at a more complicated picture. The complimentary nature of long-range strike platforms and aircraft carriers was brought out through this example.

The inter-action of air and maritime forces was further highlighted by witness presentations on maritime patrol, anti-submarine and Royal Navy submarine operations in the face of a growing Soviet naval threat.  Prior to the event some of the witnesses sought approval for their presentations from the Ministry of Defence and were asked to remove references to specific operational details, perhaps suggesting a degree of continuity between the supposedly obsolescent methodologies of the Cold War and current preoccupations.

Nuclear deterrence, once an area of extensive debate, has since the end of the Cold War been ‘de-prioritised’ but has remained a subject in which thinking and practice has continued to evolve. The concepts relating to Assured Destruction remain relevant although traditional thinking based upon the primacy of offense over defence has been subject to challenge.  Developments in defensive technology, notably in the United States have created new debates in which missile defence has become part of the American deterrence posture.

The presentations nonetheless highlighted conceptual continuities with consideration of the British approach to denying Soviet freedom of action through the use of these air and maritime assets.  The credibility of this approach to denial was illustrated through a number of tactical examples in which witnesses had participated showing the complex relationship that can exist between tactical level activity and strategic intent. The evidence presented by all the witnesses gave rise to a view amongst the audience that despite populist commentary that the Cold War was very much sui generis there is still much relevant read-across between this period and the present.  Questions of how to deter potential adversaries and how to measure the effect achieved upon opponents remain critical considerations in the planning and execution of contemporary operations, as does the matter of how to make clear that deterrence as a concept is not exclusively about nuclear weapons.

It is timely perhaps to remember that deterrence even during the Cold War was about the whole range of capabilities, rather than just the ultimate nuclear ‘big stick’.  The dual-hatting of the V force for these operations placed a strain on the routine maintenance of Britain’s nuclear deterrence, illustrating some of the challenges in the balancing of deterrence forces and achieving a satisfactory blend of nuclear and conventional capabilities.

Image: Trafalgar Class Fleet Submarine HMS Turbulent is pictured in front of Type 23 frigate HMS St Albans, during an anti-submarine exercise in the Gulf of Oman. Courtesy of