Hybrid War: The Perfect Enemy


Why does hybrid war cast such a long shadow over Western conceptions of future threats? The ubiquity of the idea of hybrid war is interesting given the many serious problems with the concept.

Hybrid war has, for example, little intellectual coherence, since different commentators define hybrid war in different ways. For Frank Hoffman, hybridity expresses the difficulty that: ‘Instead of separate challengers with fundamentally different approaches (conventional, irregular, or terrorist) we can expect to face competitors who will employ all forms of war and tactics, perhaps simultaneously.For J. J. McCuen, hybrid wars are ‘full spectrum wars with both physical and conceptual dimensions: the former, a struggle against an armed enemy and the latter, a wider struggle for, control and support of the combat zone’s indigenous population, the support of the home fronts of the intervening nations, and the support of the international community.’ NATO has defined hybrid war as ‘a wide range of overt and covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures […] employed in a highly integrated design.’ Often, then, we are using the same hybrid war label to describe different things.

The above problem exposes another flaw: that we may be guilty of engaging in a process of generalising from the specific. Hoffman generalised about hybrid war from the specifics of the armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006; McCuen generalised from the specific state-building conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan; and more recently, hybrid war has been generalised as a phenomenon from the specifics of Russian activities in Crimea and the Donbas. Hybrid war seems to be redefined in relation to the characteristics of each new conflict that worries the West. To compound this problem, if we try and generalise across the different definitions of hybrid war, we are left with a concept that is so broad as to be almost meaningless. As Damien van Puyvelde notes, ‘In practice, any threat can be hybrid as long as it is not limited to a single form and dimension of warfare. When any threat or use of force is defined as hybrid, the term loses its value and causes confusion instead of clarifying the “reality” of modern warfare.’

We have also been guilty of over-inflating the value of hybrid war as a new concept. We do not need to invent a new classification of warfare to explain hybrid warfare successes. For example, that Hezbollah did better than was expected during in 2006 can easily be attributed to Israeli weaknesses, including poor strategy and a focus on low intensity operations in Gaza. Russian successes in Crimea depended upon such situationally specific factors as the presence of a large Russian population; the presence of Russian military bases; and a primed Russian domestic audience. In assuming that hybrid warfare is a uniquely effective tool we are, first, guilty of what Hew Strachan has termed astrategic thinking – of assuming that tactical and operational techniques can be successful whatever the strategic context. Second, we are guilty of ignoring hybrid warfare’s often ambiguous results. Russian actions in the Donbas, for example, have been much less decisive than those in Crimea and have involved significant costs and an increasing Russian commitment. In many respects hybrid warfare has simply become any non-conventional military strategy that worries us.

Finally, hybrid warfare is a malign reflection of what the strategist Colin Gray has termed ‘presentism:’ the tendency for each generation to see the problems that it faces as unique and to fail to see the powerful historical continuities that often are present. Mark Galeotti and Geraint Hughes have already illustrated the historical precedents for Russia’s current hybrid warfare. Proponents of hybrid wars struggle to provide a meaningful unifying definition of the concept because hybrid war actually does not have a distinct nature and it is not a separate form of war. What we define as hybrid wars are simply expressions of the inherent relational and asymmetric nature of all wars. ‘Hybrid wars’ are examples of belligerents trying to side-step the strengths of their adversaries and to focus the terms of conflict on their weaknesses. But that’s not new. If Lebanon in 2006 and Crimea and Donbas in 2014 are hybrid wars, then so is German submarine warfare in the First and second World wars; British strategic bombing in World War Two; British counter-insurgency in Malaya; or the actions of General Aideed in Somalia. These are all hybrid in the sense that they reflect the use of different tools to get at an opponent’s weaknesses whilst trying to mitigate their strengths.

All of this raises an important question: why, despite its intellectual shortcomings, is hybrid war such a pervasive concept? The answer, I think, is because it is a manifestation of our own insecurities about the world in which we live. These insecurities have two dimensions. The first concerns our own perceptions of the weakness and decline of the West. These perceptions have their roots in such things as the crisis in confidence in the western economic model created by the 2008 crash and continued weakness ever since. It reflects fear over our vulnerability and cohesion – fears over our loss of control over globalisation; fears for what we see as the basic pillars of international order: Western predominance; US-European relations; European cohesion; NATO. It reflects perceptions, as a consequence of such conflicts as Afghanistan and Syria, of our inability to deal effectively with critical security challenges. These fears also stem from perceptions regarding the internal weaknesses of western states: growing fears about the political cohesion of our societies; the rolling back of democracy; political polarisation.

The second strand concerns perceptions of the strength and guile of our adversaries. This crisis in self-confidence has been accompanied by a tendency to downplay the weaknesses of our competitors; to see only strength wielded in the service of superior long-term strategies. These problems aren’t necessarily new. Bettina Renz and Hanna Smith argue that the West’s fear of Russian hybrid war is ‘reminiscent of the West’s enemy image of the Soviet Union, which viewed the Soviet leadership as a chess master that was vastly superior in terms of centralisation, organisation and co-ordination.’

We are afraid; and because of this we have invented for ourselves the perfect enemy. We feel increasingly insecure, increasingly fearful; we have as a consequence created the image of a potent new threat from powerful adversaries who suffer none of our problems and by-pass our strengths. But intellectually, the concept of hybrid war says more about our fears than it does about any genuinely new model of war. This is not to say that that the current security environment isn’t difficult and dangerous. However, if we stopped connecting together all of our difficulties, multiplying them by the assumption of superior adversaries and then labelling them hybrid war, we might find these challenges easier to address.

Image: Russian-Belurssian military exercises in the Baltic, 2009, via

The Harmel Report Anniversary

Dr. Tracey German

2017 marks fifty years since the publication of NATO’s seminal Harmel Report, which reasserted the basic principles of the alliance and introduced the concept of cooperative security based on deterrence and dialogue. The Report committed the alliance to a twin-track policy, advocating the need to seek a relaxation of tensions between East and West, whilst maintaining adequate defence. Fifty years later, these issues are back at the top of the security agenda as relations between Russia and the West reach a new low. The post-Cold War evolution of NATO, which has seen it expand its membership and shift focus away from a purely defensive role towards out-of-area operations, is coming under pressure, as the alliance once again seeks to remain relevant and united. Russia is both a security problem for NATO and part of the solution, demonstrated most recently by the twin challenges of Ukraine and Syria.

Among the key themes of the 1967 report was the USSR’s place in the European security order and NATO’s quest to define a political role for itself, rather than a purely military one focused on collective defence: a state of affairs that resonates today. While there are similarities between the challenges facing the alliance in 1967 and the contemporary strategic environment, not least the disparity between the power of the United States and that of the European pillar, as well as the ongoing debate about Russia’s role in the European security order, the report’s key concern was the perceived continuing expansion of Soviet influence around the world, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. This stands in stark contrast to the situation today. Now it is Russia that has expressed its grave concerns about the perceived continuing expansion of NATO’s influence (and that of the West more generally) around the world, and more particularly within its ‘zone of privileged interest’. In the context of the Soviet challenge, the Harmel Report stated that the security of member states rested upon two pillars: the maintenance of adequate military strength and political solidarity to deter aggression and other forms of pressure and to defend the territory of the NATO countries if aggression should occur, as well as realistic measures to reduce tensions and the risk of conflict. While the tables have been turned in the twenty-first century, Harmel’s twin pillars of deterrence and dialogue remain central to Euro-Atlantic security, particularly for the alliance’s newer members. This was underlined by the focus of the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw on the continuing threat to Euro-Atlantic security from Russia, leading to an emphasis on deterrence and a strengthening of the alliance’s defence posture. However, against a backdrop of continuing tensions between NATO and Russia, and futile attempts at dialogue, the deterrence pillar appears to be by far the more resilient of the two.

The political (dialogue), rather than military (deterrence), aspect of the alliance has always been the more controversial, particularly when connected to the question of enlargement, which has exposed tensions within the alliance with regard to these twin pillars of the Harmel report. The post-Cold War policy of enlargement has brought the alliance into competition, and in some cases direct confrontation, with Moscow, the very opposite effect to that intended: NATO’s own 1995 study on the topic maintained that enlargement was only one ‘element of a broad European security architecture that transcends and renders obsolete the idea of “dividing lines” in Europe’.

Since its establishment in 1949, the alliance has more than doubled its membership from 12 to 28 states, and the majority of the new entrants have joined since the end of the Cold War. The accession of Montenegro, expected to be completed in 2017, will take the total membership to 29. These enlargements have, to some extent, undermined NATO’s stated objectives in incorporating new members, and have exposed tensions within the alliance over deterrence and dialogue, the twin pillars of the 1967 Harmel Report on ‘the future security policy of the alliance’. These outcomes are the direct result of the enlargements of the post-Cold War era being motivated by political, rather than—as the enlargements of 1952 and 1955 had been—military considerations. In a recent article in International Affairs, I argue that in the light of the fundamental tension between its current ‘open door’ policy and Moscow’s desire to preserve its ‘zone of privileged interest’, NATO needs to revisit the purpose of enlargement and the balance between the two core pillars of the Harmel Report. Only then can it address fundamental questions of why (and if) it should continue to enlarge. Enlargement has become a symbolic act rather than one of defensive necessity, as the recent incorporation of members from the Balkans demonstrates. Montenegro’s accession is a vital demonstration of the alliance’s continuing commitment to its promises regarding its ‘open door’ policy, indicating the primacy of the political, rather than military, aspects of enlargement. However, Montenegro is likely to be the last new member state for some time to come, alliance consensus regarding further expansion proving elusive in the face of a combination of ‘enlargement fatigue’ among western allies (many of which are focused on internal challenges), concern about the apparent threat from Moscow and a lack of non-contentious candidate states.

Image: Pierre Harmel. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Russian military’s view on the utility of force: the adoption of a strategy of non-violent asymmetric warfare

By Dr. Rod Thornton

Russian military thinking seems to have reached the point now where the idea of using force intentionally in conflicts with peer-state adversaries has been almost completely ruled out. This seems a radical move. But there has been a clear recognition within this military that better strategic outcomes for Russia will result from the use of non-violent ‘asymmetric warfare’ activities rather than those which will or can involve the use of force – such as conventional war or hybrid warfare.

Asymmetric warfare, of course, and in a nutshell, is a method of warfare employed by the weak against the strong where the former seeks to level the battlefield with the latter. The weaker party, using its own relative advantages, attempts to turn the strengths of its opponent into vulnerabilities, which can then be exploited. The means used are ones which, in essence, cannot be used in return – reciprocated – by the target (‘asymmetrical’ means that which cannot be mirror-imaged). Fundamentally, asymmetric warfare is all about activity that, rather than bludgeoning a target into strategic, operational and tactical defeats, actually manipulates it into them. And it is all done, ideally, with no use of force. As Sun Tzu, the ‘father’ of asymmetric thinking, told us, the acme of skill in the conduct of warfare is to defeat the adversary without the use of any force. See, for instance my book titled Asymmetric Warfare: Threat and Response in the 21st Century.

It was President Vladimir Putin who back in 2008 first pointed his military in the direction of asymmetric warfare. In suggesting ways to counter what was accepted as western military superiority, Putin advised that the armed forces ‘should not chase after quantitative indicators … our responses will have to be based on intellectual superiority. They will be asymmetrical, less costly’. Putin understood that efforts to try and match NATO’s military power, especially in terms of technology, would be unavailing and prove ruinous for the Russian economy. The ‘cost’ also of engaging in open warfare was unsupportable. In essence, the Russian military would have to become more subtle – it would have to employ ‘intellect’ in attempts to create strategic effect and do so, ideally, without the use of force. For what Russia needs to avoid, of course, is the use of any military violence in situations that might cause NATO to invoke Article 5 and thereby set in train the costly conventional war.

Surprisingly, in many ways, the Russian military has readily adopted asymmetric thinking. Russian military journals have come to be suffused over the last few years with articles lauding the qualities of ‘asymmetric warfare’ (asymmetricheskie voina). Among the senior officers pushing for the tenets of asymmetric warfare to be adopted throughout the armed forces is Col.-Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, the current Deputy Chief of the General Staff (and aged only 53). It is significant that such a high-flyer (he previously held the prestigious post of commander of the Western Military District) is among those urging the capture of asymmetric warfare techniques in doctrine and for its methods to be taught in military academies ‘down’, he says, ‘to a very low level’. Such methods, he goes on, will ‘enable the levelling of the technological superiority of the enemy’. In his ‘principles of asymmetric operations’, Kartapolov talks of the ‘concentration of efforts against the enemy’s most vulnerable locations (targets) [and the] search for and exposure of the enemy’s weak points’. The specific emphasis, he points out, will be on ‘non-violent’ (nenasil’stvennoe) methods of asymmetric warfare.

Other articles present similar arguments for the use of asymmetric warfare by the Russian military. The overall message for this military, and as the influential military newspaper Red Star (Krasnaya Zvezda) summed up last year, is that when it comes to the conduct of warfare in the current era, ‘The main emphasis must be placed on asymmetrical means and methods’.

The principal aim of Russian asymmetric warfare is to create degrees of destabilisation (destabilizatsiya) within targeted states and within collectives of targeted states (e.g. NATO, EU). A target that is destabilised (in whatever sense) is one that, in Russian military thinking, is more susceptible to Russian leverage, i.e. it can be manipulated more easily. The range of methods used to engineer such outcomes are mostly based on the use of information (for more on this, see my paper in the RUSI Journal  titled ‘The Changing Nature of Modern Warfare: Responding to Russian Information Warfare’). Information warfare targets the strengths of NATO states – the fact, for instance, that they are democracies and have free media – and turns them into vulnerabilities: elections can be manipulated; opinions can be altered to Moscow’s advantage; agent provocateurs can operate with impunity; journalists and academics can be paid to present a certain line, etc. The West’s use, moreover, of high-tech information systems in all forms of social, financial, economic and industrial life, again, while providing great strengths, will also be presenting vulnerabilities to Russia cyber operations – in both the cyber-psychological (most important in Russian thinking) and the cyber-technical realms. Perhaps, however, the greatest degree of Russian leverage/manipulation will be generated by the targeting of individuals – decision-makers, political and military leaders, etc. These can often be co-opted or blackmailed if the right incrimination information – kompromat – is available.

And all this plays to the Russian military’s own strengths – its ‘own relative advantages’. While it might lack ‘quantitative indicators’ – the tanks, aircraft and ships – it does have a massive capacity to gather information, to disseminate (mis)information and to employ considerable cyber abilities. There is also, and importantly, a history and a culture in both the Russian and Soviet militaries of emphasising and employing to good effect non-violent military means. Perhaps the key term here is maskirovka, one which covers considerably more than just the use of ‘camouflage’.

Conventional military assets are still needed, of course. But these days they may be seen to be acting in a supporting role for the asymmetric warfare campaign against NATO interests. Their outwardly sabre-rattling movements, deployments and activities are seen as means of creating ‘indirect leverage’ that can, in turn, manipulate western actors into making counter moves that actually suit Moscow’s purposes.

The Russian military is now also employing asymmetric warfare methods that these western actors find very difficult to retaliate against on a like-for-like basis – reciprocity is largely denied. Russian democracy has become very much a ‘managed’ one and this closes down many avenues of retaliation. Russia is also not open to cyber attack in the same way that western states are and defences in the country are more pronounced.

The Russian military can and is using non-violent asymmetric means to considerable strategic advantage against NATO. They are, wherever one looks, destabilising and manipulating to good effect. Given this continuing situation and the strategic results that are patently being produced in NATO countries, why would the Russian military need to consider the conventional use of force? What utility does it have?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Trump and the future of NATO

Professor Andrew Dorman

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States has been shrouded in controversy. His apparent close links with Russia and questioning about the ongoing relevance of NATO has caused concern on both sides of the Atlantic. Trump’s questioning of the European dependence on the US for its security and the imbalance in relative spending and military capability between the United States and the European members is not new for an incoming or even serving US President. Nor is a questioning of NATO’s future, John Mearsheimer’s classic ‘Back to the Future’ piece in the journal International Security are evidence of this. What is new is his questioning of Article V of the Washington Treaty which provides the collective security guarantee for all NATO members. Without it the value of NATO membership is unclear.

Adding to the complication of Trump’s challenge is the timing of this. Questioning the relevance and future of NATO at a time where Russia, and in the past its predecessor the Soviet Union, is openly becoming increasingly assertive in what it perceives to be its area of influence. The central question confronting the NATO alliance is whether to acquiesce to Russia’s tacit demands that NATO respects its dominance of the post-Soviet space and let’s Russia illegally annex the Ukraine, attack Georgia and so forth, or alternatively continues to allow democratic states that wish to continue to join the alliance and benefit from the collective security guarantee.

In response to Trump’s latest comments on NATO, German Chancellor Merkel has stated that the Europeans may have to provide for their own security without the United States. Fine words but the reality of this for Europe is at best questionable, especially given the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union and the possibility of the election of Marine Le Pen as French President followed by a French vote to leave the European Union. Countering the increasing threat posed by Russia looks increasingly precarious for those in NATO, for those in the former Soviet space that have not yet managed to join the NATO, the situation is far more disconcerting.

Fifty years on from the adoption of the Harmel report by NATO, which led to a focus on both dialogue in the form of détente and deterrence with Russia, there is increasing unease in the hallways of the NATO governments. Normally one would expect the incoming US president and those around him to emphasise reassurance and continuity to its partners. However, such conventions do not appear to apply to Donald Trump and whilst those he has nominated to key cabinet positions, such as Marine General Mattis as the new Defense Secretary, are emphasising the ongoing importance of NATO for the US, Trump himself continues to send a contradictory message which Russia would no doubt approve. At best the road ahead for NATO will be rocky, at worst we may be seeing the destruction of the most significant military alliance in history.

Image: NATO Headquarters meeting. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Trafalgar Day, History Rhymes, and Russians in the Channel


The Battle of Trafalgar holds a special place in British history. The victory of 21st October 1805 is wound into the fabric of the nation: visitors to central London cannot help but awe at Nelson’s column and the surrounding square built in honour of his greatest achievement.

The importance of the Battle and the manner of the victory also holds a special place in the minds of British naval officers, for whom Trafalgar Day remains a source of pride and a connection with their service’s glorious past. This was true as much a century ago as it is today, particularly for one of the titans of the Edwardian Navy: Admiral Sir John Fisher.

Familiar to history for his ‘ruthless, relentless, remorseless’ reform of the Royal Navy and his championing of new weapons such as the submarine and HMS Dreadnought, Fisher was also acutely aware of the tradition in which he followed. He was fond of reminding friends and colleagues that he had been nominated as a candidate for entry to the Navy by Admiral Sir William Parker – the last officer to have been a captain under Nelson himself. This sense of history led Fisher to ensure that, when he learned that he would assume the office of First Sea Lord in the autumn of 1904, the date of his appointment was made for October 21st. Fisher relished this connection with the past, writing to supporters in anticipation of ‘our opening day on Trafalgar day’.

It is often remarked that Fisher was not a fighting Admiral – he last saw combat in 1882 during the siege of Alexandria and, despite a string of fleet commands, never led a force into battle. Yet his administration of the Admiralty began with an incident that very nearly pitched the Navy and the country into war, and one which will witness an uncomfortable parallel this week.

The year 1904 was one of rapid change in the international scene. After decades of tensions, Britain and France has signed the Entente Cordiale in April, bringing to a close twenty years of animosity and suspicion between the two in the colonial sphere. This rapprochement was threatened from the outset, however, by a war between Britain and France’s respective allies in Asia: Japan and Russia. The two Asian powers had been embroiled in a conflict for regional supremacy since February 1904, during which time London and Paris had worked hard to avoid being drawn in to the fighting in honour of their alliance commitments (to Tokyo and St. Petersburg respectively). This uneasy state of affairs was put to the test the day after Fisher arrived at the Admiralty, when Russian attempts to reinforce their faltering Pacific Fleet precipitated a crisis in the North Sea.

The Russians had faired poorly in the Far East during the course of 1904. The Japanese had caught the Tsar’s Pacific Fleet at anchor at Port Arthur and disabled several capital ships with a surprise torpedo attack in February, whereafter the Russian’s had struggled to regain the initiative against a modern, effective adversary. In an effort to redress the balance, Tsar Nicholas II dispatched his Baltic Fleet on the long journey to reinforce the beleagured Russian squadron in the east. British naval intelligence had long been sceptical as to the Russian Fleet’s efficiency, discipline, and fighting capacity, but the passage of the squadron through British waters remained a source of diplomatic tension. Relations between Britain and Russia had been strained for over a decade as the Tsar’s forces agitated along the North-West Frontier of India and the government was in no mind to aid the Russian passage. The British Fleet was thus on high alert as the Russian’s made their journey south towards the Channel.

The detail of what followed remains unclear, but it appears that the jittery Russian crews mistook a crowd of British fishing vessels off the Dogger Bank for a swarm of hostile torpedo boats and, fearful of the fate which had befallen their comrades in the Pacific, opened fire. The result was chaos. Russian ships fired upon each other, reported phantom torpedo hits, and let loose hundreds of shells at the unsuspecting fishermen. That none of the fishing vessels were sunk bore testament to the accuracy of naval intelligence’s appreciation of the Russian’s fighting capabilities, but at a time of great international uncertainty the affair very nearly escalated into a major crisis. The British Prime Minister, Arthur Baflour, was incandescent and initially inclined to unleash the might of the combined British Fleets upon the unsuspecting Russians. Admiral Fisher reported to his wife that ‘it has very nearly been war again. Very near indeed…’ The Russians obdurately refused to accept responsibility, Balfour’s brother lamenting ‘their inveterate habit of trying to take back in detail what they have conceded in the gross’. This intransigence obliged the British, who were unwilling start a war over the episode, to concede to international arbitration over the issue. In the meantime, the government closed the Suez Canal to the Russian ships, forcing them to take the Cape route to Port Arthur. The delay only postponed their fate: the Russian fleet suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905. The Japanese victory was so complete that the Admiralty larconically described it as ‘equivalent to Trafalgar.’

A little over two centuries since Nelson triumphed over the Franco-Spanish Fleet and some 112 years after Britain and Russia almost went to war over the Dogger Bank incident, Russian warships will again visit British waters this week. The venerable Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and a number of escorts departed from Severomorsk and ports in the Baltic late last week, bound for the eastern Mediterranean. The Royal Navy and its NATO partners are preparing to escort the Russian armada on its highly provocative passage through the English Channel, which may indeed occur on the anniversary of Trafalgar itself.


HMS Dragon with Russian Aircraft Carrier ‘Admiral Kuzetsov’ in 2014 via flickr.

The US are also keeping a close eye on the Russian flagship, not least due to the risk of her long-running history of mechanical problems resulting in her needing assistance during her voyage. Fishermen in the vicinity of the Dogger Bank may also be advised to keep a weather eye on the Russian ships, if history is any guide.

The Kuznetsov will add relatively little to Russian military capability in the eastern Mediterranean. Experts on Russian military affairs highlight the chronic shortage of pilots trained to operate from her and point out that her lack of catapult launchers will preclude planes taking off with a full payload of weapons. A tacit acknowledgement of her ongoing shortcomings is the fact that she will undergo a full refit upon return from the deployment in 2017.

Nevertheless, her deployment reminds us that, as Hew Strachan commented, ‘geography provides strategy with an underlying continuity.’ Britain’s position off the north-west coast of Europe means places her, as it has done for centuries, astride the key lines of maritime communication between Europe and the rest of the world. Just as she acted as a ‘breakwater’ obstructing German ambitions to world power in Admiral Fisher’s era, geography and capability make her the European country best placed to patrol NATO’s maritime flank in the event of Russian hostility. Her will to accept this role is less clear. With the arrival of the new aircraft carriers drawing closer these are exciting times for the Royal Navy, but the government has still yet to answer the vexed question of how many escorts will accompany them. Without the necessary support, the carriers may indeed become ‘exquisite capabilities’ or worse, critical vulnerabilities for an over-stretched Fleet.

The Russian’s will demonstrate the symbolic value of a carrier when they pass through the Straits of Dover this week. Nelson, Fisher, and today’s Royal Navy will be hoping that the Queen Elizabeths will afford Britain both prestige and military power.

Image: Lord Nelson atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square via wikimedia commons.


Is Russia turning Ukraine into a Fragile State?


Following the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing hostilities in eastern Ukraine, the Poroshenko government has struggled to revive the country’s economy. In 2015, the country’s economy was reduced by 12 percent and inflation reached 48.7 percent. IMF loans and EU financial packages have saved Ukraine from financial collapse. More importantly, Ukraine has faced a humanitarian crisis that has attracted little attention in the West. Almost 10,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled to avoid the fighting.

According to the Fragile States Index, published annually by Foreign Policy, the country fulfils most of the criteria of a fragile state: refugees and internally displaced persons, ethnic unrest, poverty and economic decline, lack of state legitimacy, massive human rights violations, warlordism, fragmentation of ruling elites, and external intervention from Russia. Although post-Soviet Ukraine has suffered from many structural problems (e.g. corruption, high unemployment), the Russian intervention has significantly undermined Ukrainian sovereignty and has turned the country into a fragile state.

In fact, the Russian leadership has followed a ‘policy of fragilization’ vis-à-vis Ukraine by using the large Russian minority in the eastern provinces. The Kremlin has mobilised ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in order to delegitimize the Ukrainian state in the short run and possibly divide it in the long run. Putin and his local allies have capitalized on eastern Ukraine’s grievances relating to the highly centralized nature of the state, chronic corruption, and hostile attitudes toward the Russian language. Therefore, Moscow has called for the federalization of Ukraine as a means to control the country’s foreign policy orientation. More specifically, the Kremlin has supported a federal system where each region would elect its own leaders and enjoy widespread economic and cultural autonomy, including the right to develop relations with Russia.

The Russian strategy has been well-calculated because ethnic mobilization almost inevitably leads to confrontation with state authorities. If there is a military response to the rise of a secessionist movement, a cycle of violence is unleashed that can be described as follows:

Ethnic mobilization >> state military response >>  violence against civilians >> glorification of victims and demonization of perpetrators >> more violence

Such cycles of ethnic violence have provided the pretext for Russian interventions in other former Soviet republics (e.g. Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia). Eastern Ukraine clearly fits this model: it is an ethnically diverse region with a large Russian community that has been mobilized against state authorities; the Ukrainian government has escalated the crisis by targeting civilians; locals have rallied around the separatist leadership which has blamed Kiev for the violence; finally, ethnic Russians have taken arms to defend themselves. Therefore, Russia has a “moral obligation” to help them and enforce peace.

The use of citizen militias, volunteers from abroad, criminal gangs and possibly Russian special forces has allowed Moscow to deny any direct involvement in the conflict. Thus, the Russian leadership could still hope to play the role of the mediator between belligerents and avoid the alienation of international allies like China. In any case, the privatization of war is a new element in the Russian military thinking. The Kremlin has traditionally maintained tight control over its military; the use of proxies goes against the Russian military culture but it allows Moscow to achieve plausible deniability.

The Russian intervention has provoked a nationalist backlash contributing to the rise of the Ukrainian far right. It is only after the Russian annexation of Crimea that far right parties, like Svoboda and Right Sector, gained enough support to form their own militias. The Ukrainian authorities have attempted, rather successfully, to control militias and integrate them into the national army. Despite its limited electoral appeal, the far right has become a de facto ally of the Kremlin since both have targeted the Poroshenko government. Consequently, the Ukrainian government was forced to reintroduce mandatory conscription which is highly unpopular among the general public.

The current hostilities in the eastern provinces have only deepened ethnic Russians’ enmity toward Kiev, making it all but inconceivable that the region will ever become a normal subject of the Ukrainian state. Furthermore, the fragilisation of Ukraine could encourage the Kremlin to follow a similar strategy in the Baltic States. The time has come for a new policy of containment toward Russia.

Image: Map of the ‘2014 Russo-Ukrainian War’, ‘2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine’ or ‘2014 Russian military intervention in Ukraine’. (Includes ‘2014 Crimean Crisis’ and ‘War in Donbass’). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Russia and the use of force


The first anniversary of Russia’s intervention in Syria has been marked by the collapse of talks between Russia and the US on a ceasefire agreement, and a fierce assault on Aleppo by the Russian-led coalition. In the year since Moscow first intervened in Syria, initiating airstrikes against Islamist targets, the conflict has broadened further, triggering a war of words between Russia and Turkey, and now between Russia and the US. The Russian military intervention in September 2015 took the West by surprise and bolstered Russian claims that it is a major power with a key role to play within the international system. It also drew attention to the apparent ineffectiveness of Western efforts to date, allowing the Russian leadership to launch implicit criticism of the West’s inaction. During a meeting with President Vladimir Putin earlier this year to discuss the Syrian operation, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted that Russia has ‘consistently advocated establishing an intra-Syrian dialogue’ but had been disappointed by the lack of will of its ‘partners’, a situation that he believed had begun to change since the start of operations by the Russian Air Force. Thus, it would appear that a key lesson that Moscow has drawn from its involvement in Syria is that the use of force is an effective tool to utilise in pursuit of its strategic objectives.

Since Putin came to power in 2000, the Kremlin has demonstrated an increased willingness, and ability, to use the military lever to achieve broader strategic and foreign policy goals. Despite this, many in the West continue to be surprised by the primacy of hard power in Russian policy-making, particularly the use of force. The 1990s were a period of turmoil and change for Russia. Putin took power when the country was perceived to be at its weakest, both domestically and internationally, encapsulated by the disastrous first attempt to quell separatism in Chechnya in 1994. Russia was initially unable to convert its extensive (numerically at least) military capabilities into military and strategic success, and thousands of Russian troops proved unable to secure the tiny republic. One of Putin’s first priorities on taking power in 2000 was to halt the perceived decline of the Russian armed forces, which have undergone a comprehensive programme of reform and modernisation. The 2008 conflict with Georgia, the first Russian offensive operation against a foreign state since the end of the Cold War, demonstrated the renewed ability of the Russian armed forces to fight conventional wars, following years of conflict in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. The military action, an extension of policies that served to reinforce Russia’s coercive efforts in other post-Soviet states, also acted as a warning that Russia will not stand by and let countries in what it considers to be its ‘zone of privileged interest’ integrate more closely with Western organisations. Medvedev himself stated his belief that the events of 2008 were vital for Russia ‘for it to feel strong and not disintegrate—irrespective of how those events may be interpreted in other countries. This was important, first and foremost, for ourselves’. This reflects a determination to re-establish Russia’s authority as a strong state that is capable of influencing events within the global arena and pursuing an independent stance on international issues. The 2014 annexation of Crimea and increasing support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine were indicative of a far more confident Russia, one that is determined to counter the perceived expansion of Western involvement within its ‘sphere of influence’ to ensure that it remains the predominant power in the post-Soviet area, using force if necessary.

Moscow’s intervention in Syria, which began in September 2015, initially appeared to have been a significant foreign policy coup, ending Russia’s isolation from the West less than two years after its annexation of Crimea. Casting its mission as part of an international coalition against IS, Russia again took the West by surprise in March 2016, when Putin ordered the withdrawal of the bulk of Russian forces from Syria, announcing that they had achieved their objectives. The West seems powerless (or perhaps unwilling) to halt the bombardment of Aleppo, despite the large number of civilian casualties. This is perhaps partly because there is very little understanding of what Russia is seeking to achieve through its use of military force in Syria. Certainly, the 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS) made it clear that the Kremlin considers Russia to be a major power within the global system, one that has a key role to play ‘in tackling major international problems, the resolution of military conflicts, the maintenance of strategic stability and of leadership in international law and inter-state relations. Russia’s proactive and often ambiguous use of force (across the post-Soviet space and now the Middle East), has been related to a variety of issues, not least an attempt to counter the attraction of the EU, NATO and the West, with hard power tools of coercion and threats. Russian involvement in Syria has undoubtedly demonstrated that it is now able to project power beyond its own strategic ‘backyard’ and that it is determined to play a global role. Encouraged by its use of the military lever in Syria, Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming year and will seek to boost its international influence by both hard and soft means.

Image: Unloading of anti-aircraft missile systems S-400 via wikimedia commons

General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: Or, How to Think about a Future War with Russia Today


In the vast majority of cases, scenarios of future war have rarely come to pass as originally envisioned. At least two inter-related reasons can account for this. First, due to the incredibly large number of variables to consider – geopolitical, technical, human, etc. – it is simply impossible to calculate how they will interact with each other, especially if projecting forward by months, years or decades. The second reason has to do with distinguishing between ‘future war’ and the ‘future battlefield’. Regrettably, far too many scenarios and models, whether developed by military organizations, political scientists, or fiction writers, tend to focus their attention on the battlefield and the clash of armies, navies, air forces, and especially their weapons systems.  By contrast, the broader context of the war – the reasons why hostilities erupted, the political and military objectives, the limits placed on military action, and so on – are given much less serious attention, often because they are viewed by the script-writers as a distraction from the main activity that occurs on the battlefield.

During the Cold War, thinking about a NATO-Warsaw Pact conventional clash in Europe required more attention to be placed on the political context because of the risks of nuclear escalation. More recently, scenarios of a possible NATO (or to be more precise – ‘coalition of willing NATO members’) clash with Russia over the Baltic States have similarly been required to account for the nuclear issue. Regrettably, a number of key weaknesses are observable in many of the assumptions underpinning such scenarios.  This blog post will examine a selection of these weaknesses, focusing on General Sir John Hackett’s 1978 book The Third World War, comparing it with several other texts from the Cold War, and then bringing the problem up-to-date with a discussion of some recent scenarios dealing with the Baltic States.

Hackett’s work has been selected because it is often considered the benchmark text by which other fictional accounts of a future war are assessed in relation to, such as Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and General Sir Richard Shirreff’s 2017: War with Russia. The book was an unexpected publishing triumph, with some 3 million copies sold and translated into 10 languages.  Prime Minister James Callaghan presented President Jimmy Carter with a copy in 1979, and President Ronald Reagan named it as one of his top three books in 1983. Fortunately, the early manuscripts and correspondence related to The Third World War are available at King’s College London’s Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, and can be examined to identify how and why the scenario evolved during the more than year-long drafting process, which it did in significant ways.

Although the book is often referred to as being authored by Hackett, in actual fact, he only wrote a small portion.  Instead, his main role was providing the general concept for the scenario, as well as organizing and editing the more detailed chapters that were written by a group of former British senior officers from each of the services, a deputy editor of the Economist, a former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, as well as the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare Directing Staff (DS) at the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham.

The published version describes a war lasting from 4-22 August 1985 that begins with a Warsaw Pact attack on NATO utilizing conventional and chemical weapons, evolves into a barely successful defence and counterattack by NATO, is then followed by a limited nuclear exchange that wipes out Birmingham and Minsk, and concludes with the dissolution of the Soviet ‘empire’. It is important to note that the scenario is a global one – across the continents, on the ground, in the sea, in the air, and in space – although the main action takes place in Europe. Hackett deliberately chose this version of the scenario to demonstrate that a successful defence against the Warsaw Pact could be mounted by NATO – provided of course the Alliance invested heavily in new military equipment and increased its frontline manpower.

However, Hackett’s earlier attempt at writing a scenario had the Warsaw Pact advancing to the French border in as little as 4 days leading to the occupation of West Germany, a D-day style NATO counterattack two years later, followed by a Soviet collapse. After distributing drafts of this early version, he was told by several retired US and West German generals that if it was published it would undermine public confidence in NATO. A year earlier, in 1976, Belgian Brigadier General Robert Close published a controversial book, Europe Without Defense? 48 hours That Could Change the Face of the World, involving a scenario in which the Warsaw Pact launches a surprise attack and advances to the Rhine in two days. Fearing the prospect of undermining NATO, Hackett developed more optimistic scenarios, including the one that was eventually published.  Interestingly, the end state of a Soviet collapse remained consistent throughout all of the versions, even ones in which no nuclear weapons were used.

In terms of the realism of Hackett’s scenario, as well as several similar works, at least six key aspects should be critically examined:

The Decision for War Initiation. In most of these scenarios, this aspect of the conflict is treated in a superficial way, with very little discussion about the rationality and cost-benefit calculus of the Soviet/Russian leadership, and what they would hope to gain, especially given the costs of war and risks of nuclear escalation. In Hackett’s scenario the decision to attack NATO is not one based on a Soviet desire for world conquest, but rather it is motivated by fears of the elite that the future ‘correlation of forces’ does not favour the Kremlin and that projected internal weakness will eventually lead to a state collapse. Therefore, war against NATO is ultimately seen as a way of re-establishing order internally. This motivation is also apparent in Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and Shirreff’s account of Putin’s decision to attack the Baltic States.

The Timing of War Initiation. Unlike Close’s surprise attack from a standing-start, Hackett chose to begin his war on 4 August because, as in 1914, he viewed a period of mobilization as almost certain to precede the start of hostilities.  Indeed, the Warsaw Pact attack is preceded by a combination of diplomacy, propaganda, subversion and sabotage – ‘hybrid war’ in today’s parlance. In Hackett’s scenario, NATO forces have sufficient lead time to alert the covering forces along the inner German border, disperse aircraft, and mobilize their reserves to be able to mount an adequate defence. Many of the NATO scenarios from the period assumed 48 hours of early warning – the minimum period which was deemed necessary for NATO forces to begin mobilization and deploy to the forward defensive positions. On the other hand, there was some debate whether a longer lead time prior to war worked for or against NATO given that the Soviet Union could probably more quickly mobilize and deploy more divisions from inside the USSR. Curiously, in the 2014-2015 US Army-sponsored RAND wargames of a Russian attack on Estonia and Latvia, there is an early warning period of one week – by happy coincidence, roughly the amount of time needed by the US Army to deploy its troops to the region. In reality, one wonders if NATO would have one day of warning, much less one week.

Geographic Objectives and Limitations. The stop-line for a Warsaw Pact attack was also a hotly contested issue. Hackett insisted that the idea of a Soviet invasion that would only stop at the Channel ports, probably died with Stalin. Instead, the Warsaw Pact attack through West Germany was supposed to stop at the French border to avoid French intervention. Close’s scenario also limits the Warsaw Pact advance to the Rhine.  Nevertheless, whereas Close limits his scenario to West Germany-only, Hackett’s scenario encompasses attacks not only in West Germany and the Low Countries, but also on NATO’s northern and southern flanks, as well air attacks on Britain. Oddly, though Hackett has the Soviets invade neutral Austria on their way to Italy (in most scenarios the Soviets violate Austrian neutrality to attack NATO forces in southern Germany), they choose to avoid attacking Switzerland, no doubt wisely. More recent scenarios have Russia attacking one, two, or all three of the Baltic States, but none have them invading Poland. Not only is the stop-line of the invading forces a crucial consideration, but so too is the stop-line for the counter-attacking NATO forces. In Hackett’s scenario, NATO chooses not to cross into Warsaw Pact territory to reunite Germany and liberate Eastern Europe. Similarly, whether NATO would choose to attack Kaliningrad is a contested subject in the more recent scenarios, and there seems little inclination to expand attacks elsewhere inside Russia.

Deciding to Cross the Nuclear Threshold. In The Third World War there are several points when decisions must be made about using nuclear weapons. On the NATO side, SACEUR and SACLANT are pressed by subordinate commanders to authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Soviet ground and naval forces. This they refuse to do fearing Soviet escalation. On the Soviet side, the decision to drop a one-megaton nuclear warhead on Birmingham is taken only after Soviet forces begin to lose the conventional battle. In response, the US and UK decide on an instant ‘limited’ nuclear attack on Minsk (in earlier drafts Ukraine and the city of Tomsk). Just as the Soviet leadership are considering further escalation, a coup occurs in Moscow and the war ends. In the BBC’s February 2016 programme ‘Inside the War Room’, a limited nuclear attack by Russian forces (albeit Russian officials deny they authorized it) on British and American ships in the Baltic leads to a ‘like-for-like’ US-only retaliation. The programme ends with British decision-makers contemplating whether to authorize a full-scale nuclear retaliation should Britain be attacked. By a slim majority, they decide against this.

Nuclear Targeting. Assuming nuclear weapons are used in these scenarios, what sort of weapons are used and against what targets? Hackett’s original conception of possible nuclear use was to be limited to naval targets or for use in space. For reasons that remain unclear, more than half-way through the book’s drafting Hackett chose to include a nuclear aspect to the scenario in which a one-megaton warhead was to be used against Birmingham (most likely the idea and details for this section of the book derived from the then still-classified 1961 study prepared for the MoD’s Chief Scientific Adviser Solly Zuckerman about the effects of a one-megaton nuclear attack on Birmingham). At the time of The Third World War’s publication, many critics argued that the single Soviet attack was unrealistic. In Hackett’s description of Soviet decision-making, there is no serious consideration given to Soviet use against NATO battlefield targets, and the Soviets quite deliberately choose not to attack London, much less any US targets, fearing much greater retaliation.

War Termination. Writing an ending to a third world war is almost as difficult, if not more so, than writing the beginning.  In the scenarios discussed here, unlike in much of the nuclear fiction genre, the war does not end in global Armageddon. In both Hackett’s and Clancy’s scenarios, the war ends with a coup in the Kremlin. For Hackett, this occurs after nuclear use but before further escalation. For Clancy, the coup occurs to prevent nuclear use in the first place. In Close’s 48-hour scenario, NATO is defeated before it can even come to a decision about nuclear escalation. In some scenarios, the war ends in days or weeks. In others, initial defeat does not lead to surrender or acceptance of the status quo, but rather hostilities continue until such time as the initial lost territory is recovered. One feature that is pretty much a constant in all of these scenarios is that as the war is taking place, so too are diplomatic negotiations. Unlike in the conventional-only World War II, ‘unconditional surrender’ is not an option to end the potentially nuclear World War III.

Hackett’s The Third World War, like many of the fictional scenarios dealing with future wars, can be quite useful as a tool to help think through the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own defence posture, as well as those of allies and adversaries, and how these might interact in the event of an international crisis or war. Ideally they provide the reader with a genuinely futuristic perspective that is not simply the last war projected into the future, though ultimately any scenario cannot entirely escape the past and present. That being said, scenarios are rarely neutral. It is essential to be aware of the conscious agendas and the unconscious assumptions underpinning them. For instance, all too often, scenarios are written around a predetermined end state.  Therefore, the starting point for any critique should begin with a study of the author before it proceeds to the content. As for the content, to assess the realism of any future war scenario, one must make the conceptual distinction between ‘wars’ and ‘battlefields’, not treating the latter in isolation of the former. It is quite easy to project how one weapon system might fare against another, but taken out of a broader strategic context, such a projection is practically meaningless (apart from its marketing value), or worse, misleading.  In this sense, even if less entertaining or exciting, the degree of realism of the political aspects of the scenario, particularly policymakers’ rationality and cost-benefit calculus, and the key decisions that are taken about going to war, the objectives being sought, the limits placed on military action, and the willingness to incur the risks of escalation, should receive more critical attention than the purely battlefield dimensions of the future conflict.

Image: M-60A3 near Giessen in West Germany, 1985: the year of Hackett’s scenario from The Third World War, via wikimedia commons

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.