February 24, 2022, is likely to engrave itself on the history template of the contemporary world. Russia’s unprovoked, unjustified and barbaric invasion of Ukraine is not only a manifestation of a huge security danger that has shattered peace in Europe.
More structurally, it has broken the entire security architecture built patiently on the continent over many decades, including international commitments agreed in the last 30 years. As the top UK general recently observed, it is dangerous to assume that the war on Ukraine is a limited conflict. This could be “our 1937 moment“, and everything possible must be done in order to stop territorial expansion by force, thereby averting a war similar to the one that ravaged Europe 80 years ago. Mobilising our resources must start today.
The magnitude of damage is immense and still increasing. Ukrainians (military and civilians alike) are being killed simply because they are Ukrainians. Whole cities – like Mariupol – are being razed to the ground. Evident atrocities fitting the criteria of war crimes are being perpetrated and accompanied by genocidal talk on Russian state TV. Hundreds of thousands of people, including children, have been forcefully deported to Russia. Over six million (at the time of writing) have had to flee Ukraine; many more have been internally displaced. Hospitals, infrastructure, cultural treasures, private homes and industrial centres are either destroyed or pillaged, with stolen goods being sent to Russia in an organised manner.
The suffering of Ukraine presents a moral challenge to Europe and the world. Human rights and the UN Charter have been trampled upon and our values mocked. Indifference is simply not an option. As convincingly explained by Nicholas Tenzer: this is a war against the West too.
According to its own terminology, Putin’s regime has chosen confrontation with the “collective West”, irrespective of the costs for Russia itself. All efforts comprising security and confidence-building measures, or institutional arrangements designed to preserve peace, suddenly look very fragile when faced with blunt force. After many months of Moscow engaging in sham dialogue and blatantly lying to other countries and institutions, including NATO and the OSCE, all trust has been eroded. Moreover, by creating economic shocks in the energy markets and weaponising famine as a political instrument, Russia has further globalised the consequences of its war.
Russia has also purposefully raised the level of risk for the possible use of nuclear weapons, the main goal primarily being to discourage Western Allies from offering military support to Ukraine and to instil fear in decision-makers. A long-held taboo that made an actual application of nuclear force unthinkable has been verbally discarded. While many experts calculate that risk to be low – not higher than five percent – Putin and his aides have chosen to abandon the rational caution exercised by the majority of his Soviet predecessors. Compared to Cold War practice, today, Kremlin propagandists and officials engage in highly irresponsible rhetoric advocating for the use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal against Ukraine, and possibly even against NATO states. This is backed by exercises (at least two this year) openly testing the Russian military’s ability to fire nuclear warheads at Western targets and protect Russia from possible counter-strikes. The Russian president has even shown his willingness to bring Belarus into the nuclear equation. Such brinkmanship has contributed to the return of nuclear arms into the power competition on a global stage.
With or without a nuclear threat dimension, Russia’s neighbours already have valid reasons to fear the Russian predator. They feel that, if not stopped in and by Ukraine, Putin may entertain aggression against other territories. The historic decision by both Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership points to the gravity of this threat. Small countries, such as Moldova and Georgia, but also Moscow’s formal allies such as Kazakhstan, may fear becoming Putin’s next target. The Kremlin has not made any attempt to assuage these fears, but has instead amplified them via direct menaces, propaganda and intimidation levers. Latest examples include curtailing gas supplies for political reasons, violating the airspace of a NATO country, threatening Lithuania, and using economic blackmail against Collective Security Treaty Organization member, Kazakhstan.
NATO and the European Union have, to a large extent, responded effectively in the first months of the war. US leadership has once again proven essential in successfully mobilising international efforts, especially in coordinating military support to Ukraine. NATO’s response to the war, balancing increasingly strong support to Ukraine with a justified reluctance to avoid open conflict with Russia, has been more or less vindicated. The majority of European countries turned to the tried and tested protective security umbrella of NATO, backed by American military capabilities. The G7 and EU have proven agile in tightening sanctions.
But, as the aggression continues, with Russia concentrating its efforts on gaining control of eastern and southern Ukraine via a war of attrition, Western unity is being tested. Divergent interpretations over sanctions that affect the transport of prohibited goods to Kaliningrad illustrate this problem.
The United Nations and the OSCE have not been able to offer meaningful responses, mainly due to the paralysing effect of Russia’s veto. Moreover, solidarity with Ukraine is not yet universal among all UN members.
The myth of the invincible Russian military machine has evaporated in the space of a few weeks. The initial goals of the invasion have clearly not been achieved. Russian forces had to withdraw from the vicinity of Kyiv and were beaten off in many other locations. Ukrainian bravery and excellent use of limited resources (reinforced by foreign assistance) have so far proven a strong match against the badly led, poorly motivated and organised opponent, who are also experiencing logistic and technical problems, like faulty equipment. Corruption, a disease at the heart of the Russian state, displayed itself on a grand scale in the conduct of the military operation. Russia’s human losses are enormous and, in spite of censorship, becoming known to the Russian public.
After more than four months of fighting, it is Russia that is experiencing manpower shortages. Fearing protests, the Kremlin is reluctant to call for mobilisation and is forced to take extraordinary steps (e.g. extending the age limit for volunteers ready to join the war), opting for a covert form of recruitment, like through the use of reservists. Numerous cases of conscription offices being set on fire in Russia suggest strongly that many young people are opposed to being sent to the frontlines in Ukraine. Almost four million Russians have travelled away from Russia so far in 2022, many choosing not to return for the time being. It is the largest such exodus since the Bolshevik revolution and could result in an enormous country-wide brain drain; something that is already being experienced in the IT sector.
Furthermore, the war has proven costly. On 27 May, Finance Minister Siluanov admitted that “money, huge resources are needed for the special operation”. He also confirmed that 8 trillion roubles (USD $120b) were required for the stimulus budget. Sanctions are starting to bite and will set the Russian economy – which is not able to produce a huge range of goods without foreign technology or parts – back for decades. Overall, unemployment is set to rise while GDP is unlikely to grow.
Putin has turned Russia into an international pariah and the country will not recover its reputation for a long time. In spite of the totalitarian nature of the Russian political system today, some signs of dissent (even amongst high ranking diplomats) show a growing recognition of these facts. As one astute Russian expert put it, Putin has “amputated Russia’s future”. Russia is bound to be a weaker, less influential actor for the foreseeable future.
But barring Putin’s sudden departure – which would trigger a political transformation in Moscow – Russia will still present a dangerous threat to security in Europe. The regime, led by a delusional and ageing dictator, is prone to irrational decision-making. But the ruthless conduct of the military campaign (e.g. indiscriminate use of blanket shelling) means that even incompetent Russian forces can achieve gains against the Ukrainian military, though it is being modernised at record pace.
Ukraine’s ability to contain Russian aggression will shape the security environment for years to come. At its Summit in Madrid in June 2022, NATO recognised this and offered an upgraded package of support. The volume and speed with which more sophisticated weapons systems (including heavy artillery, missile systems, armoured vehicles, and air defence systems) are supplied to Ukraine in the coming weeks will be decisive in preventing Russia from overrunning Ukraine’s defences. The onus is on individual Allies to ensure such help now.
Special funding assistance will be required for long-term training and the modernisation of Ukrainian forces, de facto bringing them to NATO standards. This is necessary, as Ukrainian weapon stocks composed of Soviet-standards equipment are depleted, and availability of such arms outside Ukraine is limited too. Crowdfunding military equipment for Ukraine – already successful in Lithuania – shows that the general international public is sympathetic and wants to play its part in this process. To help Kyiv to counterbalance Russia’s size advantages and scorched earth tactics, Allies should consider more military exercises to show NATO’s readiness and strength. Creative solutions are also quickly needed to undermine the Russian blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports, facilitating the export of grain.
While the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 – though effectively torn to shreds by Russia – was not formally revoked at the Summit, any self-restrictions which NATO took on as part of the agreement should now be considered null and void. Crucially, Allies have finally attributed responsibility where it lies, calling Russia “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security” in their new Strategic Concept.
Putin’s war has not yet tested the credibility of NATO’s Article 5 collective defence guarantees. Thus far, the very existence of Article 5, coupled with NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (which now includes more than 40 000 forces under direct NATO’s operational command), have offered sufficient deterrence. But Putin’s increasingly irrational behaviour together with Moscow’s readiness to use the most destructive missiles and weapons systems against foreign territory targets (something practiced in Syria) in the immediate vicinity of NATO territory creates a new reality. Moscow has shown its readiness to use indiscriminate force for no justifiable military reasons and to engage in war crimes, all while Putin openly discusses the reclamation of lands held by tsarist Russia. Not surprisingly, NATO Allies bordering Russia are concerned by the potential loss – even temporary – of parts of their territory, and having seen the obliteration of Mariupol and Kharkiv, have become alarmed by direct missile threats to their cities and critical infrastructure.
A more ruthless form of deterrence, by denial rather than punishment, based on a beefed-up forward defence seems the only appropriate response. The new NATO Strategic Concept, which was adopted in Madrid on 29 June, explicitly takes NATO in that direction (para. 21). Substantial and persistent military presence, backed by the prepositioning of equipment and strategic pre-assigning of combat forces is now part of the new NATO Force Model. The goal of massively increasing the availability of troops at high readiness is essential for effective deterrence. But concrete pledges of national contributions, like those announced by US President Biden on 29 June, must follow quickly from all Allies.
The credibility of collective defence will also depend on the quick implementation of already-announced pledges for increased defence spending and the prioritisation of defence planning efforts based on the scenario of large-scale conflict in Europe. In this context, appropriate stockpiles of military equipment are essential. As current levels are eminently insufficient, procurement practices and defence industry production capacity must be adapted, and stocks augmented quickly.
Paragraphs 28 and 29 of the new Strategic Concept leave no ambiguity on the continued role played by nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantee of Allied security. But to disable the corrosive effect of Moscow’s nuclear blackmail against Allies, a more robust declaratory nuclear policy by NATO is in order. Moreover, the use of nuclear weapons against targets in Ukraine – however improbable – cannot be ruled out. Allies should thus consider, as a matter of urgency, persuasive signalling to Russia about possible conventional military responses (e.g. a disabling of Russian military targets in the Black Sea) that would come as a result of such acts. Only the certainty of retaliation can dissuade the Kremlin from seriously contemplating such an option.
Concrete decisions will matter more than any new organisational organigrams, and sophisticated plans or strategies are valuable only as long as they are made real. Russia has started to relish its role as a predator, and it is using brutal force to achieve its imperialist goals. Even weakened, Russia remains capable of inflicting heavy damage upon others. Only strong deterrence and credible force will be able to stop it. Counter-intuitively, preparing for a possible war with Russia is the best approach to prevent it.
The collective West (and specifically NATO) can count on its likely ability to contain an aggressive Russia, at least in the long run. But Ukraine’s defeat of the aggressor is the indispensable goal in this context as it would severely limit Russia’s ability to attack other countries, provide time to augment collective defence and consolidate international unity against aggression. Madrid Summit decisions have supplied key elements of the required strategy. There is no time to lose in implementing them.