5th September 2014 – by Erik Claessen * - europeangeostrategy.org
NATO rediscovers the threat of military invasion. During four decades, Europe lived in a situation wherein it could be overrun at all times by successive waves of Soviet armoured divisions. This situation ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The big tank battle in the Fulda Gap was never fought and European countries quickly took their territorial integrity for granted. Now, twenty five years later, heavy armour once more concentrates on the eastern edges of the Central European Plain. The Ukrainian crisis and the Russian annexation of the Crimea rekindle the debate on collective defence. But what does collective defence mean in the 21st century? The answer to that question depends on the nature of the attack the collective defence is supposed to ward off. It is therefore important to understand recent Russian military operations and not mistake them for something they are not.
Opinions on the matter differ widely. On 24th March, General Breedlove – the commander of NATO troops in Europe – warned that ‘Russia had assembled a large force on Ukraine’s eastern border that could be planning to head for Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region, more than 300 miles away.’ In his opinion, there was sufficient force postured for such a sudden, deep armoured attack.
On 21st May, General Dempsey – the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff – presented a completely different reading of the situation. He described Russian operations as ‘proximate coercion and subversion’. In this approach, the Kremlin combines the threat of conventional military force with a subversive campaign by surrogates, proxies and biased media to stir up ethnic Russians who live in a contested area.
The differences between the two readings are important. In the scenario described by General Breedlove, the battlefield consists of the rolling hills of Southern Ukraine. In General Dempsey’s scenario, the battle space is the mind of the civilians who live in that area. The type of collective defence to counter the first scenario is completely opposite to the one to counter the second one. To defeat a sudden, deep armoured offensive, NATO needs capabilities similar to those in the Cold War: technologically advanced fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. Collective defence would look like a back-to-basics kind of AirLand Battle. To defeat proximate coercion and subversion, NATO needs a completely different array of capabilities. Collective defence would take the shape of a comprehensive approach on the ground that includes a military piece, but also requires law enforcement, socio-economic development, and strategic communication.
So which of the two scenarios is correct? Recent military history offers some clues to answer that question.
The end of the Cold War has yielded a couple of important lessons about the use of military force. The first one is that committing armoured forces to battle without securing air superiority first is a recipe for disaster. This reality became obvious to everyone after a 100 hour offensive called Desert Storm routed the Iraqi Armed Forces in 1991.
The second lesson is that an armed force that enjoys the support of the people cannot be dislodged from the area where these people live. Its validity manifested itself most clearly on May 24, 2000. On that day, Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon, thus ending a long campaign that failed to defeat Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Resistance). Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya is the armed wing of Hezbollah, an organization that enjoys overwhelming popular support among the local Shi’a population. Despite vastly superior military forces, Israel repeatedly proved unable to dislodge Hezbollah fighting units from their Shi’a popular support base.
The Russian campaign in Ukraine seems to take both lessons into account. During military operations leading up to the annexation of the Crimea, not a single tank crossed the border. By keeping its tanks on Russian territory, the Kremlin shielded them from aerial attack. But massing them near the Ukrainian border pressured Kiev to disperse its forces in a defensive posture. Meanwhile, Moscow assured itself of local popular support. Pro-Russian propaganda was supplemented with promises of economic development and social benefits. The Kremlin even allowed the people in the Crimea to apply for Russian citizenship. By offering passports to Crimean citizens, the Russian government not only gave them the opportunity to express their support in the clearest of ways, they also created a Russian minority on Ukrainian soil; a minority they claimed to have the responsibility to protect. Finally, an armed force believed, but not proven to be consisting of Russian military units established its presence on the peninsula.The Russian approach can be summarized in three verbs: bait, bark, bite. The approach combines offers of an appealing future within the Russian Federation (bait), a massive conventional threat at the borders (bark) and deniable armed aggression in the contested area (bite).
Russia used similar courses of action in the recent past. From 1989 until the present day, the Kremlin repeatedly facilitated the use of military power with the advantage of local popular support in Russian speaking enclaves. Shortly after the implosion of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation established an armed presence in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South-Ossetia – regions that remain under their control until this present day. Moscow tightened its grip on the two latter regions after a short war against Georgia in 2008. On none of these occasions, Russia ventured further than the edges of its popular support base.
Recent history thus indicates that the scenario described by General Breedlove is highly unlikely. A sudden, deep armoured attack is fraught with risks and uncertainties while the alternative – proximate coercion and subversion – is less risky and combat proven. The good news is, this means that the threat of military invasion NATO faces is geographically confined. Russia can only apply this strategy in regions where the population is susceptible to Russian nationalist or Pan-Slavic rhetoric. The bad news is, the strategy may not activate the cornerstone of collective defence – Article V of the Washington Treaty. The article stipulates that the ‘Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all’ [Italics added]?
However, in the case of proximate coercion and subversion, the armed attack only occurs at the end of a long campaign of subversion during which proxies only revert to the deniable use of armed force. This means that the military assistance provided by Allies risks arriving too late because an armed force that enjoys the support of the people – once established – can no longer be dislodged. There is no defence-in-depth against this type of aggression. In proximate coercion and subversion, the establishment of an armed force in the contested area is not a prerequisite to victory. It is victory all by itself.
Collective defence in the 21st century therefore has to put a premium on prevention. Countering attempts to annex areas inhabited – for example – by large Russian speaking minorities requires measures to persuade these minorities not to support these attempts. These measures have to be integrated in a comprehensive approach executed by boots on the ground and whole-of-government capabilities. Most people associate the comprehensive approach with expeditionary peace support operations. However, the origins of the concept can be traced back to British policies and operations in Northern Ireland, so its relevance is by no means confined to far away places.
A comprehensive approach – that places the police, not the armed forces, in the van of the struggle and that seeks a solution based on minority rights, economic development and the rule of law – is applicable to any type of conflict that takes place in an area where the intervening troops do not enjoy the support of the local population. During the Cold War, it was safe to assume that the citizens of NATO-member states did not want to live under Soviet rule. Therefore, Article V operations did not need to contain a socio-economical and governmental component. That is no longer the case. As events in the Crimea illustrate, many people in a contested area may actually welcome annexation by a neighbouring country. In this situation, collective defence operations should convince the people in the contested area that annexation by the aggressor is not only impossible, but also undesirable.
In the comprehensive approach for collective defence, the military effort – by establishing favorable force ratios – provides the security and freedom of action the civilian effort needs to offer better political and economical prospects to the local population than those promised by the aggressor. This requires sufficient military presence in the area to dissuade, contain and eradicate spikes of violence. In this approach, armed forces protect rather than destroy and economic and governmental actors engage in rather than withdraw from the contested region. To bolster collective defence, NATO should prioritise capability development in these areas.
* Mr. Erik A. Claessen is a Belgian military officer working in the Strategy Department of the Belgian Joint Staff. He writes here in a personal capacity.