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NATO needs to address its vulnerabilities

Interview with Seth G. Jones, director of the International Center for Security and Defense Policy at RAND. Interviewer: Michael Lambert

July 3, 2016 - Seth Jones - Interviews

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MICHAEL LAMBERT: Regarding the upcoming NATO Summit, which will take place in Warsaw on July 8-9th, from your perspective what can we expect?

SETH JONES: One of the biggest challenges that NATO faces in Europe today is that there is a vulnerability that has been recognised by most NATO countries; and that is that NATO cannot respond adequately to a possible Russian incursion into the Baltics, or potentially into Poland. In a series of wargames conducted between the summer of 2014 and the spring of 2015, RAND examined the shape and probable outcome of a near-term Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The games’ findings are unambiguous. As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members. The longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, is 60 hours. This means that NATO would face a fait accompli and would have to resort to conventional and unconventional operations to try to free the Baltic capitals and Poland, if any territory was taken.

While the probability of such a development is not high, the fact that there is a vulnerability means that this threat is important to address. Hence, the discussion in Warsaw should be about how to deal with this potential threat. One issue will be about deploying military forces in Poland and the Baltic states and how it should be done. A second issue is the message that these forces sends to Moscow. It needs to be clear that these are defensive measures, not offensive. There is an important interaction with Moscow at this point and it is about what message is sent and how Moscow feels about these developments. Therefore, the message that is conveyed to Moscow will be as important as decisions being made about the permanent forces.

It seems that the Baltic states are a key focus of concern for the European Union and NATO. Why are the Baltics such a strategic interest for Moscow as compared to, for example, the Black Sea with Romania which is also a NATO member?

The Baltic states were once a part of the Soviet Union, so they were Soviet territory. They are exposed, probably more so than many other European states, in the sense that an invasion could cut the Baltic states off from the rest of Europe. A quick blitzkrieg ground attack, with air and maritime support, could take the Baltics a lot easier than it could take somewhere such as Romania, Poland or other Eastern EU states that are less geographically exposed and better integrated into Europe. The Baltics are generally isolated territories. Plus there are obviously small Russian speaking populations. As we saw with Crimea, there is recognition in Moscow that these states were a part of the Soviet Union and still have former Soviet citizens living there; unlike Romania and Poland who were a part of the Warsaw Pact but not of the Soviet Union.

The topic of a potential invasion in the Baltics is not a new one. Yet it seems that the United States has only recently decided to send military equipment to this region. How do you think the Russians interpret this behaviour and, at the same time, why are the Americans focusing on this now and not earlier, for example, two years ago during the height of the Ukrainian crisis?

There is always some lag time in how states react to a deteriorating situation and it took a combination of Russian activity such as the Crimea annexation, the war in Eastern Ukraine, the Russian involvement in Syria in support of the Assad regime as well as actions in cyberspace to reach this situation. The perception of the threat from the East has developed over time not only in the U.S., but in NATO more broadly. There was a period of time when there was hope in Washington, Warsaw, London, Paris and other NATO capitals that Russia would be a close partner. However, these recent developments have made this outcome much more difficult.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted an element of war that was less talked about before and that is the process of hybrid warfare. How do you interpret this concept? What can NATO do in the case of hybrid techniques being used in a country like Estonia?

Hybrid warfare is a form of warfare that has been used for a very long time. However, what we see now is a new combination of irregular forces and non-state forces using cyber and information campaigns with social media. Such technology was not available during the Cold War era. This technological element is certainly new. A conventional war in Ukraine would have been too costly for the Russians. It would have provoked a very strong backlash across NATO and EU countries. So, the hybrid techniques became a way to send a signal and to bloody Ukraine in ways that were not as costly as a conventional campaign could have been.

We are now seeing elements of hybrid warfare in the Baltics, including a combination of working with ethnic populations and implementing a strong information campaign. I think the response to this is several-fold. First, is to ensure that the Baltic states can defend themselves in response to an invasion. Second, it is important to develop strong information capabilities and to push back against the information efforts. Third, there is an important intelligence component in understanding the role of Russian spetsnaz or intelligence operations. Lastly, and most importantly, the Baltic states want to stay a part of the West. They value freedom, they value democracy and I think that expanding and continuing to develop civic action programmes that promote democratic freedoms are probably the best bulwark against anything that smacks of authoritarianism in the long run.

In other words a more soft power strategy…

Certainly one has to prepare a hard power response just in case, but I would say ultimately that soft power is essential.

Speaking of conflicts and hybrid warfare, we have the issue of the de facto states like Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh. What kind of support can NATO provide to Georgia, for example, who would like officially to be a member, yet cannot with the Abkhazia and South Ossetia situation unfolding in its territory. Is there any NATO solution to this?

NATO needs to be careful with these conflicts. First and foremost NATO needs to be able to defend the countries which are currently in NATO. That is what makes the Baltic issue so important. When it comes to countries which are aspiring members of NATO, such as Georgia or even Ukraine, there is a debate about providing military assistance to these countries. That was certainly true during the Russo-Georgian War. But what these countries mostly need is soft power assistance, to create more developed societies with civic organisations. Obviously these disputes must be resolved and NATO can play a role. So it is important to understand that helping resolve the disputes will put these countries on a path towards economic and political viability.

Looking at the current state of the relations inside NATO, we see that around 70 per cent of the NATO budget comes from the United States. At the same time, many EU countries, such as Germany or France, are decreasing their military budgets. What can the US do to promote or stimulate European investment into the Alliance?

There was a time after the end of the Cold War where the threats to Europe were minimal, with the exception of the Balkans conflict. So there was no grave threat. We have seen two developments in the past several years. One is the rise in extremism that has led to attacks in Paris and Brussels and terrorist threats across Europe. The second is the growing tension between the East and the West; particularly NATO/EU and Russia. What this means is that the security environment is moving in a direction where a number of European countries have to start rethinking how much money they are willing to spend on defence.

There are some countries like the United Kingdom and France which have developed strong expeditionary capabilities and can deploy forces using a combination of ground, air, maritime and even cyber in multiple regions. But the rest of Europe needs to find their own niche capabilities, whether it is unmanned aerial vehicles, training foreign forces, airpower for air strikes, special operations or intelligence capabilities.

As you stated, the two biggest threats to NATO appear to be the Russian threat in the East and the ISIS threat from the South. There have been some commentaries that attempt to combine these threats, suggesting that Russia is trying to “weaponise” the refugee crisis against Europe. This would mean that the Russian intervention is a means to exacerbate the crisis in Europe and put pressure on Turkey and European states. Is there any ground for this theory?

I have not seen much evidence that this is true. When it comes to Syria, the Russians have been pretty straightforward about their intentions. They perceive a threat from ISIS and other extremists groups, including in the Caucasus. So they have a motivation to defeat groups like ISIS. At the same time, the Assad regime has been an ally to Russia, as well as Iran, so in the face of losing most of Ukraine to the West, losing Assad to a “perceived” American-European-Gulf alliance would be a step too far. There are plenty of reasons to explain why the Russians are worried about the direction in Syria.

Overall, I believe the Kremlin’s decision in 2015 to become more directly involved in Syria was an effort to prevent Assad from being overthrown. At some point the Russians may consider Assad expendable, but only when they feel the state is strong enough to deal with a settlement and a new leader. 

Lastly, as we approach the campaign season in the United States for the presidential election, how do you perceive Donald Trump’s attitude towards NATO? It seems he has outlined some specific considerations about the Alliance and a will to be much less involved in NATO affairs.

This is a very difficult question to answer, since none of the U.S. presidential campaigns have been very specific about foreign policy issues — including NATO. Several Republicans, including Donald Trump, have noted that a number of NATO countries should increase their defence expenditures.

In terms of disengagement from NATO, I would say that the vast majority of the US foreign policy bureaucracy would push back hard against any policy attempt to undermine the NATO Alliance. I do not think any individual, including a president, is capable of undermining America’s interest and involvement in NATO, which is the US’s strongest alliance. Regardless of who comes into power in the US, I do not see a severe threat to their involvement in NATO – it is just too important.

Seth G. Jones is the Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corporation.

Michael Lambert is a Research fellow at IRSEM – Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l’Ecole Militaire. He is an alumnus of the Solidarity Academy co-organised by New Eastern Europe and the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk.

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