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Russia’s war has changed NATO’s learning curve

In light of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, NATO has come to a realisation that irrespective of circumstances, the present leadership of Russia will persist in its revisionist approach and become increasingly agitated in the event of a potential loss in the conflict. Consequently, NATO must proactively ready itself for an extended deterrence strategy vis-à-vis Russia, and be prepared to implement a defence strategy if the need arises. These are the key lessons already learnt over the last 15 months.

July 4, 2023 - Dominik P. Jankowski - Hot TopicsIssue 3-4 2023Magazine

Illustration by Andrzej Zaręba

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was a wakeup call for NATO, forcing the Allies to rethink their strategy and be prepared to respond to a direct threat to its members. The Alliance has already drawn several lessons from Russia’s war, many of which are already being implemented. Certainly, it will take great political will and resources to strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence capabilities, however, no time is being wasted. Likewise, Ukraine’s experiences in defending against a more powerful aggressor shed new light on how to adapt 21st century technology to 20th century warfare. The upcoming Vilnius summit will be a chance for NATO to showcase what it has learnt, reassure its own societies that it is prepared to defend all of NATO, and finally address what needs to be done to support Ukraine, especially after Russia’s loses its war.

A bigger boat

One of the best quotes that depicts what NATO countries have learnt from Russia’s invasion comes from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. In particular, it is the scene when Chief Brody sees the shark for the first time. He basically says, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” Well, we have discovered that we are going to need a bigger boat! Of course, the boat in this metaphor relates to our thinking on security and defence.

In January 2022 when we were sitting in the last NATO-Russia Council, talking to the Russians and trying to give a last chance to diplomacy and convince them not to invade; I think nobody really believed it was going to happen. This is both worrisome and reassuring. On the positive side, we really believed that we could deter the aggression. The scope, scale and intensity of this aggression and the level of barbarism and war crimes being committed in Ukraine were unthinkable before the invasion. The negative side of course is that we were unable to stop it.

Hence, the bigger boat in this metaphor means a different approach to security, to defence and our relationships with Ukraine and Russia. This is of course not going to happen simultaneously or overnight, but the critical element is that more countries in NATO and beyond now understand that there is a need to shift our strategic thinking. Right now, for the first time, we are seeing that there will never again be “business as usual” with Russia.

What has NATO learnt since February 2022? Certainly the fact that Russia is a threat. This is clearer now than ever before. Prior to the invasion, many Allies, especially those on the Eastern Flank such as the Baltic states, Poland and Romania, were sounding the alarm as to Russia’s aggressive potential. The invasion proved that those countries were not alarmist or “Russophobic”. However, at this point, it is not enough to say, “yes, you were right.” NATO now needs to make sure that this does not happen again. The first lesson identified by NATO is that we need more forces on the Eastern Flank. We need to boost our deterrence and defence by deploying forces closer to the actual threat.

When you look at the key guiding document which was adopted last year, the NATO Strategic Concept, there are two new approaches that NATO has re-introduced. First is “deterrence by denial”, and second is “forward defence”. Deterrence by denial refers to a strategy in which there is no possibility for an enemy to occupy NATO territory. NATO now understands that whatever the outcome of the war will be, Russia is going to stay aggressive. Under the current leadership, Russia is going to stay revisionist and Russia is in fact going to be more frustrated if it is going to lose the war. Thus, we need to prepare for a long deterrence strategy against Russia, and if necessary a defence strategy. Before 2022 many in the Alliance were of the mindset that there is no need to ever consider the defence of NATO territory. After all, Russia might have been a problem but it still operated in line with established rules. Last year proved otherwise. It is now clear that Russia disregards rules and that the Kremlin has a completely different vision of the world than NATO.

Holistic thinking

Certainly, the war has militarised our thinking and changed our perspective. We now understand that without sufficient military forces it will be difficult for us to have a proper deterrence and defence strategy. One more concerning element of this equation is that there is a nuclear component as well. Unfortunately, we have found ourselves now in a situation where we need to have a discussion about potential scenarios in which NATO has to respond to escalation coming from Russia’s side concerning the use of nuclear weapons. Of course, this is a delicate issue.

Yet, there is also a non-military part in this equation of deterrence. This includes sanctions and economic leverage, which can also play a role in the conflict. Yet, in reality, sanctions are not meant to stop the invasion, it is not a silver bullet. Sanctions can hurt or slow the Russian economy but they will not win the war. Instead, sanctions are a response to concrete action. We cannot base our deterrence strategy only on sanctions but we can impose costs, which should be the goal. Will they lead to a Russian collapse? The answer is most likely no. They will also not stop Russia from continuing its war against Ukraine. Certainly, there is hope that they can isolate the Russian economy and hurt Russia’s ability to quickly rearm. However, we need to understand that from a deterrence perspective, sanctions are not enough. This means that we need to be careful as to how we design the non-military component, so that it also includes societal resilience.

Some Allies are more advanced on thinking about societal resilience. These include Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They are smaller, which makes it easier. But it is our collective responsibility to make sure that all our societies have this discussion on resilience. At the same time, it is not NATO that is the first responder when it comes to the societal level of resilience, as the responsibility lies with national governments.

Nevertheless, the example of Ukraine demonstrates the importance of resilience. If you have a resilient society that is not afraid, no one can pose a threat to you. Back in February 2022, many in the West did not believe Ukraine would resist for more than a few days. The bravery of Ukrainian soldiers, the resilience of Ukrainian society, and the ability to adapt and use new technologies show us that it is possible to successfully defend against a powerful aggressor. This means we need to keep investing in hard resilience, like energy and cyber security, but also in soft topics, like media literacy, the fight against disinformation and propaganda, and external interference. Russia’s reach in this regard goes far beyond Ukraine and already threatens our societal and political processes.

As long as it takes?

The second lesson is that western support does play a critical role in Ukraine’s defence against the aggressor. While NATO as an organisation does not supply lethal arms to Ukraine, many of its members in the West do. Indeed, the West has declared that it will support Ukraine for as long as it takes. What does this mean in practical terms? It has not been fully defined but I believe that this means until Ukraine is in NATO.

In this sense, however, the West needs to define the steps between now and Ukraine’s NATO membership. Those steps will be defined in line with current military support to Ukraine, especially throughout the counter-offensive. However, we must also think about the long-term deterrence and defence strategy of Ukraine, which will be the interim strategy before full membership. The Allies all agree that Ukraine will eventually become a member of NATO, however, there is no agreement on when or how that will take place. Nevertheless, the trajectory is clearer now than ever before.

NATO members are also looking towards Ukraine to learn from its experience and how that can be integrated with the activities of their own armed forces. Ukrainians have proven to be capable, and the know-how they have accumulated over the last year is very valuable for the Allies. The use of modern technologies in a conventional warfare scenario has not been the area of application for most western military strategists over the last few decades. Instead, they were largely focused on terrorism, counter-insurgency and non-state actors. Thus, Ukraine can teach us a lot about upgrading our defence capabilities.

Finally, the West needs to start thinking about the reconstruction of Ukraine in a way that provides the country with the ability to fully re-enter global and European markets. NATO will play a small role in the reconstruction, concentrating on the military aspects. However, it will support the members’ efforts in rebuilding Ukraine through aid and creating a strategy, which should be done sooner rather than later.

Global context

The third key lesson for NATO is that our understanding of the war is actually in the minority in the global context. Votes in the UN are important signals, though in practical terms most countries actively supporting Ukraine are largely found in the West. In the conversation about reconstruction, we need to keep in mind that a larger group of countries will need to be involved, like those in the Middle East, Latin America and South Asia. This is the only way to bring Ukraine back onto the global stage.

Certainly, we did not do enough to engage these countries in the early days of the war. Meanwhile, the global aspects of this war only became clearly visible when Russia began to weaponise everything – from food to the consequences of sanctions for the Global South. The West began to reach out to those countries only as a secondary step. Now, we are slowly starting to implement measures to help mitigate the financial and economic consequences of Moscow’s actions. Hence, we have to admit that some countries, far away, have a decent relationship with Russia, including China.

Yet, for NATO there is a difference between China and Russia. China does not pose a direct military threat to NATO. At the same time, China has opted for strategic competition in selected areas. We need to be mindful of the fact that China is growing more powerful and is closer than we think. That is why the West has increased its cooperation with Allies in the Asia-Pacific, such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

No matter how this war ends, NATO has come to the understanding that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced a shift in perspective to a new approach based on deterrence and defence. These lessons will help the Alliance not only be better prepared for the threat coming from Russia but also pave the way for greater engagement with Ukraine. The Vilnius summit in July 2023 will demonstrate both NATO resolve and start discussions regarding a new level of cooperation with Ukraine. It is worth remembering that the country has a lot to offer in terms of experience and understanding modern warfare.

This article is based on a talk given by Dominik P. Jankowski during the seminar titled “Critical Assessment of the Lessons Learned from the war in Ukraine”, which took place on April 24th 2023 at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the institution he represents.

Dominik P. Jankowski currently serves as a policy advisor to the NATO Secretary General. He is a Polish security policy expert, diplomat and think tanker. From 2018 to 2022 he was the political advisor and head of the political section at the Permanent Delegation of Poland to NATO.

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