Article published on the Atlantic Treaty Association Website

Coherent tactics need to be employed by NATO if the Alliance is to dissuade Russia from flexing its muscles, but there are cracks in the current approach, say Stratfor’s Omar Lamrani and Sim Tack

Since its founding, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has existed for two reasons: to provide collective defence and deterrence. But the threats that those aims are intended to guard against or prevent have not been as static as the goals themselves. Following the Soviet Union’s collapse – and with it, the apparent end of the Cold War – the question of just who or what the Alliance is still protecting itself from has moved to the fore of Western policymaking.

Yet the biggest threat to NATO is still, without question, Russia. After all, no other country boasts the same strength within immediate striking distance of Europe. Though Russia’s conventional capabilities pale in comparison to the vast military force the Soviet Union mustered during the Cold War, its demonstrated use of many different types of tools, including asymmetric ones, has made it a much more complex adversary. And, as its recent actions in Georgia and Ukraine (and, many suspect, the Baltics) attest, Russia isn’t shy about using aggression as a means to achieve its ends.

Hybrid warfare has proved a particularly difficult threat to address collectively. As a concept, hybrid warfare is both strategically and tactically harder to grasp than the more straightforward conventional force that NATO was built to discourage. Formulating a range of appropriate responses to hybrid warfare will be crucial to keeping the NATO deterrent relevant in the face of Russia’s attempts to weaken the bloc’s resolve through asymmetric methods.

Meanwhile, Russia remains the only power able to pose an existential threat to NATO members. Moscow has made it clear that it will not hesitate to use its nuclear arsenal, which is on a par with the Alliance’s, first in the event that its most vital national security interests are jeopardized.


NATO’s members haven’t been oblivious to the threat emanating from the east. The Alliance has deployed its troops to Russia’s periphery to enhance the credibility of its deterrent. The move has had the added benefit of rallying the bloc’s resolve somewhat, showing Central and Eastern European states on Russia’s doorstep that NATO is committed to their protection. As a tripwire force, these units also serve as part of a layered defence against conventional attacks by the Russian military. And NATO has taken care to broadcast its movements all the while, sending a clear warning to Moscow – a necessary part of any true deterrent.

There are still several chinks, however, in the armour the Alliance has tried to forge. Perhaps one of the largest is lodged in the heart of NATO itself: Article 5. Often quoted as the cornerstone of the collective defence principle, the article requires members to unanimously agree that a threat amounts to an attack on the entire Alliance, only to then permit states to choose whether and how to participate in the bloc’s response. So, the article touted as the foundation of collective defence may actually be its greatest vulnerability, because it relies on the political resolve of individual members – something that cannot always be guaranteed. This, in turn, could cause NATO’s deterrence to crumble if hostile powers believe that a lack of decisiveness among members will hamper their ability to respond in a crisis. If that belief proves accurate, and individual states’ interests do indeed fail to align when the Alliance comes under attack, its defences could fall.


The recent deployment of battalion battle groups to NATO’s eastern flank is not as effective a move as it may seem, either. Though it has showcased the bloc’s resolve in fending off the Russian military’s advances, it won’t be much use against anything less than a direct conventional attack. For example, Moscow could seek to sow confusion and discord among NATO allies by turning to less transparent measures, such as fomenting or supporting local insurgencies, conducting cyber attacks and launching a coordinated propaganda campaign against its Western adversary.

Russia, moreover, doesn’t have to take action in NATO’s territory to interfere with its interests. The Kremlin has leverage throughout the Alliance’s periphery – including in Syria, where civil war has created a breeding ground for terrorism and immigration issues, and Afghanistan, where Russia has reportedly stepped up its support for the Taliban – that it can wield, to the detriment of NATO states. The bloc’s deterrence strategy must therefore look beyond its own borders if it hopes to adequately protect its interests.


Even within NATO itself, Enhanced Forward Presence alone cannot guarantee deterrence. For instance, though it is certainly unlikely that Russia would launch a blatant attack on the Baltic States, it is possible, and Moscow would have some clear advantages if it did. In numerous war games, Russia’s mobilisation advantage and proximate lines of communication have been shown to improve its prospects of overtaking the Baltics before a NATO response force could arrive. In addition, NATO has not yet designed a coherent plan for addressing Russia’s ability to leverage its tactical nuclear weapons in the wake of an incursion to dissuade any counterattack. If the Alliance allows Russia to believe that it can “escalate to deescalate” in this manner, the Kremlin will have less incentive to avoid encroaching on its neighbours’ territory.


NATO has come a long way since the end of the Cold War, and its combined military power remains unrivalled. But its need for a coherent collective defence and deterrence strategy has not diminished. If the bloc does not work to understand and overcome the flaws inherent to its current approach, it will no longer be able to rely on its capacity to dissuade Moscow from testing its mettle. And if the Alliance is unable or unwilling to stand together to effectively deter Russia, its reason for existence may no longer hold.

Omar Lamrani is a senior military analyst at Stratfor who focuses on air power, naval strategy, technology, logistics and military doctrine in several regions, including the Middle East and Asia. He studied international relations at Clark University and holds a master’s degree from the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna.

Sim Tack is a senior analyst at Stratfor who tracks and analyses global military developments on a tactical and strategic level. He has studied the development of the Russian military, as well as the structure and operations of NATO.

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