Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has prompted NATO members to plan in detail for what has been unthinkable since the end of the Cold War: direct conflict with Russia.
However, before the summit that the bloc will hold in Vilnius (Lithuania) on July 11, in which the fight against Russia will be high on the agenda, Richard Shirreff, former Vice Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, stated that NATO is not ready for a war with Moscow.
“It needs a real kick in the butt,” he told Newsweek, pointing to the dwindling military budgets of alliance members, though there are exceptions, such as Poland.
“There is a massive war in Eastern Europe. It’s a ground and air war, so you have to invest in air and ground, and that hasn’t been done,” Shirreff said. “Last year, at the Madrid summit, (Alliance Secretary General) Jens Stoltenberg announced that NATO would increase its high readiness forces to 300,000 troops, but that has not been done.”
The former British general said the UK Army was an example of those bloc-wide cuts being reduced to a “ridiculous size” as, in his view, the defense establishment had believed that China, and not Russia was the main long-term threat.
“Geography matters here, and Russia is the closest wolf to the sled,” said Shirreff, managing partner at consultancy Strategia Worldwide. In his opinion, there has been a “failure of deterrence” by the alliance, which missed an opportunity to increase its capacity after Putin seized Crimea in 2014.
“Do I trust that NATO can generate conventional forces prepared for a conventional war with Russia? No, I’m not.”
Although the Kremlin and Russian state media claim the war is already a proxy war between Moscow and NATO, the alliance has strived to avoid a direct role in the fighting, instead providing Ukraine with equipment to deal with Moscow’s aggression.
But one of NATO’s senior officials, Admiral Rob Bauer, said in May that the alliance had to prepare for the fact that “conflict could break out at any time,” directly with Moscow, Reuters reported.
That is why NATO will sift through thousands of pages of classified documents outlining regional plans and guidance on how members can improve their forces and logistics in the most detailed plans since the end of the Cold War.
According to Reuters, the plans also involve assigning troops to defend the various regions and provide details on “where, what and how to deploy,” Stoltenberg said last month. This will build on the process spurred by the annexation of Crimea, after which the Western Allies deployed combat troops to Eastern Europe.
What will be discussed at the summit “seems like due diligence to back up what NATO has been preparing and doing anyway,” said Rose Gottemoeller, the alliance’s former deputy secretary general.
In March, Stoltenberg announced that the alliance would deploy four new battle groups, each about 1,500 strong, in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
Stoltenberg said the goal would be to “strengthen NATO’s posture in all domains with major force increases in the eastern part of the alliance, on land, air and sea.” NATO already has battle groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
“They are the first line, and if the Russians were to attack, they would take the first hits,” Gottemoeller said. “It leaves Russia in no doubt that if it attacks the NATO alliance in one place, for example, in the Baltic States, it will be attacking all of NATO, and all of NATO will come to an immediate response.”
He said the planning for a NATO war with Moscow is part of a nearly decade-long effort to return the alliance to a firmer defense posture than it has been since the end of the Cold War and the September 11 attacks. September, after which he focused on the fight against terrorism.
“NATO has known, since the 2014 invasion of Crimea and the way Russia has been more stubborn in general on NATO’s borders, that NATO may need to be ready to fight and defend very quickly against a Russian attack,” Gottemoeller said.
Quite concerned about Europe’s biggest war since 1945, Western capitals briefly fretted over the appearance of a Russian missile in NATO member Poland in November 2022 and the ramifications for Article Five, the collective defense pledge of the statutes of the alliance.
An assessment that it likely came from Ukraine trying to intercept a missile from Moscow cooled the temperatures. However, a paper from the nonprofit think tank Rand Corporation a month later said NATO support for Kyiv “raised concerns about possible Russian retaliation against The alliance.”
The document notes that US and NATO planners have long focused on preparing for open conflict with Russia, but the war in Ukraine “has created a unique set of circumstances that make a more limited Russian attack plausible.” »
In her paper, Rand outlined various scenarios involving a Russian attack on a NATO target, how the alliance would react and what Moscow’s next move would be.
For example, a “demonstrative” attack could be against an airfield with few casualties. A “targeted” attack would be more impactful and could affect NATO operations.
So “less moderate” attacks against military and civilian targets could result in substantial casualties, potentially of both civilian and military personnel. He concludes that more intense Russian attacks leave the United States less likely to hit its targets.
Any NATO response to an attack on Moscow “depends on what you think the attack represents,” said Karl P. Mueller, a co-author of the report and a senior political scientist at Rand.
“If it’s the Russians panicking and feeling desperate, you treat that differently than if you think they’re doing it for correct instrumental military reasons because they think it’s a good way to win the war,” he said.
The Vilnius summit shows that NATO is embarking on a new phase of its defense strategy, with the accession of Finland and the stagnation of that of Sweden.
“There is going to be a lot of discussion about what commitments individual nations are going to make, who is going to contribute forces to what, and probably a lot of efforts to coordinate them,” Mueller said.
“Being prepared is in some ways easier now than it was a year and a half ago because the war has degraded a lot of Russian military capabilities,” he said. “NATO has a window of opportunity in which it can make major changes to the alliance’s defense strategy and organization.”