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Rethinking Deterrence and Assurance

By Paul Bernstein NDC Conference Report

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Convening in the shadow of Russia’s continuing efforts to destabilize Ukraine, this conference examined NATO’s assessment of the changed security environment and the threat posed by Russia’s evolving approach to contemporary confl ict. Discussions focused on Moscow’s worldview and the sources of its conduct, its doctrine and capabilities, and the specifi c challenge of understanding the nature and implications of “hybrid warfare” as practiced by Russia. Participants also debated how best to bolster NATO deterrence and defence in the near-term, the appropriate strategies to counter hybrid warfare over the longer-term, whether and how to adapt NATO’s nuclear posture going forward, and the utility of sanctions and other policies of economic coercion in seeking changes in Russian behavior.

Key Points

  • Russia’s actions in Ukraine violate basic principles of European security long believed to be firmly settled. As Russia demonstrates its intent and capability to challenge the political-military status quo, NATO must recognize that its vision of partnership with Russia is beyond reach for the foreseeable future and cannot drive security policy at this time. 
  • Russia seeks to secure a “post-Soviet space” or sphere of influence in which its geopolitical, security and economic interests enjoy primacy. Its actions in Georgia, Ukraine and other former Soviet lands reflect this core strategic imperative. When force is required to advance this goal, Russia has developed and refi ned a concept of “hybrid warfare” that relies on a dynamic mix of political, military and information operations to exploit the vulnerabilities of weaker neighboring states. Russian nuclear doctrine and its persistent nuclear saber-rattling are an important element of Russia’s coercive strategy. 
  • Moscow may or may not see this model of warfare as a viable means to invade or threaten the sovereignty of one or more NATO member states, but the possibility cannot be dismissed. The Alliance therefore needs to develop a near-term strategy to bolster deterrence and collective defence, especially in its eastern region where Russian power is most salient and NATO governments most anxious. NATO’s Wales Summit Declaration of 2014 outlines steps to put this strategy in place. 
  • Over the longer-term, the Alliance faces the task of crafting a comprehensive counter to Russia’s concept of hybrid warfare. This must be a truly integrated strategy that closes existing capability gaps while developing the means to exploit Russian weaknesses or vulnerabilities. NATO will need to take a fresh look at some of its longstanding principles and practices, such as the distinction between crisis management and collective defence, limited institutional attention to information and cyber operations, and the recessed role of nuclear deterrence. 
  • Views on whether and how to adapt NATO’s nuclear posture going forward vary widely, ranging from arguments for early withdrawal of land-based weapons in Europe, maintaining the status quo, and taking significant steps to enhance these weapons’ political salience and operational utility. 
  • Economic and financial sanctions may have played a role in restraining Russia from taking more overt military action in Ukraine, but seem unlikely to compel Moscow to alter its basic objectives. If so, NATO will have to consider other strategies to force a change in Russian behavior. In crises or conflicts where Russia’s stake is very high, economic pressure is unlikely to sway the Putin regime. However, the specific threat to impose crippling sanctions conceivably could deter Moscow from threatening or attacking a NATO member. 
Click here to download the full conference report.