NATO Needs a Long-Term Strategy to Counter Russia


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Russia has been at war with the West for more than a decade. As former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told an official Russian military conference in 2005:

Let’s face it, there is a war against Russia underway, and it has been going on for quite a few years. No one declared war on us. There is not one country that would be in a state of war with Russia. But there are people and organizations in various countries, who take part in hostilities against the Russian Federation.

Putin and other Russian leaders have made it clear that they believe the West started this war, employing primarily non-military means to destabilize the Russian government and political system. At its core, this threat is a consequence not of specific U.S. or European policies, but of the existence of the Western system of values and policies -- liberal democracy, free speech, the rule of law and free markets.  

In contrast to the political and economic structures common to the democratic world, it has long been recognized that the Russian government is a dysfunctional entity controlled by a small coterie of officials, many with secret policy or intelligence backgrounds. The Russian political system is based on ever-tightening controls from the top over all the instruments of power and more and more of the economy. As Dr. Karen Dawisha succinctly put it, “Putin and his circle sought to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal with embedded interests, plans, and capabilities, who used democracy for decoration rather than direction.”

In essence, the Kremlin believes that there is no way for the regime to be secure internally so long as the West is free to present itself not merely as an alternate political-economic model but one that is clearly superior to Russia’s. As a long-time Russia analyst concluded, Russia has no choice but to challenge the existing international system:

Putin has rejected structural, internal economic and political reforms, fearing that like Gorbachev he too could be swept from power. Putin’s choice reflects a view that Russia can only address its non-competitiveness by changing the world around Russia, and most critically, by changing the European security system. In Putin’s view, any solution short of changing the European security system—including full integration, separation by erecting new walls, freezing the status quo around Russia, or partnering with other countries to counter-balance the powers in the European system—only means Russia’s inevitable loss of great power status and the loss of his personal power at home.

In essence, the Western notion of sovereignty is inimical to that practiced held by the Kremlin. Russia is attempting to discredit the legitimacy of Western institutions and to undermine the sovereignty of its adversaries, particularly the United States. Russian efforts to hack Western elections, plant fake news on a wide variety of websites, bribe foreign politicians and create faux political scandals is meant largely to weaken the credibility of Western institutions. The Kremlin hopes that by attacking these institutions, it can increase the credibility of Putin’s regime, undermine that of its Western opponents and negatively influence the West’s will to oppose Russian aggression.

The Kremlin also is seeking to create a form of “super sovereignty” for itself. It has asserted a special right to protect ethnic Russians residing in the states of the former Soviet Union. It seeks to curtail the ability of nations to exercise their sovereign right of self-defense. It is attempting to create a “codicil” to established international law that, in effect, would exempt Russia from the rules that apply to all other nations. Russia has violated solemn agreements and international treaties almost without consequences. Ultimately, Putin would like to have more than just input to significant international issues; he wants a veto over Western security policies.

A U.S.-NATO strategy to counter Russian efforts to undermine the Alliance and the sovereignty of its members should be based on three sets of activities. First, additional steps must be taken to reverse perceptions of a lack of commitment on the part of NATO to the defense of its members and specifically to defending Alliance members against Russian subversion and the use of paramilitary forces and surrogates. Second, much more needs to be done to shore up nations in NATO-EU that were and remain themselves politically and organizationally fragile. Ukraine is an example of how bad it can get. Third, there must be an intensified effort to apply the same tactics and concepts central to the new Russian strategy against Moscow.

NATO must demonstrate its resolve to ensure not merely the physical security but the independence and full sovereignty of all its members facing the threat of political subversion. This Alliance needs to clearly and formally reject the Russian assertion of special rights and responsibilities for the well-being of the so-called near-abroad. Actions taken by Russia in the name of assisting ethnic Russians outside that nation’s borders should be treated as a violation of the collective self-defense commitment under Article V of the NATO Treaty. If NATO lowers the bar in respect to its commitment to defend the sovereignty of Alliance members, it must also possess the capabilities to affect the necessary response. Finally, NATO members must develop capabilities and a long-term strategy for information operations against the regime in Moscow.

This third goal is the most important. To date, the U.S. and NATO have focused almost exclusively on defensive measures to counter Russian efforts to destabilize Europe and undermine its collective organizations. What has received almost no attention is the potential to conduct an information campaign against the Kremlin regime. In 2015, the House Armed Services Committee sought to add $30 million to the budget for U.S. Special Operations Command to expand “global inform and influence activities” against Russia and terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. Much more than this is needed. Moreover, the money should go to creating programs dedicated to discrediting the Russian regime. A new U.S. Information Agency would be a good place to start.

Russia is a fragile state. If it seeks to undermine the legitimacy of Western institutions and political processes, it should expect to be the target of such actions.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team.

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