- S K Saini writes: In the future, it will need to have a declared deterrence policy with identifiable red lines to act as trigger points for a credible response
- Perhaps NATO wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia, which led to self-imposed restraint and a sort of mental paralysis of its military commanders
Today, the global media is focused on the war in Ukraine, with images and footage of death, destruction, agony and despair being beamed live for everyone who cares to see the havoc that a war causes. On February 24, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, NATO activated its multinational response force for the first time in the military alliance’s 73-year history. “NATO is responding to this crisis with speed and unity,” said Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of the grouping. “We must reset our collective defence and deterrence for the longer term; today we tasked our military commanders to develop options across all domains,” he said later.
In an extraordinary meeting of NATO members, formal requests were made by officials of eight Eastern European and Baltic nations on February 24, including Poland, to invoke Article 4 of NATO’s 1949 treaty. Article 4 allows any member nation to call for a consultation of the organisation’s governing body when “the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened”. It was invoked the last time in February 2020 by Turkey after Syrian government forces killed dozens of Turkish soldiers. Across the Atlantic, the US President said: “The United States will not send troops to Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO but defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power.”
Later, Ukraine’s proposal to impose a no-fly zone to deter Russian air attacks and Poland’s offer of sending MIG fighters to Ukraine were summarily turned down, as these would constitute acts of war against Russia.
On the other side, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West in the first week of the invasion that “whoever tries to hinder us” in Ukraine would face consequences, “you have never seen in your history”. He also ordered Russia’s military on February 27 to put its deterrence forces, which include nuclear weapons, on “special alert”. He explained to his defence chiefs that this was because of “aggressive statements” by the West, amid widespread condemnation of his invasion of Ukraine.
Russia had annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and has now launched a full offensive on Ukraine despite sanctions being in place and the threat of more punitive sanctions. Therefore, any escalation beyond this should have been at NATO’s initiative by configuring a more robust and bold response. Perhaps NATO wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia, which led to self-imposed restraint and a sort of mental paralysis of its military commanders. NATO lost the mind game by overestimating the Russian reaction to its response. On the other hand, Russia always underestimates the West’s willingness to take risks and raises the threshold. In this case, Russia would not have taken any precipitate, overwhelming or irrational actions. This meek surrender during a grave contingency is likely to have long-term detrimental ramifications for NATO’s credibility, deterrence and collective European defence.
While Ukraine is not a formal member and NATO is not obligated to defend its territorial integrity, four of its members — Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania — share borders with Ukraine. The precautionary deployment of NATO forces to its Eastern borders should have been more dissuasive after 2014, irrespective of economic considerations. In the present scenario, NATO should have arrayed viable force levels along its borders for deterrence and posed a “threat in being” to restrict Russia’s freedom of action – which it currently enjoys and can, therefore, conduct operations with impunity.
Before undertaking this deployment of forces, NATO should have invoked Article 5, which outlines a common pledge from all NATO countries that they will come to one another’s defence if one of them is attacked. It has been invoked only once — in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Also Read |War impact on coal: High global prices may lead to domestic crunch
NATO should have also provided more useful weapons and equipment to Ukraine, which would have helped to fortify the staying power of the resistance forces. These should have included man-portable surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank weapons, weaponised UAVs, lasers and jamming equipment, among others.
Moreover, policy decisions like sending troops to Ukraine, the imposition of a no-fly zone and the provision of fighter aircraft should not have been debated under the media glare. This conveyed an impression of fear and inaction to avoid provocation and escalation. The lack of a well-thought-out plan for political and strategic messaging by NATO emboldened the other side to disregard its threats and actions as hollow and symbolic.
To mitigate the deprivations faced by civilians caught in combat, NATO could have undertaken humanitarian missions by sea and air to demonstrate its will and uphold the values that the West propagates. Such missions need to be supported by a narrative of justice. There are many more options for demonstrative action that can be executed to show intent, commitment and resolve. No doubt this will heighten risk but calculated risks need to be taken to retain the initiative and overcome passivity and inaction.
In the future, NATO will need to have a declared deterrence policy with identifiable red lines to act as trigger points for a credible response. Rhetoric and symbolic responses seem hollow and do not dissuade. However, credibility does not require a response to be particularly painful. To execute such a range of options, NATO countries will have to enhance their defence budgets and the combat capabilities of their militaries, which have been neglected for decades based on erroneous threat perceptions indicating a low probability of war.
First published in The Indian Express