Now for the Hard Part: NATO’s Strategic Adaptation to Russia

The Alliance’s success in adapting its deterrence posture has brought into focus a range of more complex challenges.

NATO’s July 2016 Warsaw Summit was a crowning achievement in terms of Alliance adaptation. Taking place on the territory of a former Soviet vassal state (Poland), the summit consecrated the Alliance’s embrace of a renewed strategy of deterrence by punishment vis-à-vis Russia. The punishing intent, reminiscent of the Cold War, is made clear in the section of the summit’s declaration on nuclear policy, in which the allies state that 

if the fundamental security of any of its members were to be threatened … NATO has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that an adversary could hope to achieve.1

This strategic shift was prompted by events. In the run-up to the September 2014 Wales Summit, where NATO intended to focus on closing the book on its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its hybrid incursions into eastern Ukraine set off a scramble for reassurance and adaptation. In policy terms, NATO had to build an aeroplane while flying it, seeking to reassure anxious eastern allies and signal strength to Russia while not appearing aggressive. NATO could not easily sidestep the NATO–Russia framework of 1997, whereby the Alliance foresaw no need to change ‘any aspect of NATO’s nuclear posture or nuclear policy’ and likewise no need for the ‘additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces’ east of the old Cold War divide in Europe.2 The Wales Summit’s conclusion offered a path to deterrence, but observers wondered whether NATO could pull together a policy assertive enough to travel it.3 By the Warsaw Summit in mid-2016, NATO had proved itself capable, reinforcing its front-line presence, hardening its threat to meet aggression with punishment and keeping Alliance members in line.

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Jens Ringsmose is Director, Institute for Military Operations, at the Royal Danish Defence College and Professor II at the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy.

Sten Rynning is a professor of international relations at the University of Southern Denmark, where he also heads the Center for War Studies.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

June-July 2017

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