If Russia were to rerun its playbook from Ukraine against a NATO member, how would the West respond?

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, invasion of Donbas, and continued threats to Ukraine and other European countries not only menace the stability of the post-Cold War order in Europe, but also pose a fundamental challenge to the assumptions about the strategic environment that have undergirded the NATO alliance for the past quarter of a century.

Since 1989, NATO strategy has been premised on a set of beliefs, each one of which has been called into question by recent events: the Euro-Atlantic community is stable; NATO does not face any serious threats to its collective defence; NATO’s most likely military missions will be out-of-area operations; enlargement of the Atlantic community will lead to a Europe whole, free and at peace; and Russia can be regarded as, or will soon become, a strategic partner. Indeed, each of these ideas featured prominently in NATO’s most recent Strategic Concept, released at the NATO summit in 2010, and in its Deterrence and Defence Posture Review, published just two years ago.

But this set of beliefs, much like Ukraine itself, was torn apart by President Vladimir Putin’s actions earlier this year. Western analysts are beginning to realise that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and of Georgia six years ago, may not be isolated incidents, but rather symptomatic of a grander ambition in Moscow to restore a Russian sphere of influence in the area of the former Soviet Union, and that these plans could come to threaten regional stability and NATO members directly. 

To be sure, the Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union. It is plagued by severe economic, demographic and governance problems, and it will not be in a position to stand as a peer competitor to NATO and the West for the foreseeable future. But that is not the point. Russia could very well destabilise Eastern Europe for years to come through its ability to threaten or attack NATO members, undermining the post-Cold War international order. Moreover, Russia has identified an effective military strategy that, unless Washington and Brussels change course, could pose a serious challenge to NATO’s ability to defend its easternmost members. 

If Russia were to rerun its playbook of hybrid warfare from Ukraine against a NATO member, how would the West respond? Allowing Russia to occupy even a small part of NATO territory would deal a devastating blow to the credibility of the Alliance. NATO would, therefore, be compelled to come to its ally’s defence with lethal military force. But would the overt brandishing of Russian nuclear forces that we have seen in the Crimea–Donbas crisis deter NATO’s intervention? If NATO did use military force in an attempt to reassert control, and Russia conducted a limited nuclear strike for the purpose of ‘de-escalation’, how would NATO respond? In short, Russia’s emerging capabilities and strategy put NATO on the horns of a series of difficult dilemmas, and the situation demands not only minor modifications to business as usual, but a fundamental re-evaluation of NATO defence strategy and posture.

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Matthew Kroenig is a Senior Fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, and an Associate Professor and International Relations Field Chair in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. He formerly served as a strategist and special adviser in the Office of the US Secretary of Defense.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

February-March 2015

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