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Why NATO deterrence doesn’t work

“Do you know what happens if a NATO member is attacked by Russia? It is expelled from the Alliance the following day”
stoltenberg Kyiv exhibition military vehicles
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visits an exhibition displaying destroyed Russian military vehicles in central Kyiv. Credit: NATO/Flickr
Why NATO deterrence doesn’t work

NATO is a defensive alliance committed to the principle that an attack against one or several of its members is considered an attack against all. The member states are committed to safeguarding the freedom and security of all Allies, against all threats, from all directions.

Deterrence and defense is one of NATO’s core tasks. The Alliance deters aggression by maintaining a credible deterrence and defense posture based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional ,   and missile defense capabilities, complemented by space and cyber capabilities.

NATO deterrence works when a potential opponent believes that the Alliance will respond according to its founding treaty. It is established through the demonstration of both credible political will and military capability. Both are required, and both are equally essential.

Most would argue that NATO deterrence works perfectly. They would argue that the Alliance has not yet been attacked by a foreign power and, therefore, has fulfilled its key purpose: Ensuring the collective defence of Allies, against all threats, from all directions.

Only, that’s not quite true.

Firstly, the member states – most of which are also EU members – have long been exposed to a Russian Hybrid War. While it is often described as grey zone operations below the threshold of war, it is the same war Ukraine has been defending itself against until 24 February 2024 and – more crucially – the same war that is being fought today.

Secondly, until the Madrid Summit last year, NATO’s area of responsibility went beyond the territory of its member states. In the 2010 Strategic Concept, the Alliance had committed itself “to help manage developing crises that have the potential to affect Alliance security, before they escalate into conflicts; to stop ongoing conflicts where they affect Alliance security”. NATO was not committed to defend Ukraine, but it was committed to defend itself in Ukraine. The Alliance deterrence and defence was, consequently, challenged in 2014 and 2022. It decided to backtrack and reduce its level of ambition instead of living up to its commitment.

Thirdly, most Heads of States have long acknowledged that Ukraine is doing what NATO was supposed to do: Protect European security and stability. This is why:

  • Prime Minister of Romania, Marcel Ciolacu, stresses that “This is not a war between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. This is not a war between Putin and Zelensky. This is a war between a dictator and the democratic world,
  • President of Latvia, Egils Levits, highlights that “The future of Europe is being fought in Ukraine”, and why
  • Prime Minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, underlined that “Ukraine is fighting for its freedom and for ours, and for the future of the free world.

This is why NATO has stressed that “the Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace.” “Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine poses the gravest threat to Euro-Atlantic security in decades, shattering peace in Europe.” The 2022 Strategic Concept concludes that “we cannot discount the possibility of an attack against Allies’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Europe has since 2008 seen peace turn into crisis, conflict, and full-scale war. The US and Europe have become victims of a Russian-initiated Hybrid War. NATO has been forced to reduce both its area of responsibility and level of ambition. The member countries’ stock of weapons and ammunition is slowly being exhausted as the war continues to escalate, increasing the threat to the Alliance’s security. Ukrainian victory is by no means secured for the lack of a common end state, strategy, and not least, allied commitment.

This is hardly a success story and a sign of an effective deterrence and defense posture. This is why I have asked: Will NATO survive the War? That is also why I argue:

NATO’s deterrence has failed.

While the Alliance is made up of 31 member states, the US is the glue that ties it all together. As previously highlighted, this is mainly a result of European failure to invest in security and defense. However, even if European members had met their pledge to invest 2% of GDP in defense, the US military power would have made up the main element of NATO’s deterrence and defense.

Without America’s military power and political will, the Alliance is an empty promise. When the US calls its Allies into action, the member states act. When it does not, its Allies follow its lead.

Deterrence is more than anything connected to the idea that when the security of Allies is threatened, the US will come to their assistance. It is not an unreasonable assumption bearing in mind that Europe has responded to every US call for support.

The prevention from action by fear of the consequences. Deterrence is a state of mind brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction.” (Oxford Dictionary)

The question is, however, if the US promise is credible or simply wishful thinking. There are several reasons to question its political will to engage when needed.

American intervention was crucial to the outcome of both WW1 and WW2. In both cases, however, it only joined the fight after finding its own security and stability threatened.

On April 2, 1917 – nearly 3 years into the war – “President Woodrow Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany. Wilson cited Germany’s violation of its pledge to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as well as its attempts to entice Mexico into an alliance against the United States, as his reasons for declaring war.” The United States later declared war on German ally Austria-Hungary on December 7, 1917. The war ended less than 20 months later after the US decided to intervene.

“From our 21st-century point of view, it is hard to imagine World War II without the United States as a major participant. Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, however, Americans were seriously divided over what the role of the United States in the war should be, or if it should even have a role at all. Even as the war consumed large portions of Europe and Asia in the late 1930s and early 1940s, there was no clear consensus on how the United States should respond.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, ended the debate over American intervention in both the Pacific and European theaters of World War II. The day after the attack, Congress declared war on Imperial Japan with only a single dissenting vote. Germany and Italy— Japan’s allies—responded by declaring war against the United States.”

US deliberations and actions in the years before joining WW1 and 2 bears resemblance to the present situation. Americans were – and are – divided over the need for US participation. Isolationist sentiment has long been a part of the American political landscape and was – and still is – reflected in its security and defence policy deliberations. The US did – as it does today – provide defence, financial and humanitarian support to the victim(s) of war of aggression.

However, it did not engage actively before its security and stability were threatened.

The North Atlantic Treaty, also known as the Washington Treaty, has – on the paper – changed its stand. “Collective defence is at the heart of the Treaty and is enshrined in Article 5. It commits members to protect each other and sets a spirit of solidarity within the Alliance.”

That’s on the paper.

This must also be seen in the context of other US pledges. The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 – “Memorandum on security assurances in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” – turned out to be an empty promise.

Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile until 1994. It gave it up after receiving what it perceived to be binding security guarantees. While some will correctly argue that the text of the treaty does not make any commitments to intervene militarily it does not change the fact that Ukraine gave up the one thing that would have guaranteed its security – nuclear deterrence – for something it believed would do the same.

Europe is once again witnessing US political debacle over US involvement in a war in Europe. What is framed as a discussion over Ukraine, is in essence a debate over its NATO commitment.

Why?

  1. Firstly, the Russian war of aggression on Ukrainian territory is an element of its broader and more fundamental confrontation with NATO.
  2. Secondly, the Alliance had until the Madrid Summit committed to stopping wars that threatened Allied security. Despite Russia’s war in Ukraine doing just that – threatening the security of its member states – NATO under US leadership walked away from the pledge.
  3. Thirdly, several member states are today supporting Ukraine beyond their ability because they find themselves defending themselves against Russia in Ukraine. This is fully in line with NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept and their initial request for a NATO response.
  4. Lastly – and it goes to the core of the purpose of the Alliance – there can be no European security and stability without a complete, independent, and sovereign Ukraine.

The US is allegedly deliberating an “Israeli model” for Ukraine. As I have recently argued, the model offers no relief to either Ukraine or Europe. It will not stop Russia’s efforts to subjugate Ukraine because it offers no credible deterrence. In my humble opinion, a security guarantee based on the so-called “Israel model” is not a commitment to peace. It is just yet another excuse to avoid upholding a pledge.

The “Israeli model” is no solution for either Ukraine or Europe

Only, this pledge is directly and inevitably linked to European security. Like WW1 and 2, the US might be on the verge of – once again – creating the illusion that European security does not concern America until it once again does.

The North Atlantic Treaty has no impact on the US deliberation on the scale and scope of its military support to Ukraine and, consequently, European security. If it had, the two would be an integrated part of the same debate. It is not.

Ukrainian and European security are being debated as they are two separate issues altogether. They are not.

As previously stressed – and stressed once again – European security and stability are directly and inevitably linked to Ukraine. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, has repeatedly highlighted the facts:

To support Ukraine is not an option. It’s a necessity to ensure that we preserve peace for our members, for our countries.

To support Ukraine is something we do because it is in our security interest, to ensure that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign independent nation. The war in Ukraine demonstrates how security is not regional, but global.”

“Their fight is our fight. Their security is our security. Their values are our values.”

There is no reason to believe that President Biden does not share the perspective. When he fails to commit, it is partly because America is once again seriously divided over what the role of the United States in the war should be, or if it should even have a role at all.

It is, however, also partly due to his fears of both a Russian victory and defeat in Ukraine. The latter is believed to destabilize and potentially cause the world’s biggest nuclear power to collapse.

While the discord can be countered by a change of strategic messaging – by describing the full scale and scope of the Russian confrontation with the West and the ensuing global “tsunami of ripple effects” – the fear is harder to confront.

The fundamental question is, therefore:

Why would the US fear a Russian victory or defeat in Europe less than in Ukraine?

The consequences would be identical. If the US cannot live with the potential fallout today, it is unlikely to accept it tomorrow.

The US has by its inaction – its failure to commit and its return to isolationist sentiment – might have created the doubt that undermines NATO deterrence. Europe’s failure to invest in security and defence further weakens its ability to future aggressions.

The US lacks the political will. Eastern Europe lacks the military capacity. Western Europe lacks both political will and military capacity to act decisively.

Unless the doubt is addressed by a demonstration of resolve, doubt will linger. This will continue to undermine the Alliance’s ability to deter future crises, conflicts, and wars.

Changing Russia’s perception of the West as weak will be an uphill battle. It has after all tested Western resolve for more than 15 years.

Russia has long concluded that NATO is either unwilling and/or unable to live up to its commitment.

NATO’s future engagements in Ukraine will either change or confirm Russia’s perception of the Alliance.

The fact that one can question both the US’s and Europe’s NATO commitment to defend Alliance security – for the reasons mentioned above – equates to the failure of deterrence. That has had – and will continue to have – grave repercussions for our common security.

The present challenge might best be summarised with a bit of Ukrainian black humour: “Do you know what happens if a NATO member is attacked by Russia? It is expelled from the Alliance the following day.”

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