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Russia zapad military exercies attack NATO

Russia’s gamble: how and why it could attack NATO countries. Ex-NATO official explains

Edward Hunter Christie gave his perspective on the Russian threat to NATO, Ukraine and European security.
During the 2017 Zapad military exercises, Russia rehearsed attacking NATO’s western flank. Screenshot from video, via RFE/RL
Russia’s gamble: how and why it could attack NATO countries. Ex-NATO official explains

In an interview with Serge Havrylets for Euromaidan Press, Edward Hunter Christie (a Senior Research Fellow at The Finnish Institute of International Affairs and a former NATO official) spoke about the Russian threat to NATO, Ukraine and European security, possible scenarios of a Russian attack on NATO countries, the strategic implications of the termination of US military aid to Ukraine, and the confiscation of frozen Russian assets.

Euromaidan Press: Recently, voices have been growing louder that Russia may attack NATO countries. Politicians and military experts talk about different timelines, but most of them seem to agree on one thing: a Russian attack on the Alliance cannot be ruled out in the coming years. What conditions must be in place for such an attack on NATO to be possible?

Edward Hunter Christie: There is no single set of conditions because a possible armed attack by Russia would be a gamble by Russia to achieve a certain political objective, and that in turn depends on what political objectives Russia may choose to have and on conditions – including political conditions – in Europe and North America.

For example, should Putin believe, based on political scenarios, that a limited attack would fracture political unity and resolve among NATO Allies and not lead to a devastating military response, he could take that gamble sooner rather than later because the optimal timing for the gamble may not be the same as the “objective” optimal timing from the perspective of Russia’s military capabilities and capacities. In short, it’s a moving target and it is unwise to estimate a given number of years before which the attack would be deemed much less likely.

Therefore, those who analyze the question in narrow military terms with respect to how long Russia would need to reconstitute a fighting force of a certain strength are at risk of converging on a central estimate, an apparently most likely scenario that may not correspond to what will actually occur.

For illustration, some observers had doubts before Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022 that the attack would occur because of the size of the Russian force. Some people believed that the force was too small to be successful and, therefore, that Russia was bluffing. As we all found out, it was not a bluff.

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The force was inadequate from the perspective of traditional military analysis, but in Putin’s logic there would have been other factors at play to precipitate a Ukrainian collapse that would make his gamble feasible. He was wrong. But there is no guarantee that he will not once again make a reckless and very costly miscalculation based on beliefs concerning the resolve of his adversaries, the skill and importance of clandestine agents and operations, and political factors that he believes he controls.

The conclusion: we must always be ready for the type of attack that can come now, and we must at the same time work today to be prepared for the type of attack that could come tomorrow.

EP: Anders Puck Nielsen, a military analyst at the Royal Danish Defence College, believes that if Russia attacks NATO countries, it would not attack the Baltic states on its western border but would focus on a more distant area where fewer countries would be involved. Anders Puck Nielsen believes that a more likely place for a Russian attack on NATO may be northern Finland. In your opinion, what are the possible scenarios in case Russia invades one of the NATO countries?

EHC: It is a positive contribution to the discussion to apply such lateral thinking, it is an antidote to group think and to the tendency of political leaders to latch on to the apparently most likely central scenario. Indeed it is safer to consider a wide range of scenarios, including counterintuitive ones such as an attack on a peripheral part of NATO territory like northern Finland.

However, I believe that any attack on any part of NATO territory, including on the periphery, would and must trigger an Article 5 activation and a military response that involves as many NATO allies as possible. An attack in a peripheral region should be interpreted partly as a test of political solidarity, therefore, responding with full political solidarity would be absolutely essential.

The northern Finland scenario aside, there are other scenarios one should prepare for.

One thing Putin tends to do when facing a stalemate is to open a new front. In 2015, he went into Syria and also started attacking Western political spaces in a more decisive way, notably exploiting the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2023, a new war started in the Middle East, with Hamas attacking Israel. This was not a Russian operation, but it is plausible that Putin had advance knowledge of it. It is even possible that he encouraged Hamas to attack, this is something we may never know with certainty.

What we do know is that Russia hasn’t stopped cultivating certain leaders in Europe, including in Serbia and in the Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A new conflict in the Balkans could be a pathway for Russia to divert the attention and resources of EU and NATO countries and to prepare the ground for a further attack elsewhere.

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Another aspect I believe would necessarily be present is that a Russian attack would be embedded in Russian intelligence assessments of the vulnerabilities of the opponent, including estimates regarding the resolve and the fears of key political leaders, including how they would respond to nuclear threats and to the actual use of nuclear weapons.

A related angle concerns Western and especially American approaches to escalation management.

The United States and other key Allies have yielded a lot of information about what they fear as part of attempts to manage escalation. The danger is that if Western leaders fear escalation today, they will likely fear it tomorrow too. Therefore, it is important for Western leaders to make sure that Moscow gets the clear message that it would face a devastating military response if it attacked any part of NATO.

For example, the Western powers seem to be very afraid of strikes against Russian territory – even though Ukraine isn’t – and so Putin may now believe that he could prepare to attack NATO countries without suffering from strikes on his territory. That is an important question for leaders in NATO nations: what should they do if Russia masses a potential invasion force on the Estonian border? My view is that the possibility of striking Russian territory pre-emptively must be clearly and firmly on the table.

EP: You have called on Western leaders to move from the ‘escalation management’ approach to one that removes the Russian threat. Let me quote you:

“Western military assistance to Ukraine since February 2022 has gone through several phases of hesitancy and delay ahead of the possible delivery of more potent weapon systems. These phases of hesitancy have been motivated most decisively by fears of escalation, notably fears of a wider war against Russia. Their effect has been painfully obvious: Ukraine has had to fight a war for its national survival without a full range of relevant capabilities. As a result, Ukraine is undersupplied in weapons and unable to prevail, which prolongs the war without sufficiently weakening the aggressor.”

In your opinion, how can the West redefine its policy towards Russia?

EHC: In my view, Western policy should recognize that Ukraine’s security is an indivisible part of European security. We all face the same enemy or potential enemy, the Russian state. Our collective security would be maximized if the threat of the Russian state were defeated or overcome. On the other hand, we will all suffer as long as Russia continues to attack or threaten to attack.

Threat removal, therefore, is the optimal way forward. But what is the meaning of the term threat? Threat is the combination of capability and intent. We have to pursue a strategy that either destroys Russia’s capabilities, or destroys its will to attack us, or both. If we do not achieve that, Russia’s aggression will continue at great cost to all of us. So, the most direct path to that desired outcome is to defeat Russia’s forces where they are, on the battlefield inside Ukraine, in the Black Sea, and to the extent necessary in the rear in Russia itself or, as relevant, in Belarus or elsewhere.

To do so, Ukraine needs a complete range of military capabilities – more artillery shells of course, but also longer-range strike capabilities, combat aircraft, and large numbers of attack drones. European states need to supply Ukraine with what it needs, without any limitations.

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The fact of lifting limitations is very important: states naturally tend to keep a substantial share of their armaments for themselves in case they are themselves attacked directly in the future. But if the enemy is the same, and if the enemy is already attacking, then that reasoning does not make good strategic sense.

Imagine this scenario: European members of NATO decide to give Ukraine only half of what it needs because they wish to be better equipped for the possible future scenario of Russia defeating Ukraine and then attacking them. But by giving Ukraine only half of what it needs, European allies are making a Russian attack against them more likely instead of less likely. It is the opposite of deterrence.

The best way to avoid a future large war whereby Russia attacks other European states is to make sure that Russia is defeated decisively in Ukraine as soon as possible. To achieve that outcome, it is better for nations far away from the frontline and from potential Russian attackers to empty out a much larger share of their current inventories instead of waiting. This is a simple problem of optimization over time. The more time we give to Russia, the more Russia mobilizes its defense industry and the more time it has to work with Iran, North Korea, and other hostile states. Ukraine has been paying a heavy price for such hesitations, and the trends are becoming more dangerous, not less dangerous.

EP: US military aid to Ukraine is crumbling, while Russia is ramping up arms production and has already put its economy on a war footing. Will Ukraine be able to stay afloat without US military aid if Donald Trump returns to the White House and US support for Ukraine comes to a complete halt? Will European support be enough to help Ukraine repel the Russian invasion?

EHC: The risk of a complete stop to US financial support and to US donations of military equipment is high. Should no other solution emerge to get US military supplies to Ukraine, the situation for Ukraine will become very difficult later this year. One key problem is that stocks of artillery shells are low, and the rates of production of new artillery shells are also too low, on both sides of the Atlantic.

There are good chances of managing through this situation if Ukraine can count on supplies from both the US and Europe, as the rates of production will be higher later in 2024 and in 2025. That means that this year, 2024, will be pivotal.

In order to benefit from supplies from both sides of the Atlantic, it will probably be necessary for Ukraine to convince its partners to take additional legislative and policy measures. In the US case, further assistance for purchasing equipment and ammunition, rather than the use of Presidential Drawdown Authorities, may convince enough Republican lawmakers to change their positions.

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In the European case, one should seek to convince European governments to prohibit the sale of ammunition to third countries so that all of the new production goes to Ukraine as a first priority and as a second and lower priority to replenish European stocks.

In parallel, longer-term defense industrial cooperation with Ukraine is continuing and deepening. The ‘armaments coalitions’ that are being set up are very useful in that regard.

Another important aspect is Ukraine’s own defense industry, which is increasingly capable and which holds an important key to a secure future for Ukraine. It is important to support Ukrainian research and development (R&D) and, of course, the production of new types of weapons. I believe that even more profound and closer defense industrial relationships should be pursued between Ukraine and its closest friends. Allies of Ukraine should be convinced that it is worthwhile to accept the greater transfer of defense technologies in favor of Ukrainian partner companies and also to provide funding to kickstart the building of new production facilities inside Ukraine or in locations close to Ukraine’s western border.

EP: What would be the consequences for the United States if it stopped aid to Ukraine? What could be the strategic implications of a Russian victory in the war against Ukraine for the security of Europe and the United States?

EHC: The consequences of a Russian victory would be cataclysmic for the entire Western world.

it would be a very brutal humiliation for the United States and a major moment of dishonor and loss of credibility for America. After supporting Ukraine for two years and ensuring that Ukraine could hold the line, abandoning Ukraine to its fate would be seen everywhere outside America as striking proof that America is finished as a serious power: a country that “fatigues itself” without even fighting due to nonsensical domestic political divisions.

For Europeans, aside from Ukraine, it would be a frightening and demoralizing moment and also a shameful one: to have had the possibility to stop Russia in Ukraine just by supplying weapons and financial support, and to have failed the test of history after having had more than two years of time to develop enough capacity and courage to help.

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Importantly, Europeans would also conclude that America is deeply unreliable and the transatlantic relationship would suffer enormous strain. Some elements of it would survive. It is likely that the United Kingdom, for reasons of kinship and history, would make exceptional efforts to salvage its bilateral relationship with America. Continental European nations would generally trust America less, with damage in trust lasting for decades. This would, in turn, be dangerous for European security because it could tempt Putin to test NATO further to see if it could be made to break apart.

EP: According to the Financial Times, Germany, Italy, and France oppose the confiscation of frozen Russian assets, while the US, UK, Japan, and Canada support it. What arguments can be used to convince opponents of transferring frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine?

EHC: The main legal argument in favor of confiscation is that Russia, being guilty of the crime of aggression against Ukraine, is responsible for the war damage in Ukraine, and, therefore, confiscating the assets is necessary because Russia is unwilling to pay for the damage it caused.

The main legal argument against confiscation is that sovereign assets are generally immune from such measures. However, that argument is weak because there is a direct and clear legal precedent: in 1992, the United Nations seized the assets of the Iraqi state in order to compensate Kuwait, which had been unlawfully attacked by Iraq. The only difference is that, in the Iraqi case, the UN Security Council agreed to the measure. This would not happen now, of course, but the substance of the two cases is the same.

The real reason for hesitations is hence not related to legal issues, those arguing that the barriers are legal are either not well-informed or are not entirely honest. The main reason for hesitation is the fear of secondary negative consequences if other states decide no longer to place their sovereign assets in the European Union and in euro-denominated assets – the biggest fears come from Eurozone countries, including from the European Central Bank.

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This is, of course, a moral and strategic test for Eurozone leaders. I would question how much pain there would really be. The crime of Russia is exceptional, as was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It should be clear that states that have no interest in invading other states can be confident in their assets being safe. Europeans have a very long history of reliability in that regard.

Of course, the strongest argument in favor of confiscating Russia’s assets is to send a clear signal to the entire world that wars of aggression will be punished with every means available. It is a behaviour that every country in the world has an interest in prohibiting. Therefore, if Europeans were to act courageously on this issue, I believe that the vast majority of states in the world would agree with the European action and would feel very grateful for it in private.

Lastly, and as usual, when confronting Russia, Moscow will, of course, run strong disinformation operations to frighten other states and also the banking and financial sectors of Western countries. The arguments are that this will mean some severe crises. I do not believe that at all. After all, as the UK Foreign Secretary argued very well, the first step, which was to freeze the assets, already happened two years ago, and it was clear then, that Russia would probably never see the assets again. Confiscating and using the money to help Ukraine is, from the supposed perspective of investor confidence, a smaller step than the initial freezing, given the context. Importantly, the impact on Western economies from that step was zero.

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