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Russia’s war against Ukraine and threat to Euro-Atlantic security

Defeating Ukraine is seen by Moscow as a crucial objective. But there is another goal Russia seeks to achieve in parallel – to cause critical damage to NATO in its function as a principal pillar of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.

It is significant that in December 2021, while Russia was engaged in the last stage of preparations for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moscow delivered a list of demands to NATO. One of the demands was for NATO to remove its forces from the member states which had joined the alliance after 1997, which includes all of Eastern Europe. As was clear to anyone, including the Russians, NATO agreeing to such a demand would discredit the security guarantee given to its member states, both in practical and moral terms.

Lately, the realisation that Russia wants not only to subjugate its largest eastern neighbour, but also to inflict a crushing geopolitical defeat on the West, has been growing more widespread. Indeed, various Western leaders have begun to talk about the threat of Russian aggression against NATO member countries directly.

Statements on this threat usually concern its possible materialisation in the medium- or long-term; ‘in a few years’ time’ as Emmanuel Macron, President of France, said. But it is dangerous to put faith in such a timeframe. Over the last 20 years, democracies in both Europe and North America have repeatedly underestimated Moscow’s willingness to take drastic action in advancing its geostrategic objectives. They do so again at their own peril.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, there are many reasons to attempt to target NATO in the short-term. Despite the Russian’s offensive operations and tactical gains in Ukraine, they have been unable to achieve a significant breakthrough on the frontline. They could achieve it only if Western military support for Ukraine broke down completely. However, despite party-politics in the United States (US) hindering assistance to Ukraine and the shortage of ammunition in Europe, such a breakdown in support is not a very probable scenario. 

This means that Moscow has no clear path to overrunning Ukraine. Nor is it easy for Russia to extricate itself from the war in a manner which would satisfy its overblown imperial ambitions. If Western support for Ukraine continues, the resulting protracted war could prove dangerous for the regime in the Kremlin. 

It makes sense, therefore, for Russia to target NATO – its primary geopolitical adversary and an alliance where most members are giving Ukraine a lot of the support necessary for its continued resistance. This logic would be meaningless if Moscow saw NATO’s Article 5 guarantee as truly ironclad. But during the last two years Western leaders have expressed their dread of a direct armed confrontation with Russia too frequently. With this they might have given Moscow an impression, even if a mistaken one, that if it escalates a crisis with NATO just far enough, the alliance will fold.

Engaging in full-scale military aggression against NATO is, of course, out of question for Russia as long as its war against Ukraine continues. But Russia could conduct an operation of the kind which it launched against Ukraine in 2014, labelled ‘hybrid’ at the time. Russian expertise in this area remains. And there are vulnerabilities within NATO members, including the Russian-speaking minorities within the Baltic states, which could be exploited for just this sort of Russian action.

Moscow’s best-case scenario in such an operation would be to trigger Article 5, and then cause NATO to fail in reacting to it. This would arguably see NATO break down. Even limited Russian occupation of only some parts of a NATO member state’s territory could break the Article 5 guarantee if NATO did not react in an adequately decisive manner. Such an outcome would be a supreme triumph for the Kremlin. 

However, there is another, more limited but nonetheless crucial objective which Russia might hope to achieve by causing a crisis with NATO – to scare democracies into concentrating only on their own defence at the expense of supporting Ukraine. Given the current European shortage of weapons and ammunition, Moscow could see achieving this as a realistic possibility.

In case Russia does attempt some kind of operation against NATO member states while its war against Ukraine continues, it will be of vital importance to deny the Kremlin both of these objectives.

Ukraine already struggles with insufficient supplies of ammunition. Any further weakening of military support could realistically result in catastrophic consequences on the frontline. If, as an outcome of the war, Russia were to defeat the Ukrainian Armed Forces, most of the Russian Armed Forces would be freed for operations elsewhere, including on NATO’s Eastern flank. And in such a case, these operations would not necessarily have a ‘hybrid’ form, instead involving large Russian conventional military forces.

Russia’s aggressive actions toward Ukraine and the West are pieces of the same geopolitical struggle and should be treated as such; Russia’s imperial restoration project and efforts to knock down the Euro-Atlantic security architecture are components of a single strategy. These components are in harmony and support one another. To resist this strategy successfully, democracies need to ensure both the integrity of NATO and Ukraine’s warfighting capability. Russia must not be allowed to force the West into a false choice between these two necessities.

David Batashvili is a Research Fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (Rondeli Foundation) in Tbilisi, Georgia.

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