François Heisbourg is Senior Advisor for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Special Advisor at the Foundation for Strategic Research.
PARIS – The basic assumption within NATO is that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not dare strike the alliance directly. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – which stipulates that any attack on a NATO member country must be considered an attack on all its members – has become an indisputable defense guarantee that Russia will not seek to to challenge.
The question now, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, is: to what extent does Putin share this totemic view of Article 5? The answer — we simply don’t know — is worrying enough to warrant rethinking NATO’s military and political posture.
Let’s start with what we know about Putin. The Russian president has made clear his intention to revamp the continent’s security environment. The existence of Ukraine, a country larger than France, as a sovereign state was denied as early as last July in his “Vadimir Putin’s Article ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians'”, and it now executes the corresponding policy in Force.
Those who assumed that Putin was bluffing because war would be “irrational” now see that it was anything but: he rationally chose war to achieve a goal that could not be achieved by other means.
Expect Russia to do the same with the two draft “limited sovereignty” treaties it presented in December. These are aimed at bringing Europe’s three-decade-old security system back to the Soviet era and prohibiting any further NATO enlargement. Unlike the Soviet Union, whose main priority was to preserve its empire after World War II, Putin’s Russia is in the process of recreating an empire and advancing its strategic boundaries in the heart of Europe.
The remarkable solidarity of the West prevented Putin from achieving this goal diplomatically. He can now be expected to pursue it in other ways. If there’s one thing the invasion of Ukraine showed, it’s that Putin means what he says.
Next, note that Russia is a country that takes military power seriously. If we do not make adequate military preparations in peacetime, we risk not being taken seriously with regard to the possibility of real war.
And this is where NATO’s totemic belief in Article 5 comes in. Because of this belief, NATO’s military measures remain inadequate for a serious challenge: nuclear weapons in the deep background and limited rotational forces provide assurance and perhaps some deterrence, but conventional NATO forces, even if reinforced, are not designed to defend against a force of the type operating today’ today in Ukraine and its surroundings.
There is a good chance that President Putin will seek to further test NATO’s resolve after the Ukraine campaign. The obvious places for him to start are in non-NATO countries close to NATO – notably Sweden and its strategic real estate in the Baltic Sea, such as the island of Gotland.
Limited operations in the gray zone could also be carried out directly against NATO countries, which have become more vulnerable as a result of the Ukraine campaign: Moscow now controls the strategically important Suwalki breach, a 104 kilometer stretch from the Polish-Lithuanian border. which stretches between Russian-dominated Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.
Romania, a militarily weak neighbor of Ukraine, will likely soon see Russian forces lined up along its border, able to provide support to Serbia and Republika Srpska. And as Russia reorganizes its forces after the Ukraine campaign, Putin will be watching the United States closely for political change after the midterm elections there.
The limitations of using Article 5 and small NATO forces were well understood during the Cold War: NATO maintained a powerful defensive force to deter Soviet leaders from succumbing to temptation. It is important to return to a robust military position – and quickly. Since the sanctions will undermine Russia’s ability to sustain the war, it must be assumed that Putin will act as soon as possible and therefore countermeasures must be taken quickly.
Putin’s draft treaties and his invasion of Ukraine relieve NATO of the non-binding commitments it accepted in 1997: permanent forces and bases can and must now be established on the territory of the former Pact countries. Warsaw. NATO defense capabilities there are set to be increased by an order of magnitude – from 5,000 in 2021 to some 50,000 troops stationed, from brigade level to the equivalent of a full army corps. .
Politically, EU members Sweden and Finland stand to benefit from accelerated NATO membership, should they wish to join. There is no technical obstacle here since they are in quasi-plug-in mode vis-à-vis NATO. It would be best to do so before Russian forces recover from their Ukrainian campaign. These measures will cost money and require political energy. But it is urgent that they be done. President Putin reminded us that his wars are not cold, they are hot.