NATO could have trouble combating Putin’s military strategy

September 15, 2014

A Canadian Air Task Force jets CF-18 stands in the Siauliai air base

Since Russian troops seized Ukraine’s strategic Crimean peninsula in late February, and separatists backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin began waging a bloody insurgency in the country’s east, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has walked a fine line.

The transatlantic military alliance has sent hundreds of troops to Ukraine to train alongside Kiev’s forces. But at a major summit in early September, NATO declined to offer Ukraine membership. The alliance doesn’t really want to go to war over Ukraine.

If Russia were to expand its coercive campaign, however, and invade neighboring Estonia — where a security officer is said to have been abducted by Russian forces, a little more than a week ago — NATO’s 27 other member states would have little choice but to deploy troops in combat. They are obligated under Article 5 of NATO’s 1949 founding charter to defend each other from attack.

A freight car loaded with self-propelled howitzers is seen at a railway station in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, Rostov region, near the border with UkraineYet it’s not at all clear that Russia would choose to fight on NATO’s terms. A Russian form of secret warfare called maskirovka might not qualify as a military attack — and could avoid triggering NATO intervention. Instead of fighting in the open, Russian troops entered Crimea in vehicles with license plates and insignia blacked out. There was no clear evidence — at least available publicly — that it was the Russian’s themselves taking action, rather than locals acting on their own behalf.

Such tactics stop short of open warfare and the nations thus invaded fear that if they counterattack, they would then be labeled the aggressors.

All the same, President Barack Obama visited Estonia in September to reassure that country and the other Baltic nations. “The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius,” Obama said in Tallinn on Sept. 3, “is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London.”

To that end, NATO has sophisticated plans to send progressively bigger and heavier forces to do battle on its frontier. The alliance could readily deploy more and better-armed troops than Russia.

Consider, the last time both Russia and NATO reported weapons totals, back in 2007: The alliance possessed a combined 61,000 tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, warplanes and helicopters against Russia’s 28,000. NATO’s active-duty military manpower exceeds 3 million. Russia has fewer than one million active troops.

Yet if Moscow did have designs on Estonia or another small NATO country bordering Russia, the attack wouldn’t necessarily come in the form of tanks and warplanes that NATO could easily identify and destroy.

U.S. President Barack Obama joins in a meeting on the situation in Ukraine at the NATO Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, in the United KingdomRussia instead could do what it has done in Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine and other former Soviet countries outside the NATO alliance. It could undermine them covertly before sending in a single soldier, a strategy Moscow has refined specifically to avoid a clear-cut military confrontation that it just might lose.

To be sure, a Russian invasion of Estonia or another NATO state would meet with overwhelming force from the United States, Canada and NATO’s European members. Alliance defense plans call for small, lightly armed units to act as “tripwires” — alerting commanders about the invading forces so that more numerous and heavily armed formations can rush in.

By themselves, the Baltic states are militarily weak. Between them, the three countries — which all joined NATO in 2004 — have just three outdated tanks and not a single frontline jet fighter. Bigger NATO countries take turns sending jets to Lithuania to patrol the three countries’ airspace.

But the alliance could reinforce Estonia or another small member state quickly. The U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy stands ready to deploy on short notice. NATO also has a multinational reaction force that could deploy 14,000 troops in five days.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks during a news conference on the second and final day of the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor resort, near NewportAt the Wales summit, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen promised to boost the readiness of 4,000 soldiers from the reaction force so that they can reach a battle zone in two days instead of five. “This force can travel light,” Rasmussen said, “but strike hard if needed.”

The United States possesses the bulk of NATO’s combat power. America keeps 67,000 troops in Europe on a permanent basis, along with 216 warplanes, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The Pentagon also regularly practices methods of rushing additional forces to Europe by plane and ship.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Army moved a battalion-sized stockpile of tanks, armored fighting vehicles and self-propelled howitzers to Germany. Then during the Combined Resolve II exercise this summer, the American military flew in troops to practice activating the pre-deployed tanks in case of a crisis.

This fall, the Army is repeating the exercise with another battalion. It is also shipping in hundreds more tanks and armored vehicles — temporarily — for exercises in Poland and the Baltic states.

U.S. soldiers leave a C-130 aircraft during the "Steadfast Javelin II" military exercise in the LielvardeWithin days of a Russian incursion into a country like Estonia, NATO could have hundreds of warplanes and thousands of soldiers ready to fight. Within a few months, the alliance could command thousands of warplanes and hundreds of thousands of troops — far exceeding any force Russia could hope to muster.

But Moscow is unlikely even to try matching NATO plane for plane or tank for tank. Instead, the Kremlin has developed a form of secret invasion it calls maskirovka. The strategy relies heavily on deception, deniability and special operations troops mixed with volunteer militias — armed with advanced weapons — to bring about political change outside Russia’s borders.

“The open use of forces — often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation — is resorted to only at a certain stage, primarily for the achievement of final success in the conflict,” General Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s military general staff, wrote in an essay February for the weekly newspaper Military-Industrial Courier.

The strategy is tailor-made for creating confusion among defending armies trained to fight a conventional — and now largely obsolete — foe. Russia also relies on the heavy use of propaganda and information warfare to make the defending state appear to be an illegitimate occupier.

Dutch Brigadier-General Tak, head of NATO's crisis management centre, attends a news conference in MonsWashington’s eastern European allies are worried Russia could launch a stealth invasion without triggering Article 5 — which would necessitate a NATO response — because the operation’s initial stages might not legally constitute an attack by a foreign state.

“It is the operationalization of a new form of warfare that cannot be characterized as a military campaign in the classic sense of the term,” an April report from the National Defense Academy of Latvia’s Center for Security and Strategic Research warned. “The invisible military occupation cannot be considered an occupation by definition.”

One key reason for Obama’s European trip was to reassure Washington’s eastern European allies otherwise. “Article 5 is crystal clear,” Obama said on Sept. 3. “An attack on one is an attack on all.”

But it’s unclear whether NATO’s legal framework would count the introduction of ad-hoc Russian militants and armed civilians as an attack. Or whether Article 5 would only trigger on the arrival of conventional Russian military forces in the latter stages of the conflict. By then, it might be too late.

Russia’s strategy is also aimed at European politicians.

Though a conventional attack would bound these leaders by treaty to defend each other, an unconventional — and plausibly deniable — stealth invasion would provide just enough wiggle room for politicians who may rather avoid confronting Russia.

Some leaders could prefer to seek a political settlement. But this could be after the conditions on the ground have already changed in Russia’s favor.

NATO is able to defend against Russia’s tanks, but it might not be able to defend against maskirovka.

 

PHOTO (TOP): Canadian Air Task Force jets CF-18, which were flying air policing missions over the Baltic states, stand in the Siauliai air base, August 26, 2014. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A freight car loaded with a self-propelled howitzer is seen at a railway station in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, Rostov region, near the border with Ukraine, August 23, 2014. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Barack Obama joins in a meeting on the situation in Ukraine at the NATO Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, September 4, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

PHOTO (INSERT 3): NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks at a news conference on the second day of the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor resort, near Newport, in Wales, September 5, 2014. REUTERS/Yves Herman

PHOTO (INSERT 4): U.S. 173 airborne brigade soldiers leave a C-17 aircraft during the “Steadfast Javelin II” military exercise in the Lielvarde air base, September 6, 2014. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

PHOTO (INSERT 5): Dutch Brigadier-General Nico Tak, head of NATO’s crisis management center, at a news conference at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), August 28, 2014.REUTERS/Yves Herman

29 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

“A piecemeal World War 3″ – one of the few relevant and insightful statements a pope has ever uttered.

Posted by Nurgle | Report as abusive

The ultimate camouflage….all the combatants look like civilians. I’m sure Mr. Putin has been watching events in the Middle East and has seen how that works. Civilian locations and individuals become military human shields. One of the Middle Easts greatest innovations in modern times… Hiding combatants behind innocents.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Of course in this “video game” treatment of human conflict the essence of the matter is ignored: the fact that there are indeed oppressed Russian populations in all Baltic coutries. Those that in the modern EU newspeak are called “non-citizens” and who at some point may decide that enough is enough and take up arms.

Posted by ippias | Report as abusive

First the US superpower with its NATO/EU coalition have failed in two wars that have been going on for longer than a decade. Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of these two forays have cost the United States. 4,487 American lives, 32,223 wounded for Iraqi Operation Freedom, Operation New Dawn another 66 deaths, and 301 wounded. 2343 deaths in Afghanistan, and wounded 17,674. The financial cost is at about $5 Trillion, plus interest borrowed on the War debt is still to be calculated, and Afghanistan isn’t over in lives and cost. With a debt in the US approaching $18 Trillion. Don’t be conned by the EU. Using the US as its muscle.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Time for the USA to stop with its neocon programme of world dominion. Finland and the Baltic States are not the Ukraine. NATO should have been buried in the same coffin as the Warsaw Pact.

Posted by ChrisHerz | Report as abusive

Make in Estonia the Russian language official and forget about any tensions. Pushing Russian minorities out of the legal field is a concious provocation.

Posted by AKondra | Report as abusive

The author treats the case of a more overt and large scale operation but there are many steps between full peace and open war – as we have seen in Ukraine. If the Baltic states were being attacked, by apparently insurgents with armored vehicles, could Polish F-16s be used to take out the vehicles? With Polish F-16s taking out armor, artillery, etc – the insurgents would be much less effective.

Posted by CharlesHouston | Report as abusive

Official Russian language in Estonia will create more problems, as previously the official Russian language in Ukraine, because of the protection of Russian citizens and advocacy.

Posted by pnetmon | Report as abusive

Gun ownership in Latvia and Lithuania is at very high levels. Also there are no regions there that are heavily Russian ethnicity. Invading either of those two countries – even through maskirovka – might initially succeed, only to turn into modern day Waterloo for young Russian men.

Posted by neshobeguy | Report as abusive

This is like the British occupiers in the American Revolutionary War who wore bright red uniforms and marched in columns under British military protocols, while the colonists picked them off from behind trees and rocks in stealth mode.

I’d say that Article 5 needs to be remodeled. Can NATO leaders be this stupid? Since when does Vladimir Putin operate by any laws? Will NATO sue him????? Maybe we can get Judge Judy involved!!

This is better than Saturday Night Live, watching these NATO morons.

Posted by banh | Report as abusive

I sincerely hope that Kyiv has learned to NEVER sign another protection deal with Washington, because they aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. I hope Ukraine is already rebuilding their nuclear program since she cannot rely on anyone else obviously.

Posted by banh | Report as abusive

Captions identify the big transport plane as a C-130, But the 130 is a quad turboprop. That monstrous pig in the pic is a C-17 Globemaster, and I am an anal-retentive, hair-splitting detail ninja.

Posted by rdavi | Report as abusive

The article makes very good points. We’ve seen how ineffective the West has been against maskirovka in Ukraine.

Posted by Krystya | Report as abusive

Seems like paranoid fantasy. Russia has limited objectives using limited means – objectives which do not include the Baltic states.

Posted by newwest | Report as abusive

Nobody seems to believe Russia will use nukes against the US if backed into a corner?? When facing economic or military destruction from the US, they’ll just stop their behaviour and apologize??

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

Here’s a 1988 article on Maskirovko. Very interesting.
http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airch ronicles/apj/apj88/spr88/smith.html

Posted by cajunprofessor | Report as abusive

NATO needs to employ technologies and resources that better detect this type of deception.

Posted by Leftcoastrocky | Report as abusive

@pnetmon russian language was not official in the Ukraine.

Posted by Bill_Ballmer | Report as abusive

Russia is so aggressive… that poor NATO forced closer and closer to the borders of Russia to build its base, to support the overthrow of governments in surrounding countries of Russia.
Poor poor NATO.
It seems that NATO is not enough for full happiness… nuclear war.
We just want this?

Posted by Anton_Russia | Report as abusive

The biggest weapons Putin has used at Ukraine was a monopoly “Gas” supply and EU’s companies’ investment in Russia.Even for America to supply gas a suitable price was impossible because of transport cost.Now he will go to Syria for investment and make money.India and China will be buyers of his oil.He has used “Business”also his weapon.He must have settled with Poroshenko to allow his chocolates in Russia and he will not allow Ukraine to suffer for want of gas in winter.He is a shrude businessman more than a fighter.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Our, and NATO policies are hoplessly out of date. They were based on WWII war and politics. Now is the time to change the world view and political postures of Europe. The EU is a good idea that has not been pushed to the logical conclusion. The EU must unify as a single state with a real single leadership. Only then can any single country/state rely on the whole for defense. Just as the U.S. would deploy to a state if there were an armed uprising and would not allow certain political actions by any single state, Europe must stand as a single entity, prepared to protect its existence. Sadly, just as the U.S. would not intervene in a Mexican Civil War, Ukraine will just have to swing in the wind.

Posted by Dragonmaster | Report as abusive

What a feel good article this was, now I know the world is a safer place with NATO at our defence. Is this article a “free ad” for NATO?
Judging from history of past 15 years of wars in Iraq/Afghanistan and now ISIL, someone please remind me how come NATO did not prevail?
I can guarantee you with confidence after reading European blogs, that Europeans are against any more wars, they’ve seen too much of suffering during WW1 & 2, there is no stomach for this anymore.

Posted by politicaljunkie | Report as abusive

Embedded CIA journalist?

Posted by rastuss | Report as abusive

Learn to spell. You guys work and blog for Reuters.

Posted by he-bovtan | Report as abusive

[…] Russia could attack under the radar. link […]

Posted by Current Events 9/20/14 | U Hear About Our Podcast? | Report as abusive

Reuters should stop this sort of cheap propaganda. The entire article is a totally academic debate. A conflict between NATO and Russia would quickly escalate to nuclear warfare due to NATOs greater conventional strength.This is a calculation am sure the Russias have done. The will not hesitate to use tactical nuclear weapons. the romoured deployment of tactical nuclear capable Iskander missiles should be seen in this light.

Posted by jmokenya | Report as abusive

Author of article obviously not the military and not expert. All written there is a nonsense. NATO can’t resist to Russia. For example words about Estonia “In some days after attack of Russia on Estonia, there will be thousands of military from NATO” – Nonsense)) the First. – Russia doesn’t need Estonia is a good buffer. The second – for occupation of such country is required to the Russian paratroopers a couple of hours. The third. – at comparison of forces of NATO and Russia it is necessary to consider the military ally of Russia – China, Belarus, Kazakhstan, India. Totally it is manpower 15000000, it is more than tanks and planes several times. India possesses the strongest aircraft in the world, she outnumbers NATO and doesn’t concede in quality. Dobavte here China and Russia – result is predictable. NATO shows an aggressive policy for today: invasions into the sovereign countries: Syria, Serbia, Iraq, Vietnam, Libya, South Ossetia. Everywhere blood flows. China and Russia profess other ideology. They against violence, fascism, a vladychesv in the world of one country. – Such world is doomed. The USA speak about world supremacy and painfully react even to growth of economy of the EU… China of course irritates even more. It is possible to influence the pocket EU… But on Russia “the sanctions method” will be tested… Probably it is necessary to expect the following strike against China… It everything fraction for an elephant of course, but still poor currency of the USA didn’t fail, it works a little, – but on both parties)))
The author doesn’t speak about a situation in Ukraine at all: There life in a world behind the looking-glass))) Total control of mass media, suppression and prohibition of the whole editions, beating of journalists, attacks of the inhabited cities from tools, kidnappings, death of 4000 civilians, tortures of prisoners—This power of fascists supports the USA and NATO for today. The author doesn’t speak about it. Mass media of Russia can lie, but about crimes of army of Poroshenko tells OSCE!!! It could expect also the Crimea which inhabitants wanted freedom from totalitarian Ukraine. Especially Russia will never allow NATO to Sevastopol. Any legal prerequisites and the courses will be found, but Sevastopol will be base of the Russian fleet always. After revolution in Kiev, overthrows of the president by means of the USA, it is the natural course of Russia, but ignorance of psychology of Russians, NATO miscalculated and lost the Crimea.
It is a little more analytics about opposition military. If hypothetically to present that the nuclear weapon is nobody isn’t present. If to reject China and India…. In case of aggression of NATO which all power keeps on the American aircraft carriers, Russia will strike on them with the BULAVA rockets, it is the typical fulfilled volley from underwater cruisers. The underwater fleet of Russia is considerable. NATO has no means of suppression of such rockets. Missile defense systems which can will stop such rocket – today isn’t present. On destruction of fleet of the USA minutes are necessary. Rockets are invisible to a radar, they suppress all electronics of the ship, change a flight trajectory, punch the Arctic ice… After that NATO can be taken “barehanded”. Green little men need hours for capture of all bases of NATO in Europe. Aleksand Nevsky told: “Who to us with a sword will come, from a sword and will be lost”

Posted by cbvathjgjkm7887 | Report as abusive

Author of article obviously not the military and not expert. All written there is a nonsense. NATO can’t resist to Russia. For example words about Estonia “In some days after attack of Russia on Estonia, there will be thousands of military from NATO” – Nonsense)) the First. – Russia doesn’t need Estonia is a good buffer. The second – for occupation of such country is required to the Russian paratroopers a couple of hours. The third. – at comparison of forces of NATO and Russia it is necessary to consider the military ally of Russia – China, Belarus, Kazakhstan, India. Totally it is manpower 15000000, it is more than tanks and planes several times. India possesses the strongest aircraft in the world, she outnumbers NATO and doesn’t concede in quality. Dobavte here China and Russia – result is predictable.

Posted by cbvathjgjkm7887 | Report as abusive

NATO shows an aggressive policy for today: invasions into the sovereign countries: Syria, Serbia, Iraq, Vietnam, Libya, South Ossetia. Everywhere blood flows. China and Russia profess other ideology. They against violence, fascism, a vladychesv in the world of one country. – Such world is doomed. The USA speak about world supremacy and painfully react even to growth of economy of the EU… China of course irritates even more. It is possible to influence the pocket EU… But on Russia “the sanctions method” will be tested… Probably it is necessary to expect the following strike against China… It everything fraction for an elephant of course, but still poor currency of the USA didn’t fail, it works a little, – but on both parties)))

Posted by cbvathjgjkm7887 | Report as abusive

“Article 5 is crystal clear”. Well so was the Budapest Memorandum, and the USA is ignoring its commitments to Ukraine under that agreement. The Russian invasion of Crimea destroyed all US credibility. NATO and all other countries formerly relying on US security guarantees can think again. Obama’s USA is a paper tiger – it only fights when Israel wants it to.

Posted by royalcourtier | Report as abusive