A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

A Threatening Neighbor


Russia is waging a hybrid war against NATO and Europe: a coordinated campaign of military, non-military, and subversive actions. The Europeans need to do much more for their security.

© REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in early 2014, the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbass, was a double shock for the West. Moscow attacked a neighbor, breaking numerous international agreements. Above all, it contravened a principle that is of fundamental importance for security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area: the inviolability of national borders. Russia has demonstrated that it is prepared to use military force if it considers this necessary to assert its geopolitical interests and the associated risk to be manageable. This breach of taboo has fundamentally changed the security of Europe. Russia’s western neighbors feel insecure, and rather than seeking cooperation with Russia they are looking for protection from it.

Intimidate the Opponent

The way Russia operated was the second shock. This was an almost perfect application of the strategy that in the West is often called hybrid warfare, a broad, coordinated campaign of non-military means, covert military measures, and subversive actions: large-scale propaganda and disinformation; mobilizing and arming rebel groups and then controlling them centrally from Moscow; cyberattacks against civil and military infrastructure; the use of masked special forces to occupy key facilities; deploying troops along the Ukrainian border to establish a threatening posture; demonstrative exercises of Russia’s nuclear forces; and tough, intimidating public rhetoric.

Meanwhile, additional elements of the hybrid spectrum have come to the fore: interference in democratic elections; attempted blackmail using oil and gas supplies; deliberate violations of the airspace of NATO states; military exercises near NATO borders; and even the voicing of nuclear threats. The full range of options are used flexibly and tailored to an evolving situation and opportunity―in peacetime, in a crisis, and in war. This “strategy of active defense” (General Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of Defense) is designed to blur the boundaries between peace and conflict, to complicate the attribution of an aggression, to remain below the threshold of a direct military confrontation with NATO, and thus avoid triggering military resistance—and yet to achieve an effect similar to military action: surprise, insecurity, intimidation, and paralysis of the opponent.

Recently, Russia has added another element: in breach of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, it has deployed new ground-based, intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles. For the first time in almost 30 years, large parts of Europe face a potential nuclear threat from Russia’s soil. As a core element of its strategy, Russia has systematically modernized its armed forces and steadily increased its defense budget in real terms until 2014. According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2019, the defense budget amounted to $62.4 billion, which corresponds to a purchasing power in Russia of $162 billion. Around 40 percent is invested in modern equipment. Army units of around 60,000 troops at high-readiness can be quickly deployed anywhere. Every two years, in its large-scale exercise ZAPAD, Russia rehearses the way it would wage war against the West.

Although Russia might for the time being not be able to withstand a long war against NATO, it is in the process of achieving military superiority with conventional forces in the Baltic region. This gives Russia the option to create a fait accompli with a rapid regional attack, supplemented by cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns—and backed up by the threat of deep conventional or nuclear strikes against European capitals and critical civilian and military infrastructure essential for deployment of forces and defense. Such a situation could paralyze the Europeans’ determination to live up to their collective defense commitments, convince the Americans to stay away, and then force NATO to stand down for fear of nuclear escalation. The new situation has caused great unease in NATO.

And finally, Moscow’s entry into the war in Syria has further expanded its anti-Western sphere of action. It has shown that it is capable of projecting military power even over strategic distances. It has filled a gap left by the US and has established itself permanently as a central actor in the Middle East—as a protective power of autocratic rulers, not as a peacemaker.

A Deep-Rooted Fear of Invasion

In the West, people wonder at the motives of the Russian leadership. All the more as Russian strategists, too, are aware that there is no military threat to Russia emanating from Europe. NATO and EU enlargement have stabilized and pacified Eastern Europe. NATO’s voluntary commitment made in the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 is still valid: NATO has pledged not to deploy nuclear weapons or to permanently station additional substantial combat forces in its eastern member states.

According to most experts, the Russian leadership’s strategic thinking and actions are based on a combination of offensive and defensive elements rooted in Russia’s history and geography. The leadership defines itself by its political and cultural demarcation and opposition to the West. One can identify four fundamental beliefs that overlap and reinforce each other:

First, the existence of the ruling system must be secured by all means, ostensibly out of concern for Russia’s stability and security. The Russian leadership believes that democracy and economic prosperity in Ukraine, where millions of Russians live, would be an existential threat to President Putin’s autocratic rule. The so-called “color revolutions” there and in Georgia crossed “red lines”; in the end, they had to be stopped by force.

Second, because of its imperial history, size and status as a nuclear power, Russia believes it has a natural right to be respected as a privileged great power and to act accordingly, on an equal footing with its rival, the United States. “Equal security” only exists between great powers. Institutional integration of democratic nations ensuring equal security for all of them, whether great and small, as provided by NATO and the EU, is foreign to the mindset of the Russian leadership.

Third, only a strong state with a central power, the “vertical of power” (Vladimir Putin), can hold together and secure such a huge country with more than 130 ethnic groups. Law and order serve to secure power.

Fourth, Russia’s vast expanse, with a land border of more than 20,000 kilometers that is almost impossible to secure, has led to a deep-rooted fear of invasion and encirclement which has fueled an almost insatiable need for absolute security. Dangers must be averted or at least kept under control far outside the Russian heartland.

No Protective Belt

These factors have always led Russia to surround itself with a multi-level cordon sanitaire. From a geostrategic point of view, this purpose was fulfilled by the Soviet republics and the Warsaw Pact states, supplemented by “non-aligned” states in Europe. The perceived loss of these buffer states after the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union was, in Moscow’s view, further exacerbated by the accession of Eastern European countries to NATO. The possibility of maintaining Eastern Europe as a zone of influence disappeared. Moscow’s insistence on “privileged interests” in its neighborhood, the “near abroad,” went unheard. In accordance with the principle of free choice of alliances, NATO’s door remains open for other states. Thus, Russia’s expectation that the US would guarantee it geostrategic spheres of influence and take into account its special interests there, for example in the Western Balkans (Kosovo 1999) and the Middle East (Iraq 2003) failed.

Since then, Moscow has sought to achieve the effect of a protective belt by other means. What stands in the way of the expansion of Russian control in Europe are the EU and NATO. Their cohesion must be undermined, their decision-making capacity paralyzed, and their ability to act blocked. Then Russian control over Europe would unfold almost on its own. This is the aim of Russia’s policy of permanent confrontation with the West. Its instrument is Gerasimov’s “hybrid” strategy, which seeks to destabilize Western states and institutions  from within and to intimidate them from the outside.

In sum, it is safe to conclude that Russia’s security policy action also has a defensive origin, which is understandable for historical and geographical reasons. But it manifests itself in an aggressive and unpredictable manner. The transatlantic community cannot, however, trade away its values and principles, or the freedom and security of its members, in order to accommodate the geopolitical interests of an autocratic Russia.

NATO’s Deterrence

Since 2014, after more than 20 years of focusing on crisis management beyond the alliance’s borders, NATO has therefore revitalized its primary task of deterrence and collective defense. In the last six years, the alliance has implemented an array of measures to significantly improve its responsiveness and enhance the operational readiness of its armed forces. It has also strengthened its nuclear deterrence.

In developing and implementing its strategy, however, NATO is taking into account the perceptions of the Russian leadership. It has enhanced its capabilities, but kept them defensive. Its actions are balanced and proportionate, not excessive. They do not pose a threat to Russia, but they do send the message that coercion is ineffective, that an attack would not be successful, that the disadvantages would outweigh the desired gains, and that, in extreme cases, an attack could result in unacceptable damage inflicted on Russia itself.

So, for instance, instead of permanently stationing larger combat formations along NATO’s eastern border, NATO relies on rapidly reinforcing alliance members should they be threatened.

What’s more, the presence of multinational NATO forces in the Baltic States and Poland is limited to one multinational battlegroup each. However, they are immediately operational. Even in the event of a limited incursion, Moscow would immediately find itself in a military conflict with the whole of NATO, including the three nuclear powers, the United States, France and the United Kingdom—and would therefore be faced with the risk of nuclear escalation. This is the essence of deterrence.

Also, the alliance will not respond to the new Russian intermediate-range missiles by deploying  new nuclear weapons in Europe. Instead, it is focusing on defensive conventional means such as air and missile defense, which are designed to counter the threat of the Russian missiles.

And NATO maintains a regular dialogue with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council. The two military supreme commanders also exchange views. The aim is to avoid misunderstandings, minimize risks, and maintain a minimum of predictability. The alliance is also committed to reinvigorating arms control in Europe. However, there is currently no incentive for the Kremlin to enter into serious negotiations. At present, it holds all the trump cards.

The China Factor

For some time now, there has been growing evidence of increased political, economic, and military cooperation between China and Russia—a “strategic partnership.” Cooperation between the two autocratic superpowers presents the Western community with a double strategic challenge. The US regards China as its main competitor and is shifting its strategic focus to Asia. This could encourage Moscow to take a riskier approach in the West, especially if there was to be a military conflict between the US and China.

As a consequence, the Europeans must do much more for Europe’s security, both within NATO and the EU. Allies should also respond to French President Macron’s call for jointly developing a strategy for Europe’s future relationship with Russia, without legitimizing Russian revisionism and breaches of international law. Europe and Russia share a common geopolitical space. And, as Napoleon once supposedly declared, geography is destiny.