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Deterrence Plus


Recent conflicts have shown that European security won’t work without a hybrid security policy. Here’s what a triad of deterrence, resilience, and defense could look like.

(c) REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

(c) REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

The Ukraine crisis has brought the logic of deterrence back to Europe. Ukrainian territory was seized by force, after all – it is only logical that NATO states look to deterrence to counter the increased threat they perceive from Russian aggression on their borders. With tanks, ships, and aircrafts showcased in exercises, NATO states want to convince Russia that an attack would incur greater damages than its anticipated gains.

That was the broad thinking behind NATO increasing its presence in Eastern Europe and adopting its Readiness Action Plan at the Wales Summit of September 2014. Yet this focus on military means neglects the central role played by civilian tools in hybrid warfare, which include cyberattacks, propaganda, and irregular troops sabotaging infrastructure. Neither the annexation of Crimea nor the invasion of eastern Ukraine was initiated by an armored division; instead, the conflict was kept below the level regarded by the West as a military attack to which the EU and NATO would have to respond. Though conventional weapons may seem to be the first option at hand, they are often ineffective against these unconventional threats.

Hectic activism risks a two-pronged security policy miscalculation: first, overemphasizing the military dimension, both in the analysis of threats and the choice of instruments; and, second, planning to fight the last war all over again. Already, too many Western actors are talking themselves into a conflict scenario with Russia as the expected adversary and assuming it will follow the script of the Ukraine invasions. Yet this thinking is far too narrow.

The abiding lesson from Ukraine for Western security policy is: Europe remains exposed to existential threats and risks in too many areas, especially those that have been discussed since 9/11 as “vulnerabilities” and which constitute a core element of “hybrid” threats. These include home grown terrorism and the dependence on international networks, be they energy or data.

A new hybrid security policy needs to rethink deterrence. The military must remain an element – the primary objective of any deterrence policy is still the prevention of a potential attack – but since early escalation would seem likely to be aimed at non-military vulnerabilities, these weaknesses must be carefully considered.

Yet to deter hybrid threats, military means and logic are not enough – they must be supplemented. Answering like for like, however, retaliating with symmetric non-military means like counter-propaganda or the incitement of minorities would be highly inappropriate for EU and NATO countries: It would be illegal and certainly contested by domestic societies.

Instead, the response should focus on avoiding such an escalation by rendering the civilian structures of Western societies more resilient and thus more able to withstand attempts to exploit inherent weaknesses, while proactively addressing threats to Western infrastructure before they are allowed to escalate. Should deterrence and resilience not be able to prevent an attack, defense remains the necessary response. This triad – deterrence, resilience, and defense – should guide the hybrid security policy of EU and NATO states in the future.

War by Civilian Means

The distinguishing feature of hybrid tactics is the use of civilian tools to influence violent conflicts. That is not new: It is a basic principle of strategy to employ all means to assert one’s interests, something that is most effective if done in an orchestrated fashion.

In hybrid conflicts, armed forces are not primarily a tool to exert military force: the 40,000 soldiers Russia temporarily deployed at the Ukrainian border were primarily used to create a scenario of intimidation, acting both as a shield and a logistical hub for the unconventional forces fighting in Ukraine.

The objective of using irregular tools is to exploit the weaknesses of the target community in order to destabilize a state and polarize its society. It expands the gray area between peace and conflict – force can still play a part, but is not directly attributable to any party to the conflict, nor does it have a clear military character. This undermines the internationally recognized prohibition on the use of force by making it difficult to define – and makes it difficult for the international community to develop a coordinated reaction. Russia’s recent behavior has exposed Europe’s difficulties in responding to such hybrid approaches.

Beyond Russia: European Vulnerabilities

However, Russia does not have a monopoly on hybrid tactics – other actors can also use this kind of approach. NATO and the EU should break away from their stark focus on Russia and start thinking beyond the current crisis by making Europe’s general vulnerabilities the center of a hybrid security policy. These vulnerabilities exist in four areas.

The first remains Europe’s territorial integrity. The likelihood of a military conflict between EU/NATO and other actors has increased because, among other things, the region is militarily weak. NATO itself has admitted it is not prepared for a large interstate conflict. Other actors may be tempted to make use of this weakness to advance their own interests militarily. Such a scenario is of particular concern in the Baltics. Europeans would not be able to simply withdraw from a conflict on their borders – neither in the East, nor the South. This is one of the reasons for European states involving themselves in fighting the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East and northern Africa; it cannot countenance IS entering the continent.

Second, political disunity could make Europe vulnerable: The Ukraine crisis has shown that Europe can only wield influence when united. Bilateral negotiations and national measures against Russia would be ineffective. Yet, in view of the different priorities of its members, European unity cannot be taken for granted: the Baltic States (where annexation by Russia still runs deep through collective memory) and other eastern states feel directly threatened by Moscow, yet other countries in the south and west do not see Russia as their main problem – France, for example, is concerned with instability in the Sahel. The difficulty of clearly attributing hybrid hostilities can also widen differences in interpreting the Ukraine conflict. These factors can drive wedges between European states.

Third, Europe is vulnerable due to the dependence of its societies on global infrastructure and free flow of goods, services, people, and capital. Russian energy supplies are a perfect example of this, as is Internet communication and other modern infrastructure, as well as more traditional trade. The openness from which Europe profits makes it susceptible to disruptions of its global interdependencies.

Fourth, the pluralism of Western societies can be exploited. One significant lesson from Ukraine is that a conflict can emerge from internal destabilization. Many European countries are worried about how to deal with people who return home after fighting for IS abroad. Add to this the vulnerability of infrastructure such as water and power supplies, as well as transport, finance, and economic systems. Many are now privately owned and may not stand up to conflict conditions.

A Hybrid Security Policy

The Ukraine crisis can and should influence the strategic direction of Western security policy – it has exposed significant European vulnerabilities and should provide a stark warning that other actors could apply hybrid tactics in the future. Europe’s security policy needs to take on hybrid threats using a three-pronged approach of deterrence, resilience, and defense.

Deterrence: Military conflict – as a conventional war or as part of hybrid warfare – remains a risk for which Europeans must prepare. Cold War deterrence was primarily military and nuclear. The Ukraine crisis prompted NATO to strengthen its conventional forces to transmit a clear signal, anchored in the Readiness Action Plan, which is to be implemented by the 2016 Warsaw Summit.

Yet this begs the question of the future of nuclear deterrence. Over the past months, Russia has nuclearized the confrontation by demonstrating the operational capability of its nuclear forces, such as increasing the numbers of sorties flown by strategic bombers. The overall Russian goal seems to be to intimidate its neighbors and NATO. Eastern European countries in particular fear that Moscow’s nuclear saber rattling could become a permanent feature – and that Russia could seriously contemplate using its atomic weapons. NATO needs to consider if and how it should adjust its nuclear strategy.

Another dimension of deterrence is civilian. The prevention of an escalation brought about by hybrid means requires fast and direct civilian tools to fend off attempts to exploit dependencies and weaknesses. Governments must work out responses to such things as restricted energy supply and cyber attacks. Internal security is crucial ­– functional and robust police, border security, and civilian administration structures.

Resilience: The interconnectedness and openness of Western societies bestow them with great strength, but also leave them vulnerable to attack. Societies have to be empowered to better resist and quickly recover from attacks on their values and everyday life. Better early warning systems and risk management will be essential. Weak spots that could be taken advantage of range from economic dependence to unhappy minorities and must be covered by protective measures, from infrastructure up to the freedom of the press and opinion.

The first task is to strengthen social unity. This demands managed migration and integration policies that regard diverse societies as worth safeguarding. These aspects must in turn be supported by economic, social, and education policies. It is necessary to enable minorities to integrate in such a way that they are less susceptible to sedition and radicalization. In the Baltics, for example, this could be achieved among other methods through improved youth outreach programs and Russian-language television programming. It is also imperative to better protect necessary infrastructure. The technical foundations of societies have to be resilient, and this requires the establishment of redundancies, networked structures, and alternative supply routes –in the field of energy, for example, through the diversification of sources.

Defense: Should deterrence fail, the defense of territory and national institutions against military attack remains crucial. But crisis management cannot be neglected, because EU and NATO states cannot guarantee their security by territorial defense alone. And in light of global interdependences they will be required to defend their security outside of Europe as well. Here, the military remains an instrument of last resort in acute emergencies. The use of political and economic tools to defend and support a stable international order has to be the highest priority, because such an order supports the openness and interconnectedness from which Europe benefits so tremendously.

Next Steps

Most opportunities to take action on hybrid security are at the national and regional levels, putting particular responsibility for such policies on states. However, states often do not possess the necessary instruments or possess them only to an insufficient degree. Therefore, they should develop a European action plan on hybrid security policy, bringing in EU and NATO resources. NATO can cover military aspects, but the EU is in the best position to take on civilian issues. It can most effectively assess where social, legal, and economic situations might be fragile within member and neighbor states. And it has the tools, such as in social policies and infrastructural support, to address such vulnerabilities.

The first step of a European action plan would be to identify where and how Europe’s unity is vulnerable and what the consequences might be should one state not receive enough support. The findings could increase the willingness of states to agree on mutual support and prepare for future crises with practical measures – before the next real crisis strikes. In a second step, the Europeans must better combine the existing instruments of security policy, risk management, and prevention – namely deterrence, resilience, and defense – and readjust the mix of civilian and military elements in this triad. Both require a reasonable division of labor and better cooperation between the EU and NATO.

Deterrence has been firmly anchored in Western security policy thinking since the 1967 Harmel Report. This now must be adapted to meet the challenges of hybrid aggression. Yet, this very report promoted a dual track policy and called for political détente while maintaining adequate defense. Thus, when creating and implementing a hybrid security policy, Europeans should also seek for de-escalation, in order to shape a common and cooperative European security order.

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