by Robert Beckhusen. Robert Beckhusen is a freelance writer who contributes regularly at War is Boring. He’s also written for publications including C4ISR Journal, Wired, The Daily Beast and World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea was a coup de grace long in the making. It not only resulted in the annexation of the territory of a European state by another, it has serious consequences for the ability of NATO to defend to itself in the future.
According to a recent report from the National Defence Academy of Latvia’s Center for Security and Strategic Research, the operational art being developed — and now being deployed — by Russia could potentially undermine and defeat NATO in a limited conflict.
It’s a striking claim. But it wouldn’t involve a direct fight, where Russia faces numerous disadvantages. Instead, the reason NATO is at risk is through what the report describes as Russia’s “operationalization of a new form of warfare that cannot be characterized as a military campaign in the classic sense of the term,” writes Janis Berzins, the report’s author.
This new strategy goes out of its way to avoid fighting a conventional war. The number of troops used in a campaign is kept at the minimum, with soldiers mainly used to deliver a killing blow after unconventional means have succeeded. This strategy sees warfare as “based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind and, as a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare.”
In Crimea, Russia deliberately avoided physically destroying Ukrainian forces on conventional terms. Russia used relatively few outside conventional forces of its own, relying instead on fewer than 10,000 naval infantry troops stationed on the peninsula and supported by airborne infantry and special forces units based in Russia. These were supported by armed insurgent-type auxiliaries. But by the time the troops commenced military action, Ukrainian forces were already defeated by a combination of discreet and covert measures. Worse for Ukraine, the Kremlin could ostensibly — though not convincingly — tell the world Russia was not the aggressor by putting the burden of starting armed hostilities onto Ukraine.
According to the report, Russia’s military conceptualizes warfare in eight distinct phases. The first phase is a slew of non-military techniques — economic, diplomatic and ideological — designed to set the stage for military action. This escalates to the second, third and fourth stages, which includes bribing and intimidating opposing military officers, and engaging in diplomatic and military misdirection.
In Crimea, armed militants — promoted by state-owned media as discontented local civilians — began appearing on the ground. By the time Russian forces arrived ground, Ukrainian troops were isolated in their bases and unable to determine where their enemy was, its size and disposition, and even who they were. After this stage, the operation moved into a period “consisting of psychological warfare, intimidation, bribery, and internet/media propaganda to undermine resistance, thus avoiding the use of firepower,” Berzins writes.
The final two stages — which did not occur in Crimea — involve the use of heavier weapons seen in more conventional forms of warfare. It’s also worth noting that the kind of warfare envisioned here is still a work in progress. Some of the weapons Russia would like to employ in similar future operations are still experimental. For example, the report describes these latter phases as involving a “combination of targeted information operation, electronic warfare operation, aerospace operation, continuous airforce harassment, combined with the use of high-precision weapons launched from various platforms (long-range artillery, and weapons based on new physical principles, including microwaves, radiation, non-lethal biological weapons).”
If an enemy force has managed to hold on for much longer, the job would fall to special forces units. These units would “spot which enemy units have survived and transmit their coordinates to the attacker’s missile and artillery units.” The remaining adversaries would then be destroyed.
The Latvian military has real reasons to be concerned about this strategy. Russia has — since before the Soviet era — pursued a defense in depth strategy to defend itself from an invasion. After Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania joined NATO in 2004, Russia’s key cities were now within a few hundred miles of a potential attacker. Latvia is also home to a Russian-speaking minority that the Kremlin could use as a base of support to — over the long term — destabilize the Latvian government.
It’s also worth noting Latvia’s military could not repel a Russian invasion. The U.S. sent a company-sized group of paratroopers to the country in April as a means to deter Russia. This would also not be able to stop an invasion, but the possibility of American troops being harmed in a NATO-allied country by Russian troops acts a deterrent. “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has renewed our resolve to strengthening NATO’s defense plans and capabilities,” U.S. Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
But the report warns it might not be as much of a deterrent as NATO’s planners might think–and a conventional invasion is unlikely. As Russia is engaging in “a non-traditional form of combat just recently being operationalized on such a scale, a fair question is whether NATO’s own legal framework and instruments are ready to deal with it,” Berzins writes.
For example, NATO’s Article 5 requires that member states are obliged to defend each other in case of an “armed attack.” But does the Crimea invasion count as an armed attack? According to the Kremlin, it wasn’t. Could you prove — in a hypothetical Crimea-type operation in Latvia — that the troops are in fact Russian soldiers? Are Latvian troops — who are prevented from interfering in the country’s internal affairs — responsible for stopping the invasion? These are difficult questions. If there are answers, are they convincing enough for European politicians to risk severing all economic ties with Russia? Is it worth going to war with Russia? This uncertainty means that a NATO-allied state could conceivably see itself invaded, and the alliance unable to effectively respond.
To avoid this scenario, the report recommends several major reforms. One involves modifying NATO’s Article 5. The others involve Latvian government policies and organization, as well as managing cultural issues within Latvian borders and promoting economic development in marginalized Russian-speaking regions. Further, the report warns of Russian agents inside the security services, who may attempt to co-opt officials. It also recommends reforming the conscription model to be “a mix between the Finnish, the Swiss, and the Israeli model, with every Latvian citizen being a soldier, ready to defend his/her country.” It also recommends decentralizing the decision to take action. Instead of relying on the government, which may hesitate to respond to an invasion, “each citizen has the right to resist the aggressor, including by military defense, guerrilla warfare, civil disobedience, non-collaboration, and other means.”