NATO Must Adapt to an Era of Hybrid Threats
As the foreign ministers of the NATO allies met this week in Riga, Latvia, they did so against the backdrop of an increasingly tense geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe. Large numbers of Russian forces remain deployed not far from Ukraine’s borders, postured for offensive military action. And Minsk announced on November 29 that it was prepared to conduct large-scale exercises with Russia near Ukraine’s border.
Although Ukraine is not a NATO ally—and therefore not covered by the alliance’s mutual defense clause—another Russian invasion there would greatly destabilize Central and Eastern Europe. NATO allies Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States would all perceive a renewed existential threat. They would very likely call for NATO to respond with efforts to bolster the alliance’s eastern flank.
To its credit, NATO has done much over the last several years to prepare for and deter a traditional attack from Russia. A reinvigorated NATO defense planning process has improved allied capabilities, readiness initiatives have shortened alliance response times, and allies have re-embraced territorial defense. It is likely that a Russian military assault against Estonia or Lithuania, for instance, would result in a strong, unified response that would ultimately defeat and expel the invading force.
Putin most likely knows this. And so, unsurprisingly, he has focused Russian efforts with regard to the West in the hybrid realm, engaging in information operations, cyber attacks, and political manipulation, for example. Here, the alliance struggles to operate and respond to events that fall in between the seams of its three-part strategic construct of collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security.
Collective defense is at the heart of NATO—it’s embodied in the Article 5 mutual defense clause of the alliance’s founding treaty and in the military forces of its thirty member nations.
Crisis management sometimes relies on those same military forces—for example, in peace support operations in Kosovo—as well as the alliance’s politico-diplomatic toolkit. NATO’s intent here is to address events before they manifest into full-blown conflicts and to help consolidate stability in post-conflict environments.
Cooperative security is largely conducted during peacetime, entailing the use of security partnerships and training and education activities.
This three-part construct has been the alliance’s focus since the end of the Cold War thirty years ago. Unfortunately, it is outmoded for the twenty-first century, one in which the alliance’s primary state adversaries—primarily Russia but also China—employ hybrid tactics iteratively across multiple domains. Those tactics and their resulting effects fall in between the bounds of conflict, crisis, and peace that NATO is best suited to handle, at least for now.
This raises the fundamental questions of whether and how the alliance can adapt to the new security environment. It’s an especially appropriate time to examine these questions, given the unfolding work on the alliance’s next strategic concept, due out in 2022.
It’s conceivable that NATO is simply not the answer. Its nature as an intergovernmental organization of sovereign countries and its character as a defensively oriented alliance mean that it may not be suited for proactive, continuous cyber operations, for example.
If NATO is the answer or at least part of it, the allies need to use the 2022 Strategic Concept and subordinate documents to develop a new plan and operational concepts for how it will confront adversaries in between conflict, crisis, and peace.
To give credit where it is due, the alliance has made significant progress along these lines since 2014, in terms of identifying hybrid threats and challenges as well as in countering hybrid activity in the information and cyber realms. Yet given ongoing and evolving Russian and Chinese actions, more remains to be done to fully safeguard Western security and reestablish deterrence.
Some have argued the alliance needs to pursue a “Comprehensive Approach” to addressing hybrid tactics, utilizing its existing convening authority, partnerships, and other tools to craft multilateral approaches toward the non-military aspects of hybrid conflict. Others have suggested the alliance should build closer partnerships with the private sector, overcome reluctance to conduct offensive actions below the threshold of war, and devote more resources to aggressively identifying and attributing emerging hybrid threats.
At a minimum, the alliance will need to use the 2022 Strategic Concept to clearly conceptualize and frame its role in dealing with Russian and Chinese actions that fall between conflict, crisis, and peace. It’s possible the addition of a fourth core task—beyond the three outlined earlier—could achieve this objective.
However, given the reluctance among some European allies to have NATO step on the EU’s toes, a more politically acceptable outcome may be to reconceptualize, broaden, and deepen the collective defense task. To some degree, the alliance has been leaning in this direction. For example, NATO declared cyber attacks could trigger an Article 5 collective defense response.
But if the alliance pursues this option, it must more actively craft campaign plans and operational concepts for hybrid activities, empower coalitions of willing allies to take covert hybrid actions on behalf of all, and incentivize more of its member nations to acquire the advanced capabilities necessary for hybrid activity. Otherwise, NATO will remain outmoded and outmaneuvered when it comes to Russian and Chinese hybrid warfare.
John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed are his own.