Beyond Ukraine: What is the Strategy?

Harlan Ullman

As the war in Ukraine enters its third month, it is clear what the US, NATO and other like-minded states are doing to support Kyiv in repelling the Russian invasion. Rushing military equipment to Ukraine; imposing punishing sanctions on Russia; and isolating it are among the tools being used. But what is the strategy? That is unclear. President Joe Biden is flirting with the goal of enabling Ukraine “to win.” But what does “winning” mean for Ukraine, Russia and NATO in particular? And what does “losing mean” for all sides? This too is unclear US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin aims to “weaken” Russia such that it will be incapable of future aggression against its neighbouring states. That may be a noble if achievable aim. It is not a strategy. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley told CNN this week that the “global international security order” put in place after World War II is “at stake if Russia gets away cost-free following its invasion of Ukraine. General Milley is correct. But what is the strategy to preserve the global international security order? The fundamental problem is that at this stage, the war in Ukraine is too unpredictable on which to base any explicit strategy. The obvious alternative is to consider a number of options that may best suit a future that is impossible to assess with accuracy now. And of these options, one of the most important regards NATO. The war in Ukraine has exposed the vulnerability of traditional conventional forces along with logistics to a skilful defence and imaginative and effective tactics. NATO has rested its military strategy on “deterrence and defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA)” and the “capstone warfighting concept” released last year. At the upcoming heads of government and state summit in Madrid this June, the alliance’s Strategic Concept will be announced. However, all these important documents preceded in preparation for the Ukraine War. And none anticipated the possibility that Finland and Sweden may request membership in the alliance. With thirty states in NATO and the requirement for consensus, meaning unanimous agreement, how will or can these documents be revised to reflect the Ukrainian crisis? The alliance would seem to be well advised to put in place a major review to determine what aspects of the Strategic Concept, the DDA and the War Fighting Concept remain relevant or need to be updated. Is that feasible or even possible? If it were, a number of issues should be considered. The war in Ukraine has exposed the vulnerability of traditional conventional forces including fixed and rotary-wing aircraft; tanks and armoured vehicles; artillery; surface ships; along with logistics to a skilful defence and imaginative and effective tactics. One response of NATO’s members so far is to pledge more defence spending. But will more spending on these conventional forces actually improve NATO’s ability to deter and defend? Or are other capabilities such as drones of all types; more handheld anti-tank and anti-air missiles; electronic warfare; deception and related systems; and intelligence and surveillance enhancements more appropriate programs that will improve defence? Similarly, if Finland joins the alliance how will its population of about five million and its 800-mile border with Russia be defended? The same applies to Sweden assuming it seeks membership. And is Article 5 sufficient? Will the forward stationing of forces from other NATO nations such as in the Baltics, Poland and Romania be required? And which members are prepared to make those contributions and in what numbers? Perhaps most importantly, General Milley’s concerns over the future global order must be addressed. In that regard, NATO has been and is pivotal. NATO has committed to a greater interest in Asia as China’s influence and power grow, economically and militarily. But is NATO prepared to take a large role in the region? And what might that role be? The list of these issues is too long for a single column. However, the role of nuclear weapons is too important to await a later day. Both Vladimir Putin and Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov have raised the spectre of a nuclear use. In Europe, while the strategic nuclear balance is more or less equal with the West maintaining some technical advantages, Russia maintains at least a five to one numerical advantage in short-range nuclear systems. NATO must assess that in light of Article 5. One option is to present such an overwhelming conventional capability to deny Russia a fait accompli such as invading the Baltics. However, the lights will be burning late in Brussels as these and other crucial matters are being debated and analysed. The writer is a senior advisor at Washington, DC’s Atlantic Council and a published author.

(Courtesy Daily Times, Pakistan)