The threat from Russia to European security is certain to be the key issue at the Madrid summit. The Atlantic Alliance is perfectly prepared to deal with it in the coming weeks and months, but perhaps less so in the next year and a few after. The 2010 Strategic Concept, for that matter, worked reasonably well in the short term but has become completely irrelevant in the mid-term, where we are now. The NATO-Russia Founding Act (1997) was described, rather controversially, as a “dead letter” already in 2017, and presently it invites only sarcastic reflections. The content of the Russian problem and the parameters of threat have become clear beyond doubt since the invasion into Ukraine, launched on 24 February, very much in accordance with the US intelligence estimates, but they are set to change drastically in the course of the fast-evolving, even if seemingly stagnant, war.
The plain fact of this war dictates the immediate urgency of the task of expanding and coordinating support to Ukraine, which has suffered enormous damage from the Russian attack, but is firmly set to keep fighting until the victory. The meaning of this victory, however, remains open to interpretation, and even the minimalist proposition of restoring the status quo ante the invasion involves a stretch of strategic imagination. Ukraine may achieve an edge on the artillery-dominated battlefields as its forces become better equipped with modern Western weapon systems, while Russian troops are increasingly relying on arms from old Soviet arsenals. Converting this edge into a decisive advantage will, according to common military sense, take many months, so the prospect that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is increasingly inclined to embrace is centred on a long war of attrition.
This prospect is generally acceptable for NATO as Russia, engaged in resource-consuming contestation in the Ukrainian front, would not be able to generate any credible threats in the Baltic or Arctic theatres, except for wielding its nuclear instruments. The goal of weakening Russia, spelled perhaps too bluntly by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, will be achieved, as its formidable military machine is already showing clear signs of overload and degradation. NATO might still opt for deploying additional forces in the Baltic states in order to bolster its new forward defense strategy aimed at deterring a weakened but ambitious Russia, but such precautionary measures wouldn’t be controversially expensive. Convenient as it is to plan for “more of the same” in the deadlocked confrontation between Russia and the West limited to the trench warfare in Eastern Ukraine, such lazy strategic thinking is certain to leave policymakers in Washington D.C. and key European capitals unprepared for the next breakthrough in the high-intensity battles – or in the Kremlin.
The problem with the protracted war assessment is that neither Ukraine nor Russia has the capacity for waging it, and while Western support can help Ukraine in sustaining its mobilization, Russia is on its own – and far from mobilized. Economic hardships are set to deepen with no prospect for improvement, and any moderate Ukrainian success in executing a counter-offensive (like, for instance, re-capturing Kherson) may not only undermine the already low combat spirit but also trigger a political crisis. Focusing NATO strategy on deterring the aggressive tendencies of autocratic Russia is a reasonable assumption, but it presumes an indefinite continuation of Putin’s regime, which might turn out to be more fragile than it appears. Discussing a mode of relations with a post-Putin Russia is controversial in the present-day European debates centred – appropriately – on sustaining support for the fighting Ukraine, but it is necessary to prepare for the risks of chaotic change.
The war has gained inertia, but it remains Putin’s endeavour, and for many elite groups the prospect of Russia’s degradation in the course of protracted confrontation with the West is deeply disturbing. The possibility of a coup (for which a rich tradition exists in Russia) remains theoretical, but Putin’s departure is certain to create opportunities for overcoming the antagonism with Ukraine, tragic and tremendous as its consequences are, and reconfiguring Russia’s relations with Europe. These opportunities might be slim and suspicious, not least because a gang of Putin’s successors would inevitably emerge from the profoundly corrupt elites, seeking primarily to regain access to their frozen assets and arrested mega-yachts. Still, it is far less destructive to fight against Russian corruption than against the battalion tactical groups, even if the combat capabilities of the latter are also damaged by the all-pervasive corruption.
Drafting a meaningful strategy for engaging with a defeated and traumatized Russia is a tall order, particularly since NATO has a chequered track record of interactions with Moscow, and each round of enlargement added to the heritage of mistrust and resentment. Russia’s attack on Ukraine was driven primarily by the autocratic mutation of its regime and not by the desire to prevent further expansion of the exaggerated “NATO infrastructure”, but Western policy-planners cannot dismiss the arguments on their responsibility for the failure in preventing the war as mere recycling of Moscow propaganda. Learning from past mistakes – in the confidence that neither the acceptance of the Baltic states into the Alliance, nor the forthcoming invitation of Finland and Sweden, nor the upgrade of ties with Ukraine falls into this category – is a major advantage of free societies. The deceptively easy alternative of focusing on collective defence means not just alienating the anxious post-Putin Russia but facing the risks of its violent break-up.