NATO Warsaw summit must focus on defence, deterrence and dialogue

Defence Committee Press Notice – 5 July 2016

Russia's annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine have undermined the post-Cold War assumption of a stable Europe in which the military threat to NATO is low, says the Defence Select Committee in its report. The North Atlantic alliance must therefore restore its defences, review its deterrence and reopen its dialogue with the Russian authorities.


“The fact that NATO and the UK were 'taken by surprise' by the interventions in Ukraine”,

said Committee chairman Julian Lewis MP,

“shows a failure to comprehend President Putin's determination to maintain a sphere of influence beyond Russia's own frontier, if necessary by force.”

According to the Report, Russia has become increasingly active, not only in conventional warfare, but in unconventional methods – often deniable – which are designed to fall below the threshold that would trigger the Article 5 NATO guarantee. Article 5 is the undertaking to consider an armed attack against one NATO member state as an attack against them all.

Whilst the creation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), among NATO member states and the Enhanced Forward Presence on NATO's contested eastern flank are steps in the right direction, the Committee warns that the VJTF has only just been formed and its capacity to guarantee to deploy the necessary forces within the required time-frame is as yet unproven.

Among the Report's recommendations are:

The Committee considers that Russian cyber-attacks across Europe, and territorial seizures in Georgia and Ukraine, may not be isolated actions but symptomatic of an ambition to restore Moscow’s global influence. Because Russia is a global player, there remain opportunities for cooperation, if they can be grasped.

However, with relations at an "all time low", the Committee concludes that the UK must urgently boost its cadre of Russian specialists and restore and maintain a high level of expertise for the foreseeable future. Given the current climate, the Defence Attaché's office in Moscow, for example, must be properly staffed by the end of the year.

Chairman's comment

Dr Lewis stated:

“Russia has not been a UK priority since the end of the Cold War and our expertise in this field has withered on the vine. The UK needs a vastly improved cadre of experts who can help to provide an effective response to the challenges which Russia now poses.

We cannot hope to understand Russia without a forthright dialogue and, under current conditions of mistrust, we run the risk blundering into conflicts that may be preventable through better communication.”

[To read the full report, click here.]

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Since the end of the Cold War, UK policy has been built on the foundation of a stable Europe in which the threat to NATO members is low. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine represent the biggest challenge to this stability.

The fact that NATO and the UK were ‘taken by surprise’ raises two key questions:

  1. Whether we fully understand the nature of Russian military policy, strategy and doctrine (including its use of multidimensional warfare techniques such as ambiguity, disinformation and plausible deniability)?
  2. Whether we underestimated President Putin’s intentions, and his willingness to enforce and maintain a sphere of influence beyond Russia’s own frontiers?

Whilst Ukraine is not a member of NATO, Russia’s actions in that country sent shockwaves through NATO member states which border Russia, particularly the Baltic States. Article 5 of the NATO Treaty seeks to protect its members by promising that an attack on one member state will be considered an attack against all and that NATO will respond accordingly. To be an effective deterrent, this guarantee must be credible – and such credibility depends upon extending NATO membership only to countries in defence of which we can realistically threaten to use military force.

Russia has also exhibited threatening behaviour towards NATO members including the UK. Russian military aircraft have repeatedly flown close to British and NATO airspace, prompting RAF interception on a number of occasions. Trends have developed very quickly. It gives us no pleasure to report that Russia appears to be using many of the old Soviet tactics and approaches once again.

The UK and NATO need to have adequate military capability and the capacity to deter , and where necessary confront, aggressive Russian moves. The creation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) among NATO member states is a step in the right direction, as is the Enhanced Forward Presence on NATO’s contested eastern flank. By demonstrating an ability to respond effectively, even to a surprise attack, both should contribute to a message of resolve and therefore deterrence.

However, the VJTF has only just been formed and we are not yet convinced that it can guarantee to deploy the necessary forces within the required time-frame. We were told that Russia could mobilise up to 13,000 troops within 48 hours and an additional 30,000 within the next two days. The Government must set out how the VJTF could counter this.

In response to the annexation of Crimea, the EU imposed sanctions on Russia. While these have had a negative impact on the Russian economy, they have not dissuaded further military intervention. We support the renewal of these sanctions in July. We also urge the Government to increase targeted sanctions against members of the Russian leadership.

Russia has demonstrated its determination to intervene, politically and militarily, in the conflict in Syria and shows little sign of ending its support for the Assad regime. This has the potential to reduce the impact of the coalition’s efforts to remove DAESH. It is not possible to exclude Russia from the region. Therefore, means must be found to cooperate where there are shared political objectives and to put to the test Russia’s claims to contribute to the downfall of DAESH. It is perfectly possible to confront and constrain an adversary in a region where our interests clash, whilst cooperating with him, to some degree, in a region where they coincide.

Dialogue between the UK and Russia is currently extremely sparse. We were told that relations were at an ‘all time low’. Our visit to Moscow in April demonstrated this at first hand with only limited engagement by the Russian Administration. This needs to change. While we cannot assume that Russia wishes to retain a stance of limited communication, the UK must demonstrate a willingness to engage in meaningful and constructive dialogue. We cannot hope for mutual understanding between ourselves and Russia if we do not have a meaningful dialogue, and under current conditions of mistrust we run the  risk of a descent into conflict that may be preventable through better communication.

The UK must urgently boost its cadre of Russian specialists and ensure that it maintains a high level of expertise for the foreseeable future. Given the current climate, the Defence Attaché’s office in Moscow must be properly staffed.