This month’s G20 meeting in Hamburg showed Western countries still struggling for a strategy to stop suspected Russian meddling in their politics and hacking their elections. Behind the scenes, however, the U.S. and European militaries have been more effective in adapting to the actions of President Vladimir Putin and Moscow’s aggressive new military doctrine.
It’s now just over three years since Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine redefined how Western states see conflict. The result increasingly looks set to revolutionize the U.S. and European armed forces as much as any combat lessons learned in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The process is still in its infancy. Still, troops, aircraft and warships from leading NATO states - most importantly the United States - have become a permanent presence in much of Eastern Europe. And for all the worries about President Donald Trump’s possible Russia links and lukewarm commitment to NATO’s Article 5, U.S. military and diplomatic leaders have been robust in stressing America’s commitment to European security.
NATO’s top priority is defending the most vulnerable northern and eastern European countries, particularly the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - once part of the Soviet Union, now within the Western alliance.
This summer has seen NATO conducting cutting-edge anti-submarine and electronic warfare exercises in the North Atlantic, near daily flights by surveillance aircraft operating in the Baltic and a host of other war games from the Black Sea to the Arctic.
Moscow's swift, largely bloodless annexation of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Crimea region grabbed Europe's attention. That’s been even truer of the deadlier war in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine - where Russian-backed separatists declared the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in 2014.
For residents there, the results have been devastating. The United Nations estimates more than 2,700 civilians have been amongst an estimated 10,000 killed since April 2014. More than 1.6 million people in the conflict area have fled their homes.
These victims are, of course, the very Russian-speaking Ukrainians Moscow says it is trying to help with its actions. Still, Ukraine has enabled Putin to re-establish Russia’s reputation as a top-tier global power.
This now goes well beyond the deliberately ambiguous Russian strategies of information warfare and hybrid confrontation that have preoccupied many analysts in the West since 2014. Russia may still be reluctant to acknowledge that it has used conventional forces in Ukraine, but evidence on the ground is overwhelming.
When the Ukraine war started, Kiev’s military used U.S.-style military techniques honed against relatively unsophisticated insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. These tactics proved disastrous, particularly for armored vehicles, after Russian artillery batteries used drones and other advanced surveillance equipment to inflict horrific losses.
Russian cyber attacks and electronic jamming also disabled Western-provided equipment, including what Washington had considered state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicles.
The effectiveness of Moscow's techniques shocked U.S. strategists, many of whom had come to believe Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya-style insurgent foes were all they would ever confront.
The challenge now for Western militaries is to devise effective counters to Russia’s actions in Europe while simultaneously building on the lessons learned from the success of the U.S.-backed Iraqi military campaign in Mosul and advances against militants in Syria, Somalia and Nigeria.
That, in turn, leads to tension over resource allocation. France’s top military officer resigned Wednesday, citing dissatisfaction with defense cuts. U.S. and other militaries continue to face an awkward balancing act between ever more expensive high-end equipment such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and money for personnel and training.
Much planning revolves around finding techniques to counter Russia’s so-called “Gerasimov doctrine,” which focuses on political operations rather than conventional military confrontations. But Western strategists have also put renewed focus on classic Cold War-style military deterrence aimed at persuading Moscow of the risks of attacking a NATO member are simply too great.
In its posturing over the last three years, the Kremlin has aggressively used the threat of direct military action - both conventional and nuclear - to intimidate other countries. Major military drills planned for September will be the next example of that. In doing so, however, Putin may have shot himself in the foot.
Western planning means that Moscow would find it harder to mount any attack than only a few years ago - and the more Putin makes aggressive noise, the more this will be true. Moscow’s forces might outnumber NATO troops in the region, but the alliance hopes it now has enough presence for Moscow to realize it cannot hope to overrun a NATO state without sparking a much wider war.
Any such conflict, all sides realize, might well turn nuclear. Germany, which is gradually upping its military spending towards the NATO target of 2 percent of gross domestic product, has made it clear it sees Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a game-changer. Germany’s military is now keen to restore skills in neglected areas such as ground-based air defense and combat engineering. It is also working more closely with other European allies.
Growing numbers of Western strategists believe Putin hopes Russia’s propaganda and political disruption efforts may ultimately cause both NATO and the European Union to collapse. Few see that as likely - but countries most vulnerable to Russia, such as the Baltic states and Finland, are taking few chances.
In the event of an invasion, the plan is for many of their troops - mostly conscripts - to withdraw into forests and mount hit-and-run attacks against Russian troops.
In addition, several Nordic and European nations - Sweden, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Denmark - have quietly come together to form the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force. It’s a framework that could deploy a substantial, sustainable force to defend the Baltic states - and would still exist even if the NATO and U.S. commitment to Europe vanished.
That may not be enough to stop Russia launching a surprise assault on a slice of NATO territory. However, even that would likely just further intensify Europe’s commitment to defending the rest of its territory.
The fact is that Europe is now better defended than at any point in decades. If Russia feels threatened by that, then Putin has only himself to blame.