If NATO Cannot Be a Lion, It Must Be a Fox
Imagine you are Vladimir Putin. If you wanted to invade a Baltic NATO ally, you could: you are certainly not deterred by NATO's defenses. Currently, Russia is capable of achieving a victory – albeit limited – against NATO: thus, NATO has failed to be a lion. It should raise the cost of a Russian invasion by being a fox. It should adopt hybrid defense; adapting policies such as the Swiss model of national service to counter the threat of Russia.
Imagine you are Vladimir Putin. In 2014, you were met with a weak international response to your annexation of Crimea. That year, your military's largest exercise involved 150,000 personnel and took place on your western border; by contrast, the largest NATO exercise involved only 16,000 troops drawn from 15 allies. In an October 2014 speech on the theme, "The World Order: New Rules or a Game Without Rules?", you declared your distaste for NATO, which you see as, "[a] new effort to fragment the world, [and to] draw new dividing lines." You hope to draw your own lines representing your view of Russia's place in the world. Imagine that you look to Latvia, only 150 kilometers from St. Petersburg, or ill-defended Gotland; why do you decide not to invade, when you so easily could?
Certainly not because you fear defeat, as I will show. Rather, because a simple cost-benefit analysis showed you that it was simply not worth it. NATO strategy must be radically altered in order to reflect this fact.
Russia could not defeat NATO in a total war, but could achieve victory in a limited one. There can be no distinction between total war, where all of the resources of the state are dedicated to achieving complete victory, and nuclear war. Russia is capable of achieving limited victory against a NATO ally before the Alliance can mobilize its conventional resources, as the RAND corporation demonstrated earlier this year. Once limited victory has been achieved, all Russia needs to do is threaten a nuclear escalation in the event of a NATO total war response. The question then becomes, "is Latvia worth New York?", leading reasonable domestic political concerns to stall the Alliance's military response.
Failure to respond to an invocation of Article 5 would secure NATO's downfall. Since the Alliance exists primarily to provide collective defense, its credibility would be irreparably undermined if it failed to do so even once. Any attempt to describe Russia's grand strategy is necessarily subjective, but it is clear that a weak or non-existent NATO is in Russia's interest. A quick, albeit limited, victory followed by a threat of nuclear escalation could therefore lead not only to conquest, but to the collapse of NATO in its current form. Of course, the latter is the more valuable goal.
Why, then, does Russia not invade one of its weak Baltic neighbors? The answer is that, by contrast with Western media conflation of the apparent irrationality of Putin with that of Russia as a whole, Russia is a rational state for whom the potential costs of an invasion significantly outweigh the benefits. The direct cost of an invasion would be small, especially if hybrid tactics were used to weaken the adversary before conventional forces were deployed. The indirect costs are far more considerable.
NATO cannot decrease the benefit to Russia of annexing an ally, but it can increase the cost. As I have shown above, the doctrine of tripwire defense – whereby NATO stations troops in the territory of its threatened allies – cannot increase this cost given the potential for strategic nuclear escalation. At current levels of defense spending, NATO cannot be a lion; it must be a fox.
Rather than countering hybrid tactics with smart defense, NATO should attack Russia's weaknesses, which are the same as its own. It should counter hybrid attack with hybrid defense. Rather than attempting to improve its conventional capabilities without increasing defense spending, a futile pursuit, NATO should invest in preparation for asymmetric defensive warfare in its threatened allies. Following the Swiss model of national defense, NATO must, amongst other things, encourage the adoption of total defense strategies in its threatened allies.
National service achieves two aims: first, it provides a larger regular and reserve army than would otherwise exist. Equally important, when the threat of hybrid tactics is real, it provides a common experience that strengthens the sense of national identity within a state, reducing the potential for foreign forces to sow division. On NATO's vulnerable Baltic border, Estonia and Lithuania both operate systems of national service.
Yet, the real value of national service is not in the overt preparation for conventional operations that it makes, but in the potential for that army to employ asymmetric tactics. Even with a conscript army and limited NATO support, any of the Baltic States would crumble in the face of the committed might of the Russian army. However, once that army entered the occupation phase, the conscript army could wreak havoc, hugely increasing the cost and likelihood of an invasion.
In the Swiss model, all fighting age citizens capable of military service receive 18 weeks of mandatory training followed by seven three-week recalls over the following ten years. Therefore, there are substantial reserves to complement the smaller full-time military. These reserves retain their personal weapons after their initial mandatory training, and ammunition is stored centrally at canton level. In the event of an invasion, military reserves would increase the cost of occupation, prevent stabilization and so reduce the likelihood of successful assimilation of the annexed territory.
The Alliance must play by Putin's rules. In the event of an invocation of Article 5, NATO must involve itself in the process of resistance. In order to ensure its survival, it must demonstrate that it is fully committed to collective defense. However, as I have shown it cannot do this overtly for fear of nuclear escalation. Instead, NATO must publicly increase special operations training, thereby demonstrating its capability to support and supply resistance against an invader. This will not only fulfil its commitment to collective defense, but also reduce the likelihood of a confrontation through deterrence. If NATO cannot deter by playing the lion, it must play the fox.
Alfie Shaw is Development Director of Oxford University Strategic Studies Group. Previously, he was President of Oxford International Relations Society. He reads Geography at the University of Oxford.
This article has been submitted for category A "Preparing NATO for 2026" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video in the categories B, C, D.
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