NATO Is Acting Like It’s 1985

Old alliance needs new ideas to combat Russian secret war


For months, Moscow has supported separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine with weapons, supplies, cross-border artillery barrages, propaganda and political cover. The result has been a powerful and, in places, deeply popular insurgency that threatens Ukraine’s very existence in its current form.

Now Russian president Vladimir Putin is finally taking a more direct approach to exercising his country’s influence over its smaller, poorer western neighbor. Russian tanks and troops have attacked across the border near the Azov Sea, opening up another front against Kiev’s beleaguered army.

The Russian incursions have been small, subtle and slow, but despite Putin’s denials, they do amount to an invasion—ostensibly the final move in Moscow’s long-term strategy of destabilizing, dividing and defeating Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s maskirovkamasked war” strategy is working … and NATO—in theory the main protector of a free Europe—is scrambling to respond.

On Aug. 17, the German magazine Die Welt interviewed NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Philip Breedlove, an American Air Force general. Breedlove explained that NATO was ready to meet Moscow’s “little green men” in Ukraine with military force of its own.

The U.S. Army is sending more tanks to Eastern Europe. NATO has tripled air patrols over countries bordering Ukraine and Russia. The alliance is planning several large naval and ground exercises in the region.

But these moves represent an old way of thinking, harkening back to a time several decades ago when NATO could deploy ships, tanks and warplanes and realistically hope to deter Russian aggression.

That’s no longer the case. Old methods won’t stop Moscow’s maskirovka. Russia’s strategy is just indirect enough to sidestep traditional military and diplomatic processes that, in the past, might have allowed an opposing military alliances to meaningfully intervene—without triggering a global war that nobody wants.

Moscow’s little green men. Elizabeth Arott photo via Wikimedia Commons

Call it what you will

Maskirovka has other names. Stealth invasion, fifth-generation war, non-linear warfare, hybrid conflict, secret war … to name a few. Call it what you will—it works. Ukraine is proof, but not the only proof. Russia invaded Georgia six years ago following an eerily similar period of denial, obfuscation and support for separatists.

And Russian officers have been openly talking about maskirovka for years now.

In February 2013, Russian weekly The Military-Industrial Courier published an article written by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, currently the chief of the Russian general staff. His article “The Value of Science in Prediction” explains Russia’s nonlinear war strategy, which Gerasimov says “[blurs] the lines between the states of war and peace.”

“The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown,” Gerasimov writes. “In many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”

Indeed, the Kremlin spent a lot of time and money prepping Ukraine for the current invasion. Agents bribed oligarchs, stirred up old ethnic rivalries, destroyed infrastructure, strengthened criminal organizations and spread propaganda aimed at de-legitimizing Kiev.

“The open use of forces, often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation—is resorted to only at a certain stage, primarily for the achievement of final success in the conflict,” Gerasimov explains.

A pro-Russian protest in Donetsk. Andrew Butko photo via Wikimedia Commons

Latvian fears

NATO isn’t stupid, nor blind to this approach. Alliance leaders understand that something is different about Moscow’s current strategy. The leaders just seem to think they can fight a new enemy in the same old way. Hence the tanks, fighter jets and warships assembling pointlessly on alliance territory near Ukraine.

But at least one NATO member state is pleading for new tactics. Back in April, Latvia’s National Defense Academy published a report outlining what it calls “Russia’s new-generation warfare in Ukraine.”

Latvia borders Russia. Like Ukraine, it’s home to a strong community of Russian-speakers. Tiny Latvia looks like a perfect target for maskirovka.

The Latvian report breaks down Moscow’s asymmetric strategy into several distinct phases. The first five aim to cripple the target country through propaganda, misdirection, bribery and psychological warfare. All this happens before a single invading soldier steps foot in the country.

A traditional military might not even be necessary, if the covert assaults inflict enough damage to allow Moscow to dominate by political or economic means.

“As this is a non-traditional form of combat just recently being operationalized on such a scale, a fair question is whether NATO’s own legal framework and instruments are ready to deal with it,” the report states.

As Breedlove and other NATO officials have said, NATO is ready to fight back should Russian troops invade a member state. But “the probability of a frontal direct military attack from Russia on Latvia is very small,” the Latvian report asserts. “Instead, a Russian attack on Latvia would probably follow the first five phases.”

“The biggest challenge for Latvia’s security and defense is its unpreparedness to deal with such a scenario,” the report concludes. Worse, the report points out that the opening phases of Russia’s asymmetric style could already be underway in Latvia.

“Some examples include the broadcasting of Russian propaganda channels, issuing Russian citizenship to Latvia’s non-citizens, pseudo human-rights movements, pro-Russian political parties, just to cite the most blatant,” the report states.

It’s no wonder that Latvia and other Baltic area NATO countries asked the alliance to deploy more troops within their borders—and NATO agreed. Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told The Guardian that NATO would build more bases in Eastern Europe.

But new bases and extra troops will do little to deter maskirovka. If Russia can badly undermine a country without actually invading—withholding direct military force until the conditions are just right—then NATO troops could end up just standing around while the society around them disintegrates.

The collapse could slowly render a traditional allied military presence politically unsustainable—it might look like an occupation—while simultaneously giving Russia an excuse to eventually send in “peacekeepers” whose true intentions are anything but peaceful.

That’s how 21st-century maskirovka beats dated Cold War thinking.

NATO is meeting in early September to discuss Russia and Ukraine. Hopefully somebody’s got some new ideas. Until then, there’s something Latvia wants to know. “Why is it so difficult for us to take measures to counteract Russia’s measures towards establishing the favorable conditions for [invasion]?”

At top—Vladimir Putin. AP photo/Felipe Dana

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