Comment Writer Tom Moran argues that whilst NATO has now begun to protect its own interests, it must display more willingness to act against hybrid warfare

Written by Tom Moran
Images by Wikimedia Commons

NATO’s Brussels summit was hardly short of controversy with Trump, unsurprisingly, at the centre of this; whether that be in his questionable commitment to the alliance, his questionable understanding of it, or shortly following this, his questionable off-the-records meeting with Putin.

Amongst this furore came a potentially game-changing decision from the top brass. The Alliance has, for all intents and purposes, expanded the reach of Article 5 which means all members must defend any other member that is attacked.

Indeed, NATO has expanded its definition of transgression to include hybrid war. If Russia or another potential aggressor is to wage hybrid war against a member state, NATO would respond as if it was a conventional invasion.

Which begs the question: what is hybrid warfare? NATO has argued that it is essentially when conflict involves more than one method of waging war. That is to say, when any or all of military, cyber information or secret warfare are used. It is a blend “of conventional/unconventional, regular/irregular, overt/covert means”.

The Annexation of Crimea and an increasing Russian role in the Syrian Civil War brought the phrase into the security lexicon. Russia never really invaded the Crimea; instead they used special forces, cyber-attacks, their “little green men” (to stop political protests) and fake news.

Similarly, in Syria there is the same level of confusion. Against whom have Russia carried out attacks? Does Assad still have chemical weapons? And, have they been used since he supposedly gave them up? The ambiguity makes the fake news indistinguishable from the truth and in turn the confusion is the weapon of war.

The recognition of hybrid war has not just come too late, though, but also at the worst possible time

The recognition of hybrid war has not just come too late, though, but also at the worst possible time.  The US Senate released a report earlier this year with strong evidence saying that Russia meddled in the Brexit referendum and have helped peddle fake news; they might even have influence the outcome of the 2017 General Election as well.

Whilst this alone is cause for concern, if Russia did poison Sergei Skripal, NATO’s new definition poses an immediate test on whether hybrid war has already been declared on the UK through fake news and covert operations?

Whilst rash decisions like invoking Article 5 would likely do more harm than good, NATO needs to think carefully about its next move.

Russian moves to undermine democracy are definitely an issue that NATO needs keep in mind and though the Novichok saga may be more complicated than we think, their actions cannot be met with impunity. Indeed, Russia can’t be allowed to continue to push the boundaries of diplomatic convention.

At the same time, war is not an option especially given Trump’s seemingly wavering commitment to NATO. What will likely happen is that NATO’s definition of hybrid warfare becomes a much more practical one, focused on preventing something like the annexation of Crimea happening again. However, whether Trump would stick America’s neck out in the advent of conflict in the Baltic or Balkans is another matter after his comments about Montenegro.

Whilst I’m not advocating or defending aggressive Western foreign policy, it should be noted that there is a marked problem with the current approach.

Russian goals have not changed significantly over the last three hundred years. Imperial, Soviet and modern Russia have all searched to protect their western borders through some form of buffer between them and the rest of Europe. NATO expansion since the end of the Cold War has, rightfully, concerned Russia as they no longer have that buffer.

It is therefore crucial for NATO to succeed in pursuing their interests, that they continue to curtail Russia gaining both a buffer and further expansion in Eastern Europe.

NATO has unquestionably taken important moves to protect its own interests through recognising the threat of hybrid warfare. However, they face the continuing dilemma of how to define the issue and in turn, questions of ability and willingness to act. Ultimately, NATO needs to strike the age-old balance: the threat of deterrence but the ability to back it up.