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Russia may not start an all-out war with NATO, but already has plans to destroy it from within

Tom Porter   

Russia may not start an all-out war with NATO, but already has plans to destroy it from within
  • Politicians say Russia poses the gravest threat to European security since World War II.
  • But Russia is weakened by the Ukraine war and is in no position to attack NATO, experts say.

The era of relative peace and prosperity the West has enjoyed since the end of World War II may fast be coming to an end.

In March, Poland's Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, said Europe was in a "pre-war" era and that Russia must not defeat Ukraine for the security of the continent.

"I don't want to scare anyone, but war is no longer a concept from the past," Tusk said in an interview with several European media outlets. "It is real. In fact, it already started more than two years ago," referencing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It's one of a series of increasingly stark warnings that the war in Ukraine could be a prelude to a much bigger conflict.

German military planning documents leaked in January imagined Russia launching a massive 2024 offensive to take advantage of waning Western support in Ukraine.

The documents, obtained by Bild, then envisage Russia turning its sights on NATO members in Eastern Europe, with it seeking to destabilize its enemies through cyberattacks and internal chaos in the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Germany isn't the only one. Late last year, Poland's national security agency estimated that Russia could attack NATO within three years.

The members of the 32-member NATO alliance are each sworn to protect each other from attack under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. That means a Russian attack on one member could spark a war involving several nuclear-armed states.

But whether Putin really does intend to attack NATO and what an attack might look like remains unclear.

In March, Putin denied having any plans to attack NATO members, describing such claims as "complete nonsense."

Western military chiefs are not convinced, however. A month earlier, Putin menaced the West with the prospect of a nuclear attack over its support for Ukraine.

He alluded to a recent suggestion by French President Emmanuel Macron that NATO could send troops to Ukraine to support its fight against the Russian invasion.

Analysts told Business Insider that Russia is weakened by the toll of the Ukraine war and in no position to attack the alliance.

But Putin is playing a long game, and the outcome of the Ukraine war and Russia's long-standing bid to undermine and corrode NATO will be key factors in deciding whether Russia strikes.

Putin plots to corrode NATO

Putin has a key advantage over the West, Philip Ingram, a former UK military intelligence officer, told BI.

While Western leaders plan within election cycles of around four years, Putin is an authoritarian leader with no serious challengers to his power. That means he can look decades ahead.

"He does not want, at this moment, a direct confrontation with NATO," said Ingram. "But he thinks in a different way and plans in a different way to we do in the West, and therefore the way NATO countries do."

"So, his ambition in growing is not going to be that he will attack NATO and NATO countries next year. But he will set the conditions to be able to, " Ingram said.

Analysts like Ingram believe that Putin realizes attacking NATO now would exact a vast and punishing cost on Russia. Instead, Putin will seek to weaken NATO from within to create soft spots he can strike in the future if he chooses.

To do this, Putin will likely intensify Russia's so-called "hybrid warfare" against NATO countries.

As NATO puts it, hybrid warfare "often plays out in gray zones below the threshold of a conventional war."

"The instruments or tools employed and fused together to unleash hybrid warfare are often difficult to discern, attribute, and corroborate."

They can include spreading conspiracy theories and disinformation, boosting extremist parties in certain countries, stoking terror threats, and launching cyber attacks to undermine the foundation of Western societies.

"The threat posed by Russia to NATO is unlikely to be an invasion, it's more likely to come from a range of other military and non-military threats - what are often called hybrid threats," Ruth Deyermond, an expert on the Russian military at King's College London told BI.

A core aim is to prise away the US from its commitment to defend its European allies, either by hoping it gets embroiled in another costly military campaign elsewhere, or tires of the NATO project.

"For this reason, I expect we'll see Russia using all of the tricks and capabilities in its cupboard to undermine Western unity over the years to come," Bryden Spurling, an analyst with the RAND Corporation, told BI.

A covert war is already underway

Russia, some point out, is already engaged in a war with NATO, albeit covertly.

Only days ago, a group of men in the UK were accused of conducting arson attacks on a Ukraine-linked business on behalf of Russian intelligence. This is just one example of "hybrid warfare" tactics.

In recent months, Russia has also been accused of being behind the scrambling of GPS plane navigation systems in northern Europe and the Baltics, in what some claim could be part of a "hybrid warfare" attack.

Robert Dover, a professor of international security at the University of Hull in the UK, said the question of whether Russia will attack NATO is already redundant. "Russia is already engaged in a meaningful conflict with NATO countries and their allies," he pointed out.

The Ukraine war exposed serious limits to NATO's military power. The alliance has struggled to produce enough artillery shells and ammunition for Ukraine.

During the recent block in US aid, European NATO countries were unable to make up the shortfall, and Ukraine's forces were being outfired at a rate of 10-one on parts of the front line, which were close to collapse.

The US recently released the aid, but the problems the situation exposed run deep, said Spurling, the RAND analyst. This, he said, is a weakness Russia could seek to exploit if not remedied.

"This conflict has exposed how underprepared Western militaries are for war that's not on their terms," he added. "While we maintain that fragility, there is a greater risk that Russia thinks it could chance its arm," he said.

Russia is weakened by the Ukraine war

But Russia also faces massive problems of its own. Its military has been devasted by the Ukraine invasion. According to US estimates, its entire pre-war invasion force of around 300,000 men has been killed or injured (though it has replenished those numbers), its stock of armored vehicles has been devastated, and its commanders have made consistently bad decisions.

"It's hard to imagine a near- or medium-term scenario in which the Russian government has the resources to engage in another war on anything like the scale of Ukraine," Deyermond, the expert on the Russian military at King's College London, told BI.

Any potential attack on NATO would come at such a devastating cost it could imperil Putin's grip on power.

"War with NATO would destroy Russia, as Putin will know very well, and even if he thinks there's a possibility that the US might not step up to defend a fellow NATO member from a Russian invasion, he shows no sign of wanting to find out by playing nuclear Russian roulette," said Deyermond.

But however long it takes, Putin is determined to achieve some form of victory in Ukraine so that he can use it as a platform to plan Russia's next campaign, said Ingram.

After Ukraine, Putin will survey the field and be keen to exploit further opportunities to expand Russian power.

As Ingram puts it: "He wants the Soviet Union back in the hands of a Russian leader, and that's his ultimate goal."