The Russo-Ukrainian war represents a watershed for NATO, comparable to that of 1989-1991 but in the opposite direction. Since 2022, a historical phase has begun which sees the Alliance mainly focused on deterrence e collective defense of Europe again from Moscow, with various implications already partly codified in the recent Allied Strategic Concept.
War and new strategic concept
NATO enlargement is conditioned by comparison with Russia. On the one hand the historical turn of Finland and Sweden which, despite the delays due to Turkey, will join the Alliance consolidating the security and stability of north-eastern Europe. On the other, the extreme caution with respect to any hypothesis of accession of Ukrainein the awareness that, probably, a more or less limited part of the Ukrainian territory will remain under Russian military occupation for a long time.
The priority given to partnerships is reviewed in terms of their relevance for the containment of the Russian and Chinese authoritarian powers, with greater attention to Western Indo-Pacific countries by values if not by geography – Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
The theme of non-proliferation and arms control is linked more closely to deterrence and defence, to develop an overall approach that seeks in the first place to avoid unwanted incidents and escalations with Russia, and attempts in the future to restart a dialogue between enemies who jointly fix some rules of the game to the advantage of themselves and around the planet – like during the Cold War.
Crisis management and stabilization operations continue as ancillary activities only where they are already underway, i.e. in Kosovo and Iraq and, in terms of maritime safety, in the Mediterranean Sea. The combination of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the previous withdrawal from Afghanistan have in fact marked the end of NATO’s leading role in extra-European crises.
The eastern flank of the Alliance
The new strategic posture of the Alliance has very important military implications for the European states – Italy included. In fact, we are moving on to a deterrence mechanism based on advanced defense of Eastern Europe, with multinational battalions numbering in the thousands and related commands, assets and logistical support, positioned from Estonia to Bulgaria – with Italy commanding in Sofia. The goal is to dissuade from before any Russian coup, and stop it military hand on the spot should Moscow decide to take the risk anyway. To this end, the overall pattern of Allied forces is being restructured, with a total of 300,000 units kept at high levels of readiness. All of this implies that a significant part of Europe’s best armed forces will be committed to NATO, and will need more and constant investment in training and maintenance.
The focus of the development of Allied, and especially European, military capabilities shifts to what is necessary for a sustained, large-scale, high-intensity conflict against an enemy of Russian size and characteristics. Now and in the future, the allies need heavier vehicles, more powerful weapon systems, more effective defenses, and an update of the employment doctrine after three decades of operations against terrorists and guerrillas.
Military preparation to dissuade Russia from such a conflict, and to end it in the unfortunate event it is initiated by Moscow, requires a different balance between quality and quantity of equipment. The Russo-Ukrainian war of attrition has claimed lives and burned assets and munitions to a degree unprecedented in Europe since 1945, and is setting the new benchmark for NATO force planning. More mass is therefore needed, in terms of means available, spare parts, ammunition and stocks. Although defense budgets are increasing in Europe, resources still remain limited compared to the needs and it will be necessary to seek a new balance between a part of more advanced and expensive equipment and a part that is more numerous and cheaper, in order to be able to face a high-profile conflict intensity and on a large scale.
A year of war fought in Europe between two states with hundreds of thousands of soldiers is a historic watershed. The NATO countries have understood this, and will have to evaluate together how to equip themselves to defend their collective security in the new strategic framework.
Cover photo EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET