Europeans in denial about the prospect of war in Europe

Europeans in denial about the prospect of war in Europe

Stephen Blank

Senior Fellow for Russia at American Foreign Policy Council

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Stephen Blank

Washington DC, United States

Interview with Stephen Blank

What is the impact of emergent A2/AD bubbles for a regional ecosystem?

This is standard Russian practice and it’s the way a land power thinks about the sea. At the time of the Soviet Union, they helped the Egyptians recover the Sinai peninsula. They had the air defence over the Egyptian sea and over Sinai to negate Israeli air power. You set up an A2/AD barrier so the enemy’s fire capability – short or long range – can’t get in. Under that umbrella you can advance either on land or at sea. Now, in a maritime theatre what that means is that first of all you have land-based artillery and air defence and anti-ship missiles. You build those on land, you equip your ships in port with that and so you create a defensive perimeter, a no-go zone, which you can then expand. That’s exactly what the Chinese are doing, and their model is the Soviet Union. The consequence is that at one point, sea denial becomes sea control. First you deny your enemy the capability to attack you through the sea and once you have achieved that, you can begin to use the sea for your own offensive operations, which could include long-range strike capabilities – from the Caspian Sea to Syria or Caspian to Europe, or amphibious operations, even into the Mediterranean, if you have enough capability. You can actually bring about an airborne landing commanding the sea and even a combined arms operation (land, sea and air). Think about D-Day or Inchon. And Russia has improved its capability for combined arms. In the case of NATO, Russia starts out by denying the Alliance’s trump card – long range precision strike – takes that away in order to have total freedom of movement, of choices of operations, going all the way up to nuclear, even though this scenario is very unlikely.

The Soviet developed also what has been called the inland sea bastion strategy. In this case, the Northern Fleet and its SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) capability, was used as a bastion. Nowadays, the Black Sea is becoming a bastion, because it’s an inland sea (just as the Caspian Sea), so you put in frigates and corvettes, so that they become un-attackable, but they can reach thousands kilometres away. They could probably reach some of the Romanian targets, certainly some Turkish ones. Once you have the freedom of operation in the sea you can do all kinds of operations – naval, air, land, long-range strikes or a combination of them.

Could the A2/AD umbrella in the Black Sea lead to any sort of disruptions of the regional commons or the EEZs?

You begin with a combined arms sea denial approach. It’s a land power concept of maritime defence. By gradually increasing the perimeter, the Russians can threaten commercial raiding and even destroy Romanian energy platforms in the Black Sea. Experts have debated whether or not Moscow moved into Ukraine to take Ukrainian energy platforms. They took them right away, so I think that was one motive. This is commercial raiding and thus a threat to Romanian national security, so Bucharest has to be prepared.

You mentioned the 1973 Sinai precedent. Would that be a possibility that we should keep in mind in the context of the Baltic ecosystem – using an access-denial umbrella to launch hybrid operations underneath in the Baltic States?

Let’s be brutally honest: the Russians enjoy conventional superiority in the Baltics. What holds them back is the idea that if they would physically attack, Article 5 comes into play, which would lead to a protracted war with an uncertain outcome. If NATO is able to mobilise, ultimately NATO will be superior, it could even go nuclear. I don’t think they (the Russians) would want it to go that way, but they want to be able to threaten with nuclear power and control every stage of escalation. To me, that’s what this is all about. But NATO’s advantage is the long-range precision strike, so the whole point of an A2/AD strategy is to deprive your opponent of its best capability. If you do advance, you do so only a certain distance that your air defence can cover. That’s why there’s so much air and anti-ship defence in the Baltic Sea. Speaking to General Hodges, he told me that if there’s an advance in the Baltic or Black Sea, NATO will have enormous difficulty and enormous casualties trying to get in.

Now, there are still people in Europe who don’t want to admit what’s going on. Especially the Germans. And if you don’t believe there’s a threat, you don’t have a common threat analysis. And such a common threat analysis is vital, especially in this region, including Romania, Turkey Bulgaria, and maybe Greece. All these states need to agree on what the threat is and what the real capabilities are against which we need to defend. Because there’s not one Eastern European government today that can defend itself.

For a long time after NATO accession, Romanians have prioritised military acquisitions that aren’t necessarily focused on the Russian threat, but rather on expeditionary warfare. The most recent major investments have been in anti-tank, but there are no plans for an IAMD (Integrated Air and Missile Defence).

That’s a problem and the Americans are as much responsible for that as the Romanians. For 25 years we thought Europe was peaceful and there was never going to be another war, so everybody came to support the Americans in their out-of-area operations. But a whole new generation of capabilities came in, Russia went bad, even if this could have been foreseen 10 years ago. And the U.S. told NATO states they shouldn’t worry about Russia. The Russian army was a disaster, they could barely beat Georgia and the Georgians allowed themselves to be provoked. Now we have a very different situation.

However, people haven’t changed their mind yet and there is no growth in the European economy. Even though Romania is doing well, you know what the broader European situation is. It is necessary, I believe, for the American Administration to formulate and implement a program on the scale of the Marshall Plan, in order to regenerate European and American growth, which would also help Europe deal with the migration problem. The strengthening of European economic growth, democracy, good governance, is as much a security issue as all the military issues we are discussing. So if the President (of the U.S.) has the vision to do this, American leadership is necessary.

The Polish Presidency is pushing for an updated 21st century regional Intermarium to counterbalance Russia. How do you see this alignment? Is it feasible?

Intermarium is a bad idea – no one is going to support Poland as leader.

Look, regional cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe has been tried out for the last 150 years and it never worked. The Germans are now trying to lead Europe because the Americans backed out, and as a result Merkel’s policy has aroused a lot of resentment. Only the U.S., in concert with its allies, has the capability, the resources and, hopefully, the will to promote European integration and democracy, which is the real threat to Russia. It’s not NATO deterrence, but European unity, that is the best defence against Russia. Once you have a rising economic growth, you can afford to invest more militarily, and if there’s a robust military deterrence, Russia cannot threaten you and also the nuclear issue becomes much less dangerous. The key is conventional deterrence. Now they can threaten you with nuclear weapons. This threat consists of controlling escalation throughout all the stages of a crisis and to prevent Europe from being able to respond.

How should a credible deterrence posture look like in both the Baltic and Black Sea ecosystems, after the Warsaw summit?

A credible conventional deterrence in the Baltics is a mix of land, sea, aerospace, electronics, and cyber. First, you need the logistics to be able to defend in depth: you have to have in the Baltics an infrastructure for the three states, Poland and Germany. For this, you need first of all political will and enough resources for a huge investment. Second, you have to have enough land forces that can go through Germany and Poland into the Baltic States to reinforce and defend the territory for many days. Also, you need permanently deployed troops in the Baltic States. And you need anti-submarine capabilities. Basically, you need the military ability to take out the Russian A2/AD – Kaliningrad, the submarines they have in the Baltic Sea, mines, electronics, air and aerospace – it’s a combined arms operation.

In the Black Sea it’s somewhat different, but again, you need the infrastructure. A different kind than in the Baltic Sea, as the Russians can’t come over the Romanian border, they can only attack you by sea and air. So, Romania needs to create their own A2/AD. And you’d have to work with the Turks because Turkey holds on to the Montreux Treaty and refuses to make any concessions for Allied security.

Erdogan is now trying to make a common naval standing unit in the Black Sea with Ukraine and if you look at Turkish defence, they are now trying to produce as much as possible indigenous defence. They probably have come to the Romanian government to talk about cooperating in this area in the Black Sea. If you can get Turkey, Ukraine, Romania, hopefully Bulgaria, maybe Georgia to talk about doing things in common in the Black Sea, that would be an important step forward. I realise it’s very difficult, and Georgia is very unstable in terms of political orientation at the moment. However, even though it would be difficult, if there’s going to be a follow-up, a program of action, Turkey must be involved. Bilateral discussions between Turkey and Romania need to lead to a common threat assessment. They need to define what the Russian threat exactly is.

How should the Alliance prepare for defending itself against hybrid warfare?

To me, hybrid warfare is a bad term. To the Russians, hybrid warfare is what the West is doing. The Russians call their warfare ‘a war of a new type’ or ‘new generation warfare’. The term ‘hybrid’ came into being 10-15 years ago because we saw non-state entities (such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Chechens), which were able to put together credible military force to fight states. However, Russia is a state – not a non-state entity, and it’s doing the same thing the Communists did during the Cold War, but of course, everybody has forgotten that.

The Russian military trains for conventional theatre warfare (and for nuclear scenarios as part of that), it represents the main part of the Russian military activity, visible in exercises. All these ethnic 5th column, media trolls, information warfare, cyber, most of those are not officially in the military, they are under the government. So, to use the American terms, we have a whole-of-government national security approach and the military is part of it. For me, the analogy is a symphony orchestra: the military is the brass and the percussion – the guys who play really loud; they’re not always playing, but they are always there, and they can be called upon when necessary, but the rest of the time the other activities go on as we speak: subversion, indictment, the Russian idea of information war. These activities won’t ever stop on the Russian side. Because for Putin, this is the only game he knows. The solution is to build more democratic, stronger governments and economic strength, in which most of the society is invested in democratisation, growth and European integration and things that it benefits from. In this context, those tools lose a lot of their credibility.

Do you have the sense that European governments understand the A2/AD danger?

Europeans do not want to accept that the prospect of war in Europe is real. It’s very difficult for them to imagine another war in Europe. Europe has had 70 years of peace. For instance, I need to lose weight. I should want to acknowledge it and do what I can. That doesn’t mean I want to. No government likes to have its policy process questioned and security issues such as A2/AD bubbles are a major challenge to such a process. It is a general phenomenon.

In regional context, the Russian threat is viewed in a very differentiated manner. While the Poles and the Baltics have always understood the Russian threat, the Czechs and the Hungarians, also the Bulgarians have an entirely different mentality.

NATO has always had capability gaps, and never fulfilled any promise of bridging these gaps. Before leaving, General Breedlove emphasised the need for the Alliance to have the capability to breach, penetrate and operate inside the A2/AD bubbles. Europe is far away from those capabilities. How optimistic are you about these prospects?

Not at all. First of all, the countries in the region need to organise themselves to build collective defence and do so in an integrated and coordinated fashion with the rest of NATO. And you can’t wait for the United States to bail you out. That would create antagonism in Washington. But the U.S. also has gaps. We are grossly deficient in intelligence awareness, both in terms of technology and human resources – experts on Russia. For instance, when Russia organised the snap exercises last year, the U.S. were caught completely by surprise. Moreover, the Russians love to do operations off the exercise, like Georgia. That’s scary. Some American experts believed for instance in 2014 that Putin was making it all up as he goes, that he had no strategy. At the same time, I have the open source documents showing that Russia started planning this in 2005-2006. When I told the Ukrainians in 2013 that Russia is going to invade if Kiev signs the agreement with the EU, the Ukrainians confirmed this assessment, but Washington was not aware.

Do you think that in the context of the growing Russian threat perception there’s a chance that Finland and/or Sweden will consider in the next few years joining NATO?

I hope so, but I doubt it. In the case of Sweden, they are closer to the Alliance than they have ever been. But in my assessment, the prospects of them joining NATO are not yet tangible. Finland will do what Sweden does. The Russians understand that Finland can and will defend itself and impose serious costs. Nevertheless, the Finns are not ready to join NATO. However, if Russia were to attack the Baltic States, this would change the Finnish perspective entirely. On the other hand, Russia has provoked Sweden and Finland to unacceptable extents, and if it were up to me, I would integrate them into NATO.

Interview conducted by Iulia Joja and Octavian Manea

July 4, 2016

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