NATO deterrence, European reluctance?

YPFP Brussels hosted NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow as a part of our Action Points Series in collaborations with NATO. With instability looming on the Alliance’s eastern and southern flanks, the discussion with Ambassador Vershbow took our members on a tour de table of NATO’s development from the Cold War until today. His address, focused on the renewed relevance of deterrence in a new and unpredictable international security environment.


Deterrence is not a new recipe, although forms of deterrence might today take a different form than it did at the height of the Cold War. Ambassador Vershbow explained this doctrine in simple terms: “It’s about convincing your opponent that the costs to him of attacking you will outweigh any potential gain – that the costs will be so high, in fact, as to make any attempt not only not worthwhile, but a terrible mistake.”

Historically, deterrence became less relevant to the Alliance after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the Ambassador highlighted, “this more benign security environment in Europe enabled NATO to gradually shift the focus of our forces away from deterrence and collective defence towards greater flexibility and being able to deploy our forces quickly around the world”.  NATO operated out-of-area with missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan for the first time. And with the shift in focus, a shift in equipment, training, and expertise also took place. This shift was codified in the 2010 Strategic Concept agreed at the Lisbon Summit in 2010.

Today, the security environment has again changed. In the last years, Europe's neighbourhood has been plunged into turmoil and violence. The tremendous hopes of the Arab Spring have suffered major set-backs in Syria and Libya, but burgeoning democracy in Tunisia also needs support. However, throughout the Middle East and North Africa, terrorist groups like Da’esh have been quick to fill the vacuum left by autocratic rulers, using violence to foster terror. As Syria collapses, millions have been forced to flee, prompting a humanitarian catastrophe and the greatest refugee crisis Europe has witnessed in the course of our lifetime.  

Against this backdrop, Ambassador Vershbow elaborated on NATO’s relationship with Russia. Russian military escalation in Syria, to continue its Assad client regime, was prolonging the war. Moreover, he underlined that Russia’s military activity at the Alliance’s borders has increased significantly. He warned that “Russia has the ability to move massive numbers of forces quickly along its borders, and their anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles cover huge areas of NATO territory. This so-called ‘anti-access and area denial’ (A2AD) capability is designed to restrict our freedom of movement and navigation”.

Russian actions in Ukraine “ripped up the international rule book” which NATO allies and others have fostered since the end of the Second World War. Despite efforts to include Russia in NATO institutions through such instruments as the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the NATO-Russia Council, Moscow’s choices in Ukraine led to the lowest point in relations since the Cold War.

In the context of this low-point in NATO-Russia relations, Ambassador Vershbow underlined the need to return to NATO’s classic competencies of deterrence and collective defence. Concretely, the Readiness Action Plan (RAP), a NATO initiative announced at the 2014 Wales Summit, required implementation. When implemented, the RAP would provide NATO with greater mobility, better capabilities, and better integration of land, sea and air forces. He also suggested NATO had to realistically assess its requirements for the pre-positioning of equipment. Furthermore, NATO must strengthen coordination with the EU in countering cyber and hybrid threats. In the run-up to the Warsaw Summit in July 2016, the key take-home message is to bolster NATO’s deterrence.

However, for me, three factors challenge Europe's and NATO capacity to deter their enemies. First, clear political will on the part of all Allies to act together is sometimes lacking. Second, it is evident that some Allies are reluctant to back up their words with deeds. Finally, messaging to enemies lacks clarity and consistency.

To my mind, although deterrence and prevention may be the key to countering the threats from the East and South, the internal political and military asymmetry among allied nations may add complexity to a security environment already undergoing rapid change. In this context, I believe it is  paramount that European allies recovers their internal strength and union in order to project real deterrence power beyond NATO borders.

Fabio Bauer, Incoming Security and Defence Director, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy Brussels

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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