When Vladimir Putin schemed to annex the Crimean peninsula, he didn’t launch an “invasion.” Instead, Russia relied on techniques including phony media reports, special forces and and proxy fighters (dubbed “little green men”), and cyberattacks.
This kind of hybrid warfare gave Putin just enough plausible deniability about what was clearly happening — Russia seizing territory that belonged to another nation. Following that success elements of Russian hybrid warfare have begun appearing in Syria and the Eastern Ukraine, as well as U.S. and European elections.
The leadership of NATO watched the hybrid war with dismay. What would they do if Russia used these same aggressive techniques against a member? This week they supplied an answer: the organization would treat hybrid war like an actual attack.
On Thursday, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance stated that such hybrid warfare acts aimed at member state could trigger Article 5, the provision that requires all treaty members to come to the aid of any member who is attacked (it has been invoked only once, after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States). Now hybrid war is to be treated on the same level as traditional attacks.
That is NATO is putting the world on notice that hybrid hijinks could spark a wider war. The question now is not only whether some words on paper will deter a nation like Russia, but also whether this declaration is worded in a way that actually increases the chances of conflict instead of deterring it.
Europe has a grim history of treaties intended to deter war helping to start them instead. Just think of the web of agreements signed by nations before World War I that dragged everyone in the fray, allowing a single assassination to spark a massive conflict.
Of course, it’s not that simple. The funny thing about treaties is that nations tend to ignore them when it’s convenient. Russia jumped into World War I without a treaty; Italy sat it out. Historian Margaret MacMillan said it best in 2015: “What we tend to think of as fixed alliances before the First World War were nothing of the sort. They were much more loose, much more porous, much more capable of change.”
Those words have great resonance as we look at NATO’s new position. The language of its declaration is vague, which saps it of its deterrent power but also sets forth gray areas instead of clear red lines for Russia and other hybrid actors. In short, it’s not clear what would spark a NATO attack. For example, here is a sentence that is certainly open to interpretation by all sides: “While the primary responsibility for responding to hybrid threats rests with the targeted nation, NATO is ready, upon Council decision, to assist an Ally at any stage of a hybrid campaign.”
It’s easy to say that when Russian tanks cross your border, NATO will help push them back. It’s not so easy to say what NATO would do when Russia floods an electorate with fake news or hacks a power grid. If Russian-backed separatists down an airplane, does that give NATO the right to bomb Russian bases and kill personnel? This document can be read to say “yes” — if the member nations agree.
What are Counter Hybrid Support Teams? Experts & resources from across the Alliance organized & ready to respond to…
The declaration establishes “Counter Hybrid Support Teams.” What they would actually do in a crisis is not clear. A NATO Facebook post describes these teams as “Experts & resources from across the Alliance organized & ready to respond to threats against our institutions & infrastructure.”
New Theaters of War
When it comes to cyberattacks, the organization says it is “reaffirming NATO’s defensive mandate, we are determined to employ the full range of capabilities, including cyber, to deter, defend against and to counter the full spectrum of cyber threats, including those conducted as part of a hybrid campaign.”
You can read that as saying a hard-to-attribute hacking attack could trigger the same response from NATO as a physical invasion. That’s a pretty wide umbrella, and Vladimir Putin could easily disregard that threat and push the boundaries as he orders more meddling. In the case of North Korea or Iran, it could go the other way and arbitrarily justify a military campaign to force regime change. Just look at Muammar Gaddafi in Libya—European leaders, backed by the United States, deposed him by force and his citizens executed him.
Cyberspace is a clear object of NATO concern, and it is setting up infrastructure to do battle there. “We will establish a Cyberspace Operations Centre in Belgium to provide situational awareness and coordination of NATO operational activity within cyberspace, a Joint Force Command Norfolk headquarters in the United States to focus on protecting the transatlantic lines of communication, and a Joint Support and Enabling Command in Germany,” the declaration says. These entities will be targets of hackers, which could spark NATO responses.
NATO is fretting over outer space, too. “Recognizing that space is a highly dynamic and rapidly evolving area, which is essential to a coherent Alliance deterrence and defense posture, we have agreed to develop an overarching NATO Space Policy,” the declaration says. One can imagine a similar Article 5 umbrella of protection could extend to satellites, which can be jammed or hacked from the ground without much attribution. Is that cause for wider war? Again, it’s not clear where the red lines are.
NATO’s newest declaration seems to say, “NATO will recognize the need to activate Article 5 when we see it.” That’s dangerously vague, given the slate of subtle threats that mark the modern world. One side may gamble that NATO will vacillate and push the boundaries, triggering Article 5. Members may take an aggressive posture thinking NATO will protect them, and be caught by surprise when member states vote no.