LONDON, On this day marking the American Declaration of Independence and the formal beginning of secession from England, it is interesting to the point of irony that Britain has done the same vis a vis the European Union — but through a referendum and not a revolution. While the tsunami-like reverberations of that vote are still roiling, a far less visible event was held here on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week. Yet, powerful reverberations could be felt as well.
The British Army’s annual conference on Land Warfare took place in the shadows of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. This year’s theme was “adaptability,” ensuring that the British Army is embracing change and innovation at a sufficiently rapid and in-depth pace to conform with an international — and now domestic — security environment that is moving at the political equivalent of the speed of light. Brexit could not have been a more timely example of this fluidity and uncertainty.
The most startling conference presentation, however, was given by a U.S. Army general on how his service was dealing with adaptability. In his brief that must have been cleared by higher authority, the Army’s top priority was “to deter and if necessary defeat Russia in a war.” This phrase was so striking that it must be repeated: “to deter and if necessary defeat Russia in a war.”
Many of the audience who were largely British Army may not have been as taken aback by this statement as I was. And when asked if this were U.S. policy, the general stated that the Secretary of Defense would soon be more forthcoming on this priority. So now is the United States publicly planning for the possibility of a war with Russia? I hope not.
Of course, post Ukraine, given the steps taken to bolster NATO’s military capacity and the U.S. European Reassurance Initiative of about $4 billion to pay for some of these actions, one can fathom why the Pentagon might be considering a contingency with Russia. But contingency planning unfortunately does nothing to address Russian strengths and use of non-military tools including information warfare, propaganda, intimidation, cyber and the media that have proven so effective. And Brexit will also offer ample opportunities for Russia in trying to weaken the EU and NATO with these tactics.
Instead of de-escalating rising tensions, the opposite will occur. Russia’s support of Syria and President Bashar al Assad will likewise complicate relations. And make no mistake: President Vladimir Putin will attempt to trump the forthcoming NATO heads of government summit scheduled later this week in Warsaw with some sort of ploy to steal headlines. Under these circumstances, what should Washington and Brussels do?
First, leaders need to understand that “deterrence” as understood today reflects 20th and not 21st century thinking. Images of allowing Hitler to thrive in the 1930s or of nuclear weapons assuring deterrence through MAD — mutual assured destruction that would have probably ended society as we knew it in a thermonuclear war — are simply not relevant today. Even against the Islamic State, new forms of deterrence are essential to contain this danger while realizing the current plan of killing one’s way to victory can never work.
This 21st century version of deterrence is far less dependent on the destructive force of arms than it is on the power of ideas. Merely stationing a battalion or brigade of additional troops in NATO may reassure allies. However what impact will that have on Putin, who has no intention of invading west? The answer is none except to generate responses that favor Putin with interior lines of communications and a decision-making cycle that is dazzlingly short as opposed to NATO’s laborious process of finding consensus among 28 and soon 29 members.
What is needed is checking or blocking Putin’s strategy that uses non-military and political/psychological tools noted above. It is these non-military tools that need to be the focus of our responses and not planning for a war. Since NATO is a military alliance, applying non-military tools has always been challenge.
Finally, while military commanders must have contingency plans for wars or conflicts that break out unexpectedly through accident or miscalculation, openly citing Russia as an enemy to be defeated in war is dangerous, counterproductive and borderline insane. If U.S. policy is considering making this aim public, it does so at huge risk and no benefit. And part of that risk will be forgoing accommodations in our mutual best interests.
Harlan Ullman is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and serves as senior adviser for Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security and chairs two private companies. His last book is “A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace.” His next book, due out next year, is “Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Wars It Starts.”