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NATO Allies Are Rethinking Russia’s Supposed Military Prowess

Robbie Gramer

Foreign Policy, June 7, 2022

“The risk of escalation still remains, so it’s prudent for NATO planners to be thinking about what a potential conflict between NATO and Russia could look like.”

During his decade and a half at the Pentagon, Christopher Skaluba read countless reports and assessments on the Russian military and how it squared up against NATO forces. Now that he has left and has watched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine falter for months, he has a new message for defense planners: “Every single one of those assessments that I’ve read for the last decade and more have been wrong.”

Across NATO, defense planners are reassessing Moscow’s military might in their contingency plans in the unlikely event of a conventional war between the alliance and Russia, according to multiple current and former U.S. and European defense officials. The reassessments come after Moscow’s embarrassing military setbacks in Ukraine, as well as the Kremlin’s willingness to launch a full-fledged military invasion in the first place.

There are two major assumptions that defense planners in major NATO capitals got wrong for years, former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in an interview with Foreign Policy. First, Rasmussen said, “we have overestimated the strength of the Russian military. Despite huge investments in military equipment and the reopening of old Soviet bases, we have seen a very weak Russian military.”

“The other miscalculation is we have underestimated the brutality and the ambitions of President [Vladimir] Putin,” Rasmussen added.

Now, in capitals in Europe and North America, wonks in defense ministries are dusting off years-old assessments of the Russian military’s fighting prowess and starting to question long-held assumptions on what a conventional war between NATO members and Russia would look like.

“Whether it was morale or communications or lack of preparedness, there’s a bunch of factors that have added up to something that you just wouldn’t expect to see from an advanced military,” Skaluba said of the Russian forces, “even if the initial conditions or assumptions under which they went in [to Ukraine] were invalidated.”

One possible scenario that NATO militaries had long prepared for is a rapid land-grab of the Baltic states, on NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank. NATO members had planned and prepared exercises to take those countries back from Russian forces—presuming that Russia could quickly overwhelm their militaries and capture the territory in the first place.

After seeing how poorly Russian troops fared against Ukraine’s forces, some U.S. and other Western defense planners are pushing NATO to reassess that plan: It seems more feasible that, with the proper size and combination of alliance forces, command structures, and military hardware in the Baltics, they could effectively deter or, if not, withstand and repel an invasion by Russian forces. On the flip side, a Russian attempt to invade NATO territory in the Baltics also suddenly seems like a much less unlikely scenario.

Baltic leaders are expected to propose that NATO expand its footprint in the region at the upcoming NATO summit in Madrid in late June. If enacted, Baltic officials say, the upgrade in NATO forces could act as a more effective form of “deterrence by denial” against Putin preparing any plans to seize Baltic territory. After having seen U.S. intelligence on the impending Russian invasion borne out, Baltic nations are hoping that laggards like France and Germany will sign onto their plan.

“We’re still not giving them what they want,” one U.S. source told Foreign Policy.

With relations between NATO and Russia at their most precarious point in the post-Cold War era, some analysts feel it is time to start drawing preliminary conclusions for what a NATO-Russia conflict might look like, in the event that the Ukraine conflict spills into alliance territory. “The risk of escalation still remains, so it’s prudent for NATO planners to be thinking about what a potential conflict between NATO and Russia could look like,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior U.S. intelligence official now with the Center for a New American Security, a think tank.

Skaluba, Kendall-Taylor, and other military analysts caution that the war in Ukraine is far from over, and it’s possible Russia could learn to adapt and improve its military, particularly as it works to shake off the sting from its defeats in northern Ukraine and capture territories in eastern Ukraine. “We’ve already seen a capable Russian force in places like Georgia and Syria and now a bit more so in Ukraine,” said Skaluba, who is now director of the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative. “I can’t believe that really pitiful performance we saw for a few months [in Ukraine] is reflective of the entire Russian military.”

Precise numbers on the casualties in the war on both sides are hard to verify, but it’s clear that Russia has already incurred staggering losses. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asserted that some 30,000 Russian service members have been killed, while the British government estimates that number could be closer to 15,000. But Moscow still has massive reserves of military personnel and conscripts, even if they are poorly trained and equipped, and has shown no intention of backing down from the war.

Conflict in the Donbas Region | Ukraine stands at the center… | Flickr

The war has had two distinct phases thus far: an initial assault on Kyiv, based on the highly flawed political assumption that the Ukrainian government would collapse within days, and the ongoing fight in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Russia’s top military brass have exerted more influence over operations.

“In the early phases of the war, the bigger problem was the plan rather than the army,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with CNA, a think tank. “Now we’re in a phase where we’re much more able to evaluate the Russian army.”

In the buildup to the war, there was a broad consensus in the West that if Russia were to launch an all-out attack, Ukrainian military resistance would quickly crumble. Ukraine’s stiff and effective resistance proved everyone wrong, from Putin to many defense planners in Washington. But drawing direct lessons from the conflict for NATO can be tricky due to the vast number of variables involved.

“There is no such thing as a general NATO-Russia fight,” Kofman said. “It depends where, under what conditions, the plans, war aims, and assumptions truly matter. This isn’t a thing that exists in the abstract.”

Any potential conflict between Russia and NATO, however unlikely, could also quickly escalate beyond what is playing out in Ukraine—a fight between land forces—and heighten the risk of Russia drawing on its untested nuclear arsenal, said Jim Townsend, another former Pentagon official and expert on trans-Atlantic security. “There is a lot of the Russian military capability that has not been touched by this war nor been tested by this war,” he said.

Townsend also argued that NATO shouldn’t assume that a smaller size of better trained and better equipped NATO forces would be able to hold its own against a larger Russian invading force. In other words, just because Russia’s military stumbled out of the gate in Ukraine doesn’t mean NATO shouldn’t breathe easy.

“Yes, [Russia] made some stupid assumptions which cascaded in a lot of bad ways, and we made some stupid assumptions about their military modernization program,” he said. “There’s a lot of reasons why we could fool ourselves right now into thinking the Russians really suck. … But we’re going to be dealing with a wounded bear who is still very dangerous.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign PolicyTwitter@RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign PolicyTwitter@ak_mack

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