The Ukraine Crisis: Highlighting the Role of the Flanks of NATO

By Robbin Laird

With Putin’s sleight of hand efforts, he has swallowed up Belarus while understandingly Ukraine has been the main show.

But Belarus and Kaliningrad are not far apart which certainly has not been missed by the Nordics, the Balts or the Poles.

And dependent on how Putin weaponizes Belarus, its interaction with Kaliningrad weaponization can reach deep into the Northern flank of NATO and pose direct threats not only to the Nordics, the Balts and Poland but to those forces operating in the North Atlantic, notably the North American component of NATO.

One should note that the standup of 2nd Fleet in 2018 and of the Allied Joint Force Command NATO in 2020 are key elements of North America reworking how it operates in the North Atlantic and works allied integration

Ed Timperlake and I visited the commands a great deal last year, and those visits are a key part of our forthcoming book on maritime kill webs to be published later this year.

JFC Norfolk was created at the 2018 Brussels Summit as a new joint operational level command for the Atlantic. It reached an important milestone in September 2020 when it declared Initial Operational Capability. JFC Norfolk is the only operational NATO command in North America and is closely integrated with the newly reactivated U.S. Second Fleet.

Recently, I spoke with the recently retired head of the two commands, Vice Admiral (Retired) Woody Lewis who underscored the importance of the Allied Command.

He underscored that “The kind of integration which Allied Joint Force Command is working among the allies is crucial and is clearly important for enhanced warfighting deterrent capabilities necessary for crisis such as we are seeing in Europe currently.

“We cannot forget how challenging both Europe and the Mediterranean remain as we refocus on the Pacific. The kind of integration which we have put together and is evolving in the Norfolk commands is crucial to have the kind of integratability crucial to a way ahead for European defense.”

In our interview with the Deputy Commander of Second Fleet, the Canadian Admiral Waddell, he underscored the approach in an interview we did with him:

For the web of capabilities, you need to be ready to fight tonight, you need to be able to seamlessly integrate together across the fleet, inclusive of U.S. and allied forces. You fight as a fleet.” That means fundamental change from a cultural assumption that the U.S. Navy has run with for many years.

“You need to understand and accept that a fighting force needs to be reconfigurable such that others can seamlessly bolt on, participate in, or integrate into that force.

“That might mean changes from the assumptions of how the Navy has operated in the past in order to operate successfully with allies.”

The key role which allied maritime forces play in being able to support the defense arc from the Nordics through to Poland or from the Baltic Sea, through to the Kola Peninsula, through to Greenland and the Faroe Islands, or the GIUK gap through which the Russians transit force further South and East, is crucial.

As the Rear Admiral Betton, the Deputy Commander of Allied Joint Force Command Norfolk underscored:

“The U.S. is by far the dominant figure of NATO, but it’s not the only piece. And it’s not always just the heavy metal that is relevant. It’s the connectivity, it’s the infrastructure and the architecture that enables the 30 nations of NATO to get so much more than the sum of the parts out of their combined effort.

“But it’s particularly the relevant nations in the operational area and their ability to work together which is an important consideration.”

We are seeing this operate in the current crisis and with the launching of the Cold Response 2022 exercise, force deployments are reinforcing the defense of the defense arc mentioned above.

At the same time, the 6th Fleet is focused on the Russian actions in the Black Sea.

It must not be forgotten that the NATO exercise last summer, Sea Breeze 21, saw an information war take place, a prelude to the current crisis.

And with the uncertainty about what Turkey’s role in NATO , the Middle East and North Africa is, sorting out how to deal with the Russians working the Black Sea flank is crucial.

Clearly part of the timeline to the current stage of the Ukrainian crisis were the events surrounding Sea Breeze 21.

As we wrote in November 16, 2021 piece on those events:

If one would read the latest version of Russian military doctrine published this July, one would learn that information war is a key part of the overall Russian engagement with the West, and not merely in terms of direct military operations.

The Sea Breeze 2021 exercise highlighted how the Russians are engaging in widespread information war, and one to which the United States and its allies responded.

But one would find with difficulty either a translation of the Russian July publication or discussion by the United States of the information warfare which went on at Sea Breeze 2021.

The current conflict between Belarus/Russia and Poland is part of the same tissue of how the Russians engage in conflict with the West, although one would struggle to find much analysis which would connect up Sea Breeze 2021 with the current “border” crisis facing the Poles and Europe.

A rare exception with regard to coverage of Sea Breeze 2021 is an article by Liubov Tsybulska, head of the Ukraine Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security.

That article was published by the Ukrainian website EUROMAIDAN Press.

In the article, the author focuses on Russian actions during Sea Breeze 21, earlier iterations of the exercise saw Russian participation. But with the seizure of Crimea, and the wider Putin agenda with regard to Ukraine, these exercises are now treated by him as training grounds for military confrontation, 21st century style.

The author noted that the Russian operation to undercut Sea Breeze 21 followed the by now well established information war model evolved and perfected by the Kremlin.

“Such Russian operations are usually quite complex. They involve all major Russian intelligence agencies, target several audiences at once, all messages are consistent, well-tested, and communication channels cover several levels – the high official, media, social networks, and the highest official – the Russian president himself. The stages are usually as follows:

  • Gradual suspense;
  • Then escalation, aggressive attacks through the media and social networks;
  • And finally normalization through pushing to accept their conditions at the highest political level.”

During Sea Breeze 21 there was a clear incident to which the campaign was then anchored, namely, the Russian attack on a British destroyer. Russia claimed that it fired warning shots and dropped bombs to deter HMS Defender operating In international waters off of Cap Fiolent on Crimea.

The Ukrainian author highlighted how the Russians then built that into their information war campaign.

“The day before the incident with the British destroyer, Putin says that NATO is expanding, breaking its promise not to do so. Another Putin’s return to the thesis of “red lines that Russia will define for itself.”

“The next day, just hours after the British destroyer’s innocent passage 12 miles from Crimea, the Russian embassy in the United States literally explodes with a tweet about the “aggressive character of the exercises” and calls on the US and NATO to stop them.

“From this moment, a massive information bombardment begins.

“Usually, the mechanism of this wave is quite simple: Russian intelligence sends “their” media, bloggers, and “experts” special “playbooks” with the main narratives that need to be actively disseminated.”

She concluded by this warning: “At a time when Russia still seeks to divide the world into zones of influence and argues that it has the right to decide our fate for us and without us, such actions of our partners seriously warn those who began to give in to Russia’s ambitions regarding Crimea and the surrounding waters.”

Coordinating the response to Russian actions on both flanks is a task being handled by Allied Joint Force Command Naples and with such a crisis we have moved from coordinating exercises to coordinating operations with the Russians generating what I would certainly call limited war.

With Putin and his 21st century authoritarian allies, there is no clear line between peace and war.

We have invented terms like gray zone or hybrid war to try to describe the situation but such terms also obscure the situation as well.

In a discussion with my colleague Paul Bracken we argued that limited war is probably a better way to get at what is going in in a situation like the evolving timeline of the Ukrainian crisis.

According to Bracken, it is preferable to use the term “limited war” to describe the nature of conflict between the authoritarian powers and the liberal democracies. “A term was invented in the Cold War which is also quite useful to analyze the contemporary situation, namely, limited war. This term referred to conflict at lower levels and sub-crisis maneuvering. And that is what is going or today in cyber and outer space, to use two examples. But it also applied to higher levels of conflict like limited nuclear war.”

“The notion of limited war focuses escalation as a strategy. What is the difference between limited and controlled war?

“That’s a really important question with enormous implications for command and control. Today, for example, limits are determined in a decision making process whereby the Pentagon goes to the White House and says we’d like to do this operation. The White says yes or no.

“Left out of this is any discussion of building a command and control system for controlled war. This means keeping war controlled even if things go wrong — as they always do. Without an emphasis on controlled war, and not just limited war, I would estimate that the United States will be highly risk averse, that is, the fear of an escalation spiral will drive the United States toward inaction.

“Look at the Ukraine. The first U.S. reaction to the Russian buildup was to immediately take military options off the table. The White House refocused its strategy on financial sanctions instead. It looked as if the United States was desperately searching for ways not to use force. Soft power, gray zone operations, the weaponization of finance — these are clearly important and I think we should use them.

“But they look like a frantic attempt to any use of force, like  British foreign policy in the 1930s.

“Our language shapes our strategy. An image of  war that blows up, that’s unlimited, or that you’ve declined to fight because of your fear that it would become so is where we are. In academic studies and think tanks the focus is overwhelmingly on “1914” spirals, accidental war, entanglement, and inadvertent escalation.

“If it’s going to be controlled or limited, how are you defining that it is limited? Is it limited by geography? Is it limited by the intensity of operations? Is it limited by the additional political issues that you will bring into the dispute?

“These are never specified in discussions that I see of hybrid or gray zone warfare. To use a very sensitive example. In a Taiwan scenario, will the United States Navy and Air Force be allowed to strike targets in China? I see a real danger that this isn’t being thought through. If we think it through only in a crisis we’re likely to find a lot of surprises in how the White House and Joint Chiefs of Staff see things differently.

These expressions  – hybrid war and gray zone conflict – are treated as if they self evident in term of their meaning. Yet they are part of a larger chain of activities and events.

We use the term peer competitor but that is a bit confusing as well as these authoritarian regimes do not have the same ethical constraints or objectives as do liberal democratic regimes. This core cultural, political and ideological conflict who might well escalate a conflict beyond the terms of what we might wish to fight actually.

And that really is the point – escalate and the liberal democracies withdraw and redefine to their disadvantage what the authoritarian powers wish to do.

Bracken noted: “That’s a good distinction too, because it brings in the fact that for 20 years we’ve been fighting an enemy in the Middle East who really can’t strike back at the United States or Europe other than with low-level terrorist actions. That will not be the case with Russia, China, and others.

“The challenge is to define limited war, and I would add, controlled war. Is it geographic or Is it the intensity of the operations? How big of a war is it before people start unlocking the nuclear weapons?

“Every war game I’ve played has seen China declare that its “no first use” policy is terminated. The China player does this to deter the United States from making precision strikes and cyber attacks on China. This seriously needs consideration before we get into a real crisis.

“Russia and China’ are trying to come in with a level of intensity in escalation which is low enough so that it doesn’t trigger a big Pearl Harbor response. And that could go on for a long time and is a very interesting future to explore.”

Limited war requires learning about escalation control i.e. about controlled war, which when one uses that term, rather than hybrid war or gray zone conflict, connects limited war to the wider set of questions relating political objectives of the authoritarian powers.

Bracken concluded: “I believe using those terms adds to the intellectual chaos in Washington. It prevents us from having a clear policy discussion of what the alternatives for escalation control and management are in any particular crisis. This is a lot more dangerous than mishandling the Afghan exit, or the COVID pandemic.”

Also see the following:

The USMC and Embracing the Dynamics of Change in the Nordic to Polish Defense Arc

While the Ukrainian Crisis Simmers: The Launch of Brilliant Jump 2022 and Cold Response 2002

The North Carolina-Based Marines Participate in Cold Response 2022