Russia’s destabilisation of Ukraine has exposed “serious deficiencies” in Nato’s preparedness to deal with a military threat from its former Cold War adversary, a parliamentary report has warned.
While the risk of a conventional military assault by Russia on a Nato member state remains “low”, the danger of an unconventional attack using the kind of “ambiguous warfare” tactics deployed by President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine is “more substantial”, said the House of Commons Defence Committee.
The 28-nation alliance should urgently undertake a “radical reform” to prepare for either eventuality, including by establishing a continuous presence of Nato troops in its “vulnerable” Baltic members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and pre-positioning military equipment in the three former Soviet states, said the cross-party panel of MPs. “Dramatic” improvements should also be made to existing rapid reaction forces, headquarters structures should be established for eastern Europe and the Baltic and large-scale exercises involving military and political leaders from all Nato states should be conducted.
And they said that Nato should reconsider its Article 5 commitment for all members to come to the aid of any member which is attacked, to make clear that this includes countering unconventional threats such as cyber-attacks, information warfare and the use of irregular militia.
But they warned that Nato “may not have the collective political will to take concerted action to deter attack”, and cautioned that public opinion may not support the use of military force to honour Article 5 commitments in a confrontation with Russia. The report cited a 2008 survey which found that fewer than 50% of voters in the US, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany and France would have backed defence of the Baltic states against Russian military action.
The committee also called on the UK Government – which hosts a Nato summit in south Wales in September – to show leadership by investing in analysis and expertise on Russia, which has become “seriously degraded” over recent years in which the defence focus has been on terrorism and failed states.
The MPs urged David Cameron and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon to open the summit by declaring a commitment for the UK to maintain defence spending at or above the 2% of GDP target set by Nato for its member states.
“Nato is currently not well-prepared for a Russian threat against a Nato member state,” said the report. “A Russian unconventional attack, using asymmetric tactics – the latest term for this is ‘ambiguous warfare’ – designed to slip below Nato’s response threshold, would be particularly difficult to counter.
“And the challenges, which Nato f aces in deterring, or mounting an adequate response to, such an attack poses a fundamental risk to Nato’s credibility.”
The committee found that Nato has “serious deficiencies” in its command and control structures, its ability to predict potential attacks and the readiness of its forces to respond to Russian aggression.
Committee chair Rory Stewart said: “The risk of attack by Russia on a Nato member state, whilst still small, is significant. We are not convinced that Nato is ready for this threat.
“Nato has been too complacent about the threat from Russia, and it is not well-prepared. Even worse, the nature of Russian tactics is changing fast – including cyber-attacks, information warfare, and the backing of irregular ‘separatist groups’, combining armed civilians with Russian Special Forces operating without insignia. We have already seen how these tactics have been deployed by Russia and its proxies in Ukraine to destabilise a Nato partner state, annex part of its territory, and paralyse its ability to respond.
“The instability in Russia, President Putin’s world-view, and the failure of the West to respond actively in Ukraine means that we now have to address urgently the possibility – however small – of Russia repeating such tactics elsewhere. In particular, the Nato member states in the Baltic are vulnerable. We are not convinced that Nato or the UK Government has fully grasped the implications of this threat.
“The UK has the opportunity at the Wales summit to lead the reordering of Nato. It should drive the planning and capabilities now required to counter such threats. It should ensure that Nato begins to train and exercise at a scale to make its deterrence credible.”
Following visits to Estonia and Latvia, the committee found that there was “no doubt that eastern European nations feel that the threat is very real” from Russia.
“The Nato alliance has not considered Russia as an adversary or a potential territorial threat to its member states for 20 years,” said the report. “It is now forced to do so as a result of Russia’s recent actions.
“Events in Ukraine this year, following on from the cyber attack on Estonia in 2007 and the invasion of Georgia by Russia in 2008, are a ‘wake-up call’ for Nato. They have revealed alarming deficiencies in the state of Nato preparedness, which will be tough to fix.
“The UK Government should take the lead in ensuring that the Nato summit addresses these threats in the most concrete and systematic fashion.”
Nato spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said: ” We have not seen the report by the UK Defence Select Committee but we’ll study it carefully once it’s published.
” As early as March, the Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called Russia’s military actions in and around Ukraine a wake-up call for the alliance and for the wider international community. He has also made clear that Nato must adapt to a changed security environment and that the Wales Summit in September will be an important milestone in that process.
“Nato has already taken measures to reinforce collective defence, especially for our Eastern allies, with more planes in the air, more ships at sea, and more exercises on the ground. All 28 allies are contributing, and the United Kingdom is playing an important role in policing Baltic airspace and planned exercises in Poland.
“At the Wales Summit, Nato leaders will adopt an action-plan to reinforce the readiness of the alliance to deal with all the threats it faces. They will also take steps to reverse the decline in defence spending across Nato allies, to enhance cyber security and other cutting-edge capabilities, and to strengthen partnerships around the world, so that Nato remains fit for the future.”
Shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker said: ” This report underlines Labour’s call for the next Strategic Defence and Security Review to be both genuinely strategically driven and financially viable.
“As the committee makes clear, the Government must demonstrate UK leadership on the international stage at the upcoming Wales summit. Recalibrating Nato as a military and political alliance to deter future threats must be a priority for this Government, who have failed under David Cameron to think strategically about future UK defence capabilities.
“The report reiterates the importance of Nato as the cornerstone of the UK’s defence policy and as the sole organisation for collective defence. As part of this, Labour welcomes the announcement made earlier this week that the UK will send a battle group to participate in Exercise Black Eagle in October as part of a Nato package to reassure our allies in Eastern Europe.”
A government spokesman said: “Since the crisis in Ukraine began, all Nato Allies have contributed to the Alliance’s response. As this report recognises, a direct attack by Russia on a Nato state is unlikely, but Russian aggression against Ukraine cannot be ignored.
“So the UK is demonstrating our clear commitment to Allies and partners in eastern Europe. We have deployed UK Typhoon aircraft to the Baltic states and over 1,300 UK personnel will participate in a range of major military exercises across eastern Europe.
“In addition to this, the further package of economic sanctions against Russia announced this week, across defence, finance and high-tech energy goods, continues to show that there are costs for its actions to destabilise Ukraine. In the run up to the Nato summit in Wales, the UK are negotiating across the Alliance to ensure Nato can continue to be at the forefront of building stability in a unpredictable world.”