Make no mistake: Russian President Vladimir Putin is running rings around NATO and the West. His seizure of Crimea and the incursion into eastern Ukraine two years ago awakened NATO from a lengthy siesta in which the alliance was coasting when it came to defense. Putin's intervention into Syria and Turkey's shoot-down of a Russian fighter late last year complicated matters.
Combined with the expansion of the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war has created a massively disruptive flow of refugees into Europe, exceeding the capacity to assimilate this migration. And the spread of IS terrorists to Europe and America has made actual attacks against NATO states a reality that did not exist during the Cold War.
Now challenged by Putin's intent to "push the envelope" for Russian engagement and the menace presented by the IS, NATO has no choice but to respond. Conditioned by the binary nature of the Cold War, NATO has reacted to Russia with traditional responses based on increases in the readiness and deployment of military forces. And it has deferred real action against IS so far.
At the Wales heads of state NATO summit in September 2014, the alliance agreed to an ambitious readiness action plan in response to Russia's Ukrainian intervention. Training and exercises would be increased. A very high readiness force was established should Russia make threatening moves west. And the United States created and funded a European Security Initiative to provide money for a strengthened military posture in Europe.
NATO nations promised to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, a goal only a handful of members would reach. In many ways, the military responses exceeded initial expectations. However, while these steps reassured many of the nations, Russia still maintains formidable means to intimidate its neighbors.
The first is geographic. America is 3,000 miles from Europe. Russia borders NATO's Baltic and Black Sea states and has interior lines of communications. Further, if Russia were to threaten the Baltics, NATO reinforcement would have to overcome serious defenses and the Kaliningrad oblast that blocks direct access by sea, air and road. Communications would have to move through a part of Poland that does not have well-developed transport nodes or Belarus, a state more closely aligned with Russia.
Second, Russia has advantages in its Spetznatz or Special Forces; propaganda; cyber; and a huge numerical superiority in theater nuclear weapons.
Third, much of Europe is still dependent on Russian oil and natural gas.
Finally, Putin does not have to make decisions based on gaining approval from 28 other peers as is required in NATO.
NATO, however, has many options if it breaks out of a traditional mindset. Despite intimidation tactics, Putin will not gamble on provoking a war. Despite his preponderance of theater nuclear weapons, strategic deterrence still works.
The worst (and unlikely) case is Putin's use of "hybrid" tactics against the Baltic or the Black Sea states. Propaganda, cyber and "little green men" to infiltrate a target state would be the means. What should NATO do?
Beyond the current increases in readiness, training and deployments, NATO must shift to a "porcupine" defense on its flanks against a "hybrid" campaign. Instead of depending on reinforcement by large numbers of forces facing the challenges noted above, defense of the Baltic and Black Sea states should rest initially on large numbers of Stinger-like anti-air and Javelin anti-vehicle missiles to bloody an initial incursion. Declaratory policy will be to shoot any "green men" on sight. And NATO must bolster its capability for cyber and counter-propaganda capability that can be moved quickly to the states where it is needed. None of these steps need be overly costly.
More important, a high-level dialogue with Russia must start aimed at reducing tensions. This column has argued for a P-5 Plus Two--the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the European Union and NATO--as a better venue than the Russia-NATO Council. However, negotiations are imperative and must include Ukraine and Syria.
The leverage will be through sanctions relief in exchange for changed behavior--a more potent weapon than military force in these conditions.
The IS is more problematic. Some form of NATO troop deployments to the region may be required as a quid pro quo for creating an Arab/Muslim ground force. But without U.S. leadership, NATO will not act. Even with U.S. action, obtaining the needed unanimity for decision will be difficult.
Throughout its history, NATO has faced many seemingly existential crossroads. Yet it survived. But for history to repeat, NATO needs a new strategy. And it needs one now.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave distinguished columnist; chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business; and senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security. His latest book is "A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace."