Nato at a disadvantage as Ukraine tensions rise

Opinion: ‘In the the west we are playing football. The Russians are playing chess’

As the situation in eastern Ukraine further deteriorates, Nato headquarters in Brussels has become a hive of activity, with members of the western military alliance trying to formulate an effective, multifaceted, response to recent Russian activity.

In the past week the Nato secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has used press conferences at the Kiev Security Forum and in Sofia to outline Nato’s response. While condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the activities of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, he has been at pains to reassure the Baltic and east European members of Nato.

In the Baltic, Nato naval activity will increase while surveillance flights over eastern Nato countries, such as Poland and Romania, have been stepped up. At the Kiev forum, Rasmussen also announced increased co-operation with Ukraine in the form of an advisory mission to facilitate the Ukrainian army to build its capacity while also providing expertise on the defence of key infrastructure.

Nato officials in Brussels are all too aware of the pressures the current situation brings to bear on the organisation.


Despite having access to a broad spectrum of information and intelligence agencies and networks, the developing Ukrainian situation has effectively taken Nato by surprise. At a time when many Nato member states, such as the US, Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands, are downsizing their militaries, there is also a very apparent mismatch between Russian and Nato military capacities.

For some Nato member states, this reduction in their military capacities came after a period of intensive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Simply put, Russia can mobilise larger forces and do so quickly while Nato member states can mobilise smaller forces and usually after a long period of preparation.

For example, in 2013, Nato ran a major military exercise in Poland, Steadfast Jazz, fielding about 6,000 troops.

In July 2013, Russian military manoeuvres at Lake Baikal in Siberia fielded more than 160,000 troops and 5,000 tanks – the biggest Russian field exercise since the Soviet era. The next Nato exercise will happen in Spain and Portugal in 2015, after two years of planning, while in recent years, the Russian army has displayed a capacity for impromptu large-scale exercises.

Some officials emphasise the possible qualitative advantage of Nato forces over those of Russia in terms of technology, but Russia can still mobilise extremely large formations and, in the Ukrainian case, they are potentially operating in their own back yard.

Nato also has naval options and recently stepped up the activity of its Baltic Approaches Command in an effort to reassure its allies in the region.

Activity in the Black Sea is, however, more problematic. Nato is bound by the terms of the Montreux Convention, which restricts access by foreign naval vessels into the Black Sea. Last week, the USS Donald Cook entered the Black Sea as part of a wider strategy to reassure the government of Ukraine. On Saturday, this guided missile destroyer was "buzzed" by a Russian fighter jet.

As the Russians have secured the main base of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol and have also seized Ukrainian ships, at present the balance of naval power in the region rests with them. Challenging that local superiority is not really an option at this time.

Given these operational challenges, it is little wonder the Nato response has focused on condemning Russian activity, supporting a range of sanctions and reassuring vulnerable member states.

Since the weekend, Rasmussen has called for “de-escalation on the ground” in an effort to create an operational pause in Ukraine. It could be argued that at the heart of the current crisis there is a set of fundamental cultural, strategic and political differences.

These differences between the West and Russia are now being played out in strategic form. Nato operates at a huge disadvantage as it needs consensus and co-operation within its member states in order to act. President Vladimir Putin and his political and military staffs do not face such limitations and have the freedom to act quickly. The initiative rests with the Russians and Nato seems to be consistently caught off balance.

When the current crisis began, there was much media comment on the “ad hoc” nature of Russian actions. Nothing could have been further from the truth. A well-considered and long-term plan is unfolding as the West and Nato endeavour to react and develop a response.

Summing up the fundamental political, operational and strategic disjoint, one Nato official remarked last week, “In the west, we are playing football. The Russians are playing chess.”

David Murphy lectures with the Centre for Military History and Strategic Studies at the department of history in NUI Maynooth.