LONDON - Europe's top military commander has warned Russia that it faces the combined might of the United States-led Nato military alliance if it attempts a move against any of its member-states.
"If Nato were to observe the infiltration of its sovereign territory by foreign forces, and if we were able to prove that this activity was being carried out by a particular aggressor nation," said US General Philip Breedlove, Europe's Supreme Allied Commander, in an explicit reference to Russia, "that will mean a military response."
At first sight, there is nothing unusual about his remarks on Sunday: Since its founding in 1949, Nato has offered a guarantee to come to the defence of its member-nations, which now include 26 countries in Europe, plus the US and Canada.
But in the context of today's Ukraine crisis, the general's statement could have far-reaching consequences, since it pledges Nato to engage in confrontations for which it has no previous experience, and which it cannot control.
Established at the start of the Cold War, Nato's security guarantee, contained in the famed Article 5 of its founding treaty, pledges "that an armed attack against one or more of them (member- states) in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all".
Until now, the definition of what constitutes an "armed attack" meant that the troops of one country crossed the internationally recognised borders of a Nato member-state. But, as the example of Ukraine illustrates, that's not how European security crises now develop.
In Ukraine, Russia supplied weapons and training to local ethnic Russians, and encouraged them to organise "spontaneous" revolts against their government. This was followed by the introduction of Russian soldiers armed with equipment bearing no markings who then secured the area of the revolt and even incorporated the territory into Russia itself.
The entire activity is highly illegal, violating conventions and treaties established over centuries. But it is also highly effective: by using its "little green men" who wore generic military uniforms with no markings, Russia has patented a method of undermining countries and governments without becoming involved in direct warfare. Russian President Vladimir Putin initially denied any knowledge of the troops in Ukraine, although that did not prevent him from subsequently decorating the same soldiers for "bravery to the motherland".
Nato military planners have scrambled over the past few months to adjust their response to what is now dubbed as Russia's "hybrid warfare", namely a conflict in which there is no state-to- state fighting, although the result is the disintegration of a state.
And that's not just an academic question, for the alliance has come under considerable pressure from its vulnerable, small member-states in Europe's northern Baltic region which have sizeable Russian minorities and fear that these will be used to spark a Ukraine-like crisis. By confirming that Nato will come to their assistance, military commanders hope to dispel such fears.
But nobody knows how this new doctrine will work in practice. Traditionally, Nato had no remit inside the territory of its member-states; the job of domestic security was properly left as the exclusive jurisdiction of each government. Now, Nato is planning for the possibility of deploying its multinational forces not just to defend external borders, but to uphold internal stability, potentially a massive expansion in the scope of the alliance.
Furthermore, nobody at Nato's headquarters in the Belgian capital of Brussels knows at the moment how this new, expanded security guarantee would be activated. Yet that is crucial because, without a clear definition of how Nato becomes involved, some member-states may be tempted to demand assistance in dealing with existing internal ethnic problems, rather than with new crises involving Russia. Nor is it very clear what Nato can do in situations where a state is undermined from within. Military deployments can crush a rebellion. But they cannot deal effectively with long-term ethnic problems.
And there is a danger that the Nato security guarantee will embolden member-states to ignore their responsibility to prevent racial tensions: Many ethnic Russians in the Baltic countries, for instance, are still not considered citizens of the countries in which they live, because they refuse to pass local language tests, a dispute which Nato cannot resolve, but which can spark violence.
Nato hopes to clarify some of these thorny questions at a summit scheduled to be hosted by Britain in two weeks' time, when a new
"Readiness Action Plan" is due to be adopted. And, with 3.3 million soldiers under its command, the alliance hopes that the mere threat to use force should be sufficient to prevent trouble.
Still, as Nato planners privately admit, when it comes to "hybrid warfare", Russia still holds both the initiative and the element of surprise.
This article was first published on MONTH DAY, 2014.
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