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Prof. Stanisław Koziej- retired Brigadier General, former Deputy Minister of National Defence (2005-2006), and Head of the National Security Bureau of the Republic of Poland (2010-15).
To assess the risk of a Russian military attack on NATO territory, it is necessary to divide the analysis into two parts: the risk of an attack during the war in Ukraine, and the risk of an attack or a credible threat thereof after the war, as part of the Cold War II between Russia and NATO.
As long as the war in Ukraine remains unresolved, one ought to consider two potential scenarios of a Russian attack on NATO territory: unintentional (accidental) and intentional.
The former is more likely than the latter and may occur due to the intensification of long-range missile attacks on various elements of the Western military assistance (warehouses, bases, communications infrastructure, convoys, training centres, etc.) already located near Ukraine's border with NATO. It is necessary to add that the said long-range missiles are of dual purpose, capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear arms. While aimed at a target located in the vicinity of NATO’s border, they may, as a result of some technical failure, human error or even diversion, cross the border and explode on NATO territory. The nuclear context further increases the gravity of such a risk.
To counter this threat, an advanced missile defense zone would need to be established along the NATO-Ukraine border. By striking down missiles flying toward the border of a NATO member country, it would protect the territory of the alliance. At the same time, it would reduce the risk of a mutually unwanted direct war between Russia and NATO by preventing potential strikes on NATO territory, which would have to be met with an adequate response on the territory of Russia. Thus, in an objective sense, such a missile defense zone would also be in Russia's interest.
While Russia is certainly not interested in a direct war with NATO, an intentional, deliberate attack on NATO territory in a covert, unconventional manner below the threshold of open aggression calculated to harm NATO without the risk of a retaliatory attack on its territory cannot be ruled out either.
Russia could opt for this scenario as part of its "escalation doctrine", which can be summed up as follows: if you find yourself losing a war, do not retreat, but escalate it.
It is the exact same strategy Russia is currently pursuing in Ukraine: it started with a low-intensity operation, escalated it into a total war, then a criminal warfare. But that’s not all. There are further levels of escalation in store: the use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear arms, and escalation of a local war into a limited regional war, including the threat of global nuclear warfare.
It seems rather unlikely that Russia would choose to get involved in an open conflict with NATO, but covert attacks, below the threshold of open, overt aggression, are within the bounds of possibility. Russia could use for this purpose, for example - by analogy with the little green men in Crimea - the so-called "little grey/black men", i.e. mercenaries from formally non-governmental, private organizations (in fact closely linked to Russian services), such as the "Wagner Group". It is also possible that Russia could use cyber-attacks or armed "unidentified/wandering drones" ("UFO-drones") crossing the border and attacking facilities on NATO territory. Such attacks would probably put the alliance in a position where consensus would be difficult to reach, with a handful of states unprepared to respond decisively. In this case, countermeasures should include rapid and reliable intelligence gathering and military reconnaissance capable of unmasking the real nature of covert operations.
Once the war in Ukraine is over, the new phase of Cold War between Russia and the West will certainly go on, one element of which will continue to be the Russian threat of possible aggression against NATO countries. The type and magnitude of such a threat will very much depend on how the war in Ukraine ends. There are three hypothetically possible scenarios: a Russian victory, an inconclusive war, and a Ukrainian victory.
For NATO, the most dangerous outcome would of course be the scenario of a Russian victory. It would not only mean a loss for Ukraine, but also for the West, including NATO. A defeated West would be visibly weakened and internally divided. A victorious Russia would be even more aggressive and convinced of the power of its escalation doctrine, including the effectiveness of nuclear threat, for it is only the latter that can feasibly prevent the West from weakening or even defeating Russia in its war against Ukraine.
Once it rebuilds some of its conventional military capabilities, Russia could then move from its previous threats to real aggression and risk another "land grab" under the protective umbrella of nuclear threat with its tactical weapons. In particular, a land bridge to Kaliningrad (Suwałki Gap) would be a desirable target, as it would allow to regain at least a partial strategic position in the Baltic region, lost after the expected entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO. Perhaps we would even hear that East Prussia was partially entrusted to Poland on the condition that it be friendly with Russia. Putin would therefore undo the deal and decide to take back the territory.
In the event of an unresolved war in Ukraine, the risk of direct military aggression against NATO would be much lower. Indeed, Russia would have to continue to concentrate its efforts on Ukraine. But Russia's position and the threat of military aggression as part of a continued Cold War would still persist. The intense nuclear threat would certainly be sustained since it would deter the West from active defensive intervention in Ukraine. Under such conditions, Russia would probably also rely more heavily on various forms of covert, hybrid attacks.
In the case of a Ukrainian victory, a politically, economically, and militarily weakened Russia would not be able to even credibly threaten NATO with military aggression. The weakening of conventional forces would most likely result in increasing the role of nuclear weapons in Russia's strategy for further confrontation with the West. Cold War II would become more nuclear than before the war in Ukraine.
The described nature of real and potential Russian threat places a number of expectations on NATO. The alliance is already responding to some of them by strengthening its eastern flank. Others will probably be taken up during the upcoming summit in Madrid, where a new strategic concept will be adopted.
As a NATO and EU border state and a direct and indirect neighbour of Russia (given the fully Kremlin-dependent nature of Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus), Poland has a particularly strong stake in NATO's adequate response to the increasingly tough neo-Cold War challenges and threats from Russia. From the perspective of its most vital security needs, Poland's strategic priorities within NATO may include:
- strengthening response capabilities in rapidly developing situations based on intelligence and counterintelligence (individual actions, allied assessments). Avoid being surprised - this is the first condition for effectively securing a frontline state such as Poland in the environment of a renewed Cold War between Russia and the West;
- Improving overcoming the threshold of decision-making consensus in the face of a threat. This requires maintaining trust and unity among allies, considering greater emergency powers of the Secretary General and the Operational Commander, successively transforming contingency plans into permanent operational plans with specific forces designated for them. It may be worth considering the concept of "operational mini-coalitions for rapid emergency response" within NATO (in practice, such a "mini-coalition" within NATO is already an example of enhanced strategic partnership between Poland and the US, which gives a chance for joint defence response even before a full consensus of the entire Alliance is reached);
- adequacy of nuclear deterrence (especially at the level of tactical nuclear weapons) as a response to the Russian doctrine of nuclear de-escalation. In this context, it is worth considering various options for broadening Poland's participation in the allied "nuclear sharing" program;
- developing advanced defence, with a permanent presence of 1/3 of the forces designated for defence in the first strategic projection and maintaining another 1/3 in the necessary readiness for deployment in places of permanent dislocation;
- making emergency use of NATO's Response Force more flexible, including rules for its pre-emptive rather than merely reactive use in the face of signs of an impending emergency;
- improving strategic mobility in Europe (military Schengen).
All in all, Russian threats, including threats of aggression (covert or armed), are and will remain in the coming years the main point of reference for shaping NATO's defense strategy, including Poland’s strategy in particular.
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