NATO forces across Europe are on high alert as tensions between the Western alliance and Russia continue to deteriorate following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. Several developments over the past week have raised fears that the conflict could spiral into a direct clash between NATO and Russian forces.
NATO Underestimated Russia’s Military Capabilities
According to General Christopher Cavoli, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in Europe, the alliance severely underestimated Russia’s ability to continue waging war in Ukraine. In an interview with CNN, Cavoli admitted that many Western experts did not think Russia would be able to sustain a large-scale conflict due to deficiencies in its military logistics systems.
However, Russia has proven capable of resupplying its troops over the past year. This revelation raises questions about NATO’s understanding of the threat posed by Russia’s military. As Cavoli stated, “It’s a wake-up call for all of us that you’ve got to look at capacity over time and not just capability in the moment.”
Germany Warns Russia Could Attack NATO by 2025
In perhaps the most worrying development, German officials are warning that Russia could launch strikes directly against NATO countries in the coming years.
Germany’s chief of defense, Boris Pistorius, told local media that while there are no indications Russia is preparing to attack NATO now, scenarios conducted by German intelligence agencies indicate Putin could order strikes against NATO infrastructure and supply lines in Lithuania and Poland by 2025.
Pistorius emphasized these were hypothetical scenarios, but urged Germany and its NATO allies to bolster their defenses given the unpredictability of Russia’s leadership.
Putin Likely to Strike NATO If Unable to Defeat Ukraine
Military experts and Western government officials increasingly believe that if Russia fails to achieve its strategic goals in Ukraine, Putin could resort to attacking NATO targets in an act of desperation.
In an analysis published by Reaction, former UK rear admiral Chris Parry wrote that Russia’s entire military strategy centers around preventing NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. With NATO heavily backing Ukraine’s resistance, Parry argues the West is already in a de facto conflict with Russia that could easily spiral into outright war.
Parry ominously concludes: “If he [Putin] cannot win in Ukraine, he will turn his attention to NATO itself, initiating strikes to demonstrate Russia’s strategic capabilities while challenging NATO’s willingness to engage.”
Four Key Factors That Could Lead to War
General Martin Herem, the commander of Estonia’s armed forces, outlined four key factors in an interview that could lead Russia to attack NATO directly:
Russia secures control of eastern Ukraine, allowing it to free up forces to strike NATO. Herem warns if Russian gains significant new territory, “it may give them the confidence that they could actually start moving towards NATO borders.”
Increased Russian strikes on critical infrastructure inside NATO countries. Herem points to attacks last year against railway infrastructure inside NATO member Poland, saying “that’s already very close to Article 5,” NATO’s collective defense pact.
Russian missiles with nuclear capabilities moved to NATO’s borders. The recent deployment of short-range nuclear missiles to Belarus raised new fears.
An abrupt leadership change in Russia that brings hardliners to power who are even more likely to lash out against the West.
Lithuania Calls for Increased NATO Readiness
Lithuania has taken the lead within NATO in calling for increased vigilance and preparations. The small Baltic country borders the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, putting it on the potential front lines of any conflict.
In an interview with Politico, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis warned Russia sees the current conflict as a war with NATO already:
“Russia is already in a state of war not only with Ukraine, but also with NATO and the collective West.”
Landsbergis called for NATO to permanently station troops in Lithuania as a deterrent to potential Russian aggression. He also stated NATO must continue heavily arming Ukraine, saying it’s “the only way to stop Putin.”
Could Cyber Attacks be the First Blow?
While NATO braces for potential kinetic strikes against its forces and infrastructure, non-kinetic cyber attacks also pose a mounting threat. Cyber attacks offer Russia an avenue to target NATO countries directly while maintaining some deniability.
In May 2022, a Russian hacking group carried out disruptive cyber attacks against government and private sector targets in Lithuania and Latvia. Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity expert, wrote in his blog Russia is likely employing cyber warfare to “test NATO defenses” and probe weaknesses that could be exploited in a larger conflict.
Both Lithuania and NATO as a whole are on heightened alert for additional cyber intrusions that could disable critical systems as a precursor to wartime aggression.
Is the Threat Being Over or Under Estimated?
Within NATO, assessments differ on just how imminent the threat of Russia directly attacking alliance countries has become.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has maintained the alliance sees no direct threat against its members, although he has advocated increased readiness. Meanwhile, some eastern allies like Lithuania and Estonia have warned western European nations are dangerously underestimating Russia’s willingness to escalate.
Poland has proposed permanently stationing US and UK troops on its territory to ward off potential aggression, a move some experts argue could needlessly provoke Russia.
Clearly, NATO remains divided on how to address Russia’s unpredictable threat. With the Russia-Ukraine conflict poised to enter its second year, the coming months could prove decisive in determining whether wider conflict can be avoided.
Conclusion: The Clock is Ticking
Nearly one year into Russia’s assault on Ukraine, NATO forces are on edge at the prospect of being drawn directly into the conflict. Russia retains the capabilities to launch devastating strikes across the European continent, cyber attacks pose an asymmetric threat, and the prospect of Putin becoming desperate presents perhaps the most frightening variable as the stalemate in Ukraine drags on.
While all-out war between NATO and Russia remains unlikely due to the associated nuclear risks, the coming year will severely test the alliance’s resolve if Russia continues escalating aggression. As Lithuania’s foreign minister succinctly put it, for NATO the clock is already ticking – it must bolster defenses and decisively back Ukraine if the unthinkable is to be prevented. Time will tell whether peace can endure.
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