News / Europe

'Ambiguous Warfare' Provides NATO With New Challenge

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, June 25, 2014.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, June 25, 2014.

Since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, NATO has been publicly refocusing on its old Cold War foe Moscow. The threats it now believes it faces, however, are distinctly different to those of the latter half of the 20th century.

The West then was defending against the risk of Soviet armor pouring across the North German plain. Now, officials and experts say, it is “ambiguous warfare” that is focusing minds within NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Confrontations are viewed as more likely to start with cyber attacks or covert action to stir up Russian minorities in Europe's east than from any overt aggression.

So as NATO prepares for its summit on Sept. 4 and 5 in Wales, it is having to come to grips with relatively new threats to test Article 5 of its treaty. That essentially says that an attack on one NATO state is an attack on all.

Since NATO's post-Cold War expansion that has meant protecting eastern members including the Baltic states. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all have considerable Russian minorities while Poland and others worry Russia still views them as within its sphere of influence.

High-profile troop, aircraft and ship deployments and exercises have been designed to send the message that the United States and its allies would react with force to any attack on its territory.

A less conventional attack, however, could be harder to defend against. For example, without firm proof that Moscow was behind a cyber attack or covert action, deciding whether to invoke Article 5 would be very difficult.

“This is new territory but it's something that is going to have to be discussed,” said Janine Davidson, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans from 2009-12 and now senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It is very difficult to know how to react to it. It will have to be very much on a case-by-case basis.”

Events in non-NATO member Ukraine, senior officials say, could be a sign of how complicated things might get.

Ukrainian and Western officials accuse Moscow of arming and training separatist rebels who have now been fighting the Ukrainian military for months.

Some NATO officials privately and publicly worry the same could happen in Russian-speaking regions of the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and

Similarly, in 2007, a series of crippling cyber attacks paralyzed much of Estonia in an apparent response to a dispute over the movement of a Soviet-era war memorial. Most Western experts suspected the Kremlin was responsible.

Russia has denied involvement with rebels in Ukraine and says the 2007 cyber attacks were simply by “patriotic (independent) hackers.”

But it leaves NATO wondering how to react.

“We need to mature the way we think about cyber, the way we think about irregular warfare,” U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander, was quoted as saying by the U.S. military Stripes newspaper.

Between diplomacy and war

The Cold War was fought through espionage and proxy wars across much of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Both sides knew that any serious military incursion into Soviet or NATO territory would almost inevitably spark nuclear war.

The difference now, strategists say, is the perceived greater potential for Russian interference in the new NATO member states it dominated for decades.

NATO does have its own unconventional capabilities. Experienced in operating with tribal and militant groups in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa, U.S. special forces and intelligence personnel could theoretically stir up trouble in Russia.

Agencies such as the U.S. National Security Agency and Britain's GCHQ could also wreak cyber havoc on Russian telecoms and other systems.

For now, however, there is little precedent for such decisions.

“What they (NATO) don't have at this stage is any kind of doctrine for using them in situations short of outright war,” says John Bassett, a former GCHQ official now an associate at Oxford University.

“There's been a lack of willingness to focus on the area beyond diplomacy but below the threshold of traditional military conflict and there is still a very long way to go.”

Some strategists suggest NATO is not currently up to dealing with the situation.

“A Russian unconventional attack, using asymmetric tactics designed to slip below NATO's response threshold, would be particularly difficult to counter,” said a report last month from Britain's Parliamentary defense select committee.

It added: “The challenges, which NATO faces in deterring, or mounting an adequate response to, such an attack poses a fundamental risk to NATO's credibility.”

Recently, however, senior officials have begun quietly laying out some of NATO's new red lines.

Breedlove, the NATO commander, said last weekend the Alliance would react militarily if Russian troops infiltrating a member state territory in the way the West believed they did in Crimea.

That intervention, Western officials say, was rather more obvious than more recent events in eastern Ukraine. Russian-speaking troops in uniform but without insignia took up checkpoints across the peninsula and surrounded Ukrainian military bases. Moscow then formally annexed territory.

The United States has also publicly stated that it might react with conventional military force to a cyber attack that took lives or inflicted serious material damage.  


You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs