NATO militaries are better prepared for war now than they were a year ago but broader society hasn’t yet realised it needs to as well, and if the public starts panic-buying radios, torches, and bottled water to “survive the first 36 hours” then “that’s great”, the alliance’s military chief said.
The most senior military officer in the North Atlantic Treat Organisation (NATO) has said while the Ukraine war has stalled for both sides, the Russian ability to regenerate force is becoming a concern and a potential conflict between Russia and the alliance itself — rather than a proxy like Ukraine — will be “a whole of society event” the West is not yet ready for. Speaking to the press at NATO headquarters in Belgium, Dutch Admiral and Chair of the alliance’s Military Committee Rob Bauer painted a bleak picture of an unpredictable future which the wider public should now be preparing for, rather than compartmentalizing war as something that happens a long way away, and impacts professional soldiers only.
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Challenged on the preparedness of the West for Russian aggression, Admiral Bauer said NATO militaries had come on considerably recently, and as a defensive organisation NATO existed to be prepared for Russian aggression. But times were changing and the public needs to be ready too. He said: “the big difference with a year ago is a lot of things have happened in the armed forces and defence organisations. What hasn’t happened is in our societies, the understanding that it is more than the military that has to be able to operate in a conflict or in a war. It is the whole of a society that will get involved whether we like it or not.”
A visibly agitated Baurer responded to one journalist accusing military leaders of attempting to frighten the public with their announcements, the press writer citing a Swedish general telling the public that war is coming and they should be ready for it had led to “panic buying” of self-preparedness items. Bauer said if the public are “surprised” to suddenly discover they are to be part of a whole-of-society effort to repel Russian aggression then “that’s great”.
The admiral responded to the question that this shock could spur individuals to become more prepared. He said in remarks likely meant for the public: “the people, they have to understand they play a role. Society is part of the solution… you need to have water, you need to have a radio on batteries, you need to have a flashlight with batteries to make sure you can survive the first 36 hours. Things like that, that’s simple things but it starts there.”
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“I’m not going to say everything is going to go wrong tomorrow, but we have to realise it is not a given that we are in peace”, the NATO military boss said, saying there had to be a wider societal realisation that: “not everything is plannable, not everything is going to be hunky-dory for the next 20 years.”
Nevertheless, that is why NATO exists, he said, and why it plans and prepares to defend its members, while not seeking conflict.
In terms of the changes he said were necessary, a major shift in mindset away from long-held assumptions needed to come. The Admiral said:
…we need to understand as a society that war and fighting is not only something of the military. The nation needs to understand that when it comes to a war such as we see in Ukraine, it is a whole of society event. For many many decades we had this idea that we had the professional military and they would solve the security issues that we have, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. But if you talk collective defence, it is a whole of society event.
It will not be enough to have the present military, you will need more people from society to sustain the military in terms of people. You need the industry to have enough ammunition, to produce new tanks, new ships, new aircraft, new artillery pieces… the big difference with a year ago is a lot of things have happened in the armed forces and defence organisations. What hasn’t happened is in our societies, the understanding that it is more than the military that has to be able to operate in a conflict or in a war. It is the whole of a society that will get involved whether we like it or not.
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These warnings of a turbulent 20 years come despite Russia having, in Bauer’s words, failed to achieve “any of their strategic objectives” in Ukraine. Both sides “are in a phase where it is not moving a lot” and Russia in the next year is going to struggle to find the right “quality” of people to replace the better-trained veteran troops it has already lost in the war.
“I don’t think we should expect a miracle happening on either side… it is going to be difficult. We need to continue to support Ukraine, that is the most important thing that all of us need to realise”, said Bauer.
But the Admiral and his U.S. counterpart General Christopher Cavoli, who sat alongside him at the meeting and who is the commander of United States European Command, agree Russia has a deeper than-expected ability to regenerate. Russia is “sparing no effort in their reconstitution”, said General Cavoli, and are “devoting an enormous fraction of their budget to the military in the coming years”.
While the sanctions regime has impacted Russia’s capacity to produce “more modern equipment”, in terms of artillery production and replacing “older tanks”, Admiral Baurer acknowledged Russia is “actually doing rather well”. This is no small thing, the Admiral said, as he paraphrased a quote sometimes attributed to erstwhile Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, saying of Russia’s ability to churn out artillery and tanks: “I think this is a concern as sometimes quantity becomes a quality of itself.”
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Bauer’s comments on the need for societal attitude changes follow others he made earlier in the week, and he is not by any means the only military thinker in Europe speaking of an end of an era for European peace as the Ukraine war grinds on. As reported, he said this week that: “The tectonic plates of power are shifting. As a result: we face the most dangerous world in decades”, and NATO needs to understand it is entering a world where “anything can happen at any time, an era in which we need to expect the unexpected, an era in which we need to focus on effectiveness in order to be fully effective”.
While Admiral Bauer spoke of a difficult 20 years, exactly how long the West has until Russia has regenerated enough military strength to pose a credible threat outside of Ukraine to NATO — assuming an appetite in Moscow to take a risk like that — is debated. The British Minister of Defence gave a landmark speech this week on Monday which prognosticated a chaotic world with the possibility for simultaneous conflict with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea in five years.
Defence Minister Grant Shapps said Europe was now no longer in the ‘post Cold War’ and had entered a new “pre-war” era. “The era of the peace dividend is over. In five years time we could be looking at multiple theatres including Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea… An age of idealism has been replaced by a period of hard-headed realism”, he said. The Estonians, at least, seem to agree and thinks NATO has “three to five years” to prepare for Russian aggression against NATO territory.
The Swedish — whose comments Bauer responded to from NATO headquarters — also aligned with this view. Sweden’s military chief General Micael Byden said last week: “Russia’s war against Ukraine is just a step, not an end game… We need to realise how serious the situation really is, and that everyone, individually, need to prepare themselves mentally”.
As reported, leaked German war plans looked at the possibility of NATO taking advantage of European Ukraine War fatigue, and the United States being distracted with the aftermath of this year’s Presidential election to make a fresh push on Kyiv and seize the Suwałki Gap, a narrow strip of land that splits Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave off from the nearest Moscow-friendly territory. The Gap is on the border of Lithuania and Poland, both NATO members, and entered the news again this week after what is believed to be Russian jamming rendered GPS navigation unreliable in the area.
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