EU-NATO Efforts to Counter Hybrid Warfare

Russia is blending symmetric and asymmetric warfare into an effective strategy against its conventionally stronger Western opponents. Bogged down by bureaucracy and political quarreling, the West is struggling to present an effective response. What has been done, and what obstacles remain?

Belgium, whose coat of arms reads, “Unity is Strength,” plays host to the upper echelons of both NATO and the EU, between whom unity faces significant political hurdles. Both organizations are struggling to divide the roles and responsibilities inherent in national and regional defense, though the creation of new, specialized units indicates that the conglomerates are at least moving in the right direction. Meanwhile, Russia is capitalizing on existing divisions through the use of its new hybrid warfare strategy, which combines both conventional and unconventional tactics to exploit societal divisions and weaken states’ resolves. As Russia’s westward aggression builds momentum the EU and NATO will be forced to resolve their differences and organize an effective counter strategy.



Throughout the 21st century, the EU and NATO have continuously tried to counter their adversaries through political and military collaboration. While political factors have negatively affected this cooperation in the past, new security threats have prompted both organizations to take a common stance. Recently, Russia successfully utilized the tactics of hybrid warfare to annex the Crimean peninsula and advance its interests in Eastern Ukraine. This aggression has led many experts to fear that Russia intends to regain its sphere of influence, reminiscent of the Cold War era, and that a member state of either organization may be its next target. The new threat has made collective security NATO’s top priority, while the EU wishes to make political and, possibly, military contributions to the effort. In the most recent example of this cooperation, EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini attended the NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting—here, the EU and NATO outlined a plan designed to deter future cases of hybrid warfare.

Both organizations are headquartered in Brussels; the EU serves as the political and economic backbone of Europe, while NATO stands as the primary political-military organization of the continent. In 2002, the two organizations released the EU-NATO Declaration on European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), which stated that the EU would promote collaboration with non-EU European members of NATO and vice versa. Since the two organizations share many member states, the Berlin Plus Agreement was created in 2003 to allow the EU to use NATO’s military structures to support operations that do not fall under NATO’s area of jurisdiction. The establishment of the NATO Permanent Liaison Team at the EU, the EU Cell at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), and the presence of capability- and information-sharing in Operations ATALANTA and Ocean Shield (anti-piracy operations off the coasts of Somalia) were prime examples of this military cooperation.

However, the 2008 financial crisis has severely diminished the military capabilities and political unity of both organizations. Even worse, Russia’s hybrid campaigns have caught both organizations off guard. At the NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the EU and NATO wish to counter this threat by enhancing intelligence sharing, cyber capabilities, and even conducting joint military exercises. In the meantime, NATO continues to bolster its conventional capabilities to counter hybrid offensives against member states, while the EU has smaller response forces on standby.


Conventional Capabilities

In response to Russian aggression, NATO created the Readiness Action Plan (RAP), a major effort to bolster and prepare the Alliance’s forces to conduct collective security operations, at the 2014 Wales Summit. Many components of this plan will build up NATO’s conventional capabilities, but the most significant proposition of the RAP is the creation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). Composing of 5,000 troops with land, sea, air, and special operations capabilities, this new component of the 13,000-strong NATO Response Force (NRF) will be capable of deploying to an attacked member state in no longer than 48 hours. If Russia were to launch a hybrid assault on a member state the VJTF could be deployed in advance of the NRF, whose times to deploy requires 5 to 30 days, in order to collaborate with local authorities in the area and deter the offensive. Extensive training exercises being staged throughout this year are preparing the VJTF to conduct these deterrence operations by no later than the end of this year. Moreover, the RAP calls for the addition of 17,000 troops to the NRF. While this goal will not be completed until at least 2017, this objective implies that NATO is taking the threat of Russian aggression seriously.

While NATO’s military capabilities are primarily focused on collective security operations, EU Battlegroups (EUBGs) are more focused on conducting political operations. Of the 18 EUBGs that became operational in 2007, two are on stand-by at any one time. Each consists of 1,500 to 2,000 troops and acts as a response force to external crises within 5 to 10 days following a unanimous decision by the EU Council of Ministers. The forces’ ability to conduct politically-focused operations such as training, threat deterrence, and conducting stabilization efforts makes them the ideal response to Russia’s hybrid warfare, however the fact that they have never been deployed is leading many of the EU’s less-hawkish members to question their continued existence.

Another issue the EU and NATO must address is conflicting force rotations. Since member states are responsible for allocating forces to both organizations, deployment schedules may conflict and hamper future efforts. A more involved approach by the EU and NATO is necessary to address deployment duplication, and could improve military cooperation as both conglomerates could specialize in their respective missions (political and military), strengthening the West’s ability to respond to hybridized tactics.


Unconventional Capabilities

Despite Russia’s growing use of unconventional methods, the Alliance has put a greater emphasis on bolstering its conventional forces as opposed to its unconventional capabilities, a strategic blunder that has met with widespread criticism; strong unconventional capabilities will be necessary to counter an effective hybrid strategy incorporating subversion, disinformation, and cyberwarfare. Worse, this strategy is not limited to the near-term; sowing political division into the EU’s leadership over the long-term significantly diminishes the likelihood of a strong response to future aggressive acts in Eastern Europe. Greece’s political maneuvering during its debt negotiations is a perfect example of the division within Europe, and it was clear that Russia had capitalized on it after Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras denounced the EU's sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, Russian state-run news outlets have spread pro-Russia propaganda throughout the Baltic States, all of which have large Russian minorities, a move that analysts interpret as an attempt to raise social tension and divide these countries from within, similar to what occurred in Ukraine. Additionally, Russia has launched cyberattacks against a number of states in recent history, including Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Even the unclassified information system of the White House was infiltrated by Russia via State Department systems this past year, though Western responses to such attacks have been minimal as Russia actively blurs the lines between direct state involvement and covertly supporting non-state actors.

Though not to the same degree as its conventional buildup, NATO does intend to enhance its cyber capabilities. The RAP states that the Alliance “will develop the NATO cyber range capability, building, as a first step, on the Estonian cyber range capability,” referring to NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence (CCDCoE) in Tallinn, and the Alliance has followed through with part of this plan by staging multiple cyber exercises. For example, “Cyber Coalition 2014” included 600 personnel from various member states to practice utilizing the Cyber Information and Incident Coordination System (CIICS), a system developed by Canada that allows NATO allies to share cyber information and promote collective security. Locked Shields 2015, another three-day cyber exercise held in April 2015, consisted of 400 personnel from sixteen nations and focused on countering hackers within Windows 8 and Windows 10 systems.

Meanwhile, the EU is focusing on countering Russian disinformation efforts; Mogherini announced in March 2015 that the EU intends to release details for a countermeasure against Russian state-run media broadcasted in ex-Soviet states. By diminishing support for Russian policies that these broadcasts advocate, the EU hopes to mitigate the possibility of social tensions dividing these states as they did in Ukraine. The “correction and fact-checking of misinformation” and the development of “an EU narrative through key messages, articles, op-eds, factsheets, infographics, including material in Russian language” will be the Union’s main priorities in what some have referred to as a new propaganda war. Few details about this initiative will be known until Mogherini announces the finalized version in June 2015, though rumor has it that civil servants will make up at least the majority of personnel involved. Ideally, if the program is implemented in Eastern Europe the EU will be able to assist NATO in deterring the possibility of future hybrid attacks by acting as a major political deterrent in the region. However, while there are many opportunities that the EU and NATO can seize through cooperation, the two organizations will have to overcome a number of political obstacles first.


Political Obstacles

While the EU and NATO have shown intentions to collaborate over the past decade, many issues have plagued this cooperation in the past. To start, lingering economic instability from the Great Recession and a clear lack of political will to intervene in conflict are negatively impacting member states’ defense budgets, meaning both organizations are receiving insufficient funding for the capabilities they have committed themselves to developing. Additionally, the EU’s decision -making process, or lack thereof, hinders cross-organizational collaboration. While NATO only requires a consensus, the Union requires unanimity from its members to make any major decisions. Moreover, the 2008 recession has made united efforts within the organization much more difficult to agree to, compelling members to take crisis matters into their own hands. Considering the clear lack of cooperation within the EU, how effective could cooperation with another organization such as NATO really be?

In addition to similar problems that the EU faces, NATO has lacked a mission since the fall of the Soviet Union. Since it was established to guard against the spread of communism in 1949, NATO lost its primary objective of collective security when the USSR collapsed in 1991. As a response, NATO soon released a new Strategic Concept that called for the reduction of its military capabilities to the lowest possible level. NATO shifted its focus to membership enlargement and crisis management, which led to the induction of former Soviet bloc states and the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) intervention in Afghanistan. This change negatively affected its cooperation with the EU throughout the 2000s, because without the overarching objective of collective security the Alliance has not been able to bolster and organize its capabilities in an efficient and effective manner.

Additionally, competition for the leading role in Europe between the two organizations has not helped either party. NATO disapproves of the EU’s efforts to assume a leading military position on the continent, while the EU does not want NATO to create its own comprehensive capabilities. This contest is the result of the major cultural contrast between the two organizations; the EU is a political and economic union of states, while NATO is a massive military alliance whose purpose is solely to defend its members.


Looking Ahead

Russia’s recent aggression in Eastern Europe is the greatest threat to European security since the Cold War. While NATO and the EU have had difficulties cooperating with each other in the past, the clear and present danger that Russia poses to the continent must be addressed by a joint effort. To better counter a hybrid attack, both organizations have agreed that political and military collaboration are absolute necessities for the continent’s security.

Despite the consequences that it may bring, the revived Eastern threat may serve as a long-term benefit for NATO because it has also revived the Alliance’s primary goal of collective security. With this in mind, NATO may be able to better organize its capabilities to prepare its forces to deter hybrid campaigns. To add, a common will to contribute may improve within each organization because the threat has the capability to attack the homelands of member states, which will prompt members to allocate more forces to the EU and NATO. With this motivation, NATO should continue to bolster its conventional and unconventional capabilities, especially its cyber capabilities, so that it can be capable of conducting collective security operations.

NATO members should move forward with their current plans to stage troops in the Baltics as a deterrent to conventional Russian action, and need to seriously consider increasing their presence further if Russia continues to aggravate the situation. Enhancing the EU and NATO’s cyber defenses will be critical to maintaining stability, so NATO should be prepared to allocate some of its cyber capabilities to the EU via the Berlin Plus Agreement in the event of a cyberattack against a EU member. The organizations must also lay out a firm policy that defines responses to cyber attacks of various strengths and be prepared to respond politically or even stage a cyber counterattack. Moreover, the VJTF and EUBGs should consider holding joint military exercises to ensure that collaboration against a hybrid attack can lead to the defense of the attacked member state and Europe as a whole. It’s impossible to guarantee that the implementation of these or any other policies will ensure success in counteracting Russia’s aggression, but these would without a doubt be a step in the right direction.

Ideally, the threat of a resurgent Russia will rally Western powers around a common cause, however there is the possibility that nations affected by subversion and disinformation may not contribute, to protect their sovereignty or for other reasons, in order to maintain economic relations with Russia. To add, if a hybrid attack inflicts damage on a member state, weaker military powers in Eastern Europe may not allocate forces, choosing instead to bolster their own defenses. Therefore, the EU should take a leading role in countering subversion and disinformation, especially in Greece and in former Soviet bloc states, to decrease any unwillingness to contribute to the defense of the continent.