An Urgent NATO Priority: Preparing to Protect Civilians

Russia’s hybrid warfare approach calls for attacking the populations of Russia’s adversaries not through WWII-like carpet bombing, but rather with a combination of disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, supporting proxy forces, and backing terrorist attacks. “Should NATO prepare for this scenario? Absolutely,” Victoria Holt and Marl Keenan write.

Writing in War on the Rocks, Victoria Holt and Marl Keenan invite us to reflect on the following scenario:

It is 2030. The Russian military and intelligence services, targeting the citizens of NATO’s member state, have been conducting a pervasive, methodical disinformation campaign. The campaign has deepened divisions and created strife in the target population, increasing civil unrest. Russian government actors proceed to conduct daily cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, causing prolonged electrical blackouts, cutting off access to water, paralyzing hospitals in major cities, and disrupting financial markets.

But this is not all. Well-coordinated, large-scale terrorist attacks at airports and seaports have increased fear and anxiety. A well-equipped and trained proxy force, backed by the Russian government, start launching attacks against the NATO ally’s security forces. The ally’s military forces are losing ground, and violence spreads into urban areas near the frontlines.

The citizens of the NATO ally now must make hard decisions: should they flee or stay put?

“The impact on the population is purposeful and immense: Harming civilians and civilian infrastructure is integral to the adversary’s strategy,” Holt and Keenan write, adding:

Should NATO prepare for this scenario? Absolutely. The contingency above is a simplified version of what many who study the future of war are thinking through. In this imagined crisis, the conflict forces civilians to seek protection, even to cross borders to other NATO allies and partners. In turn, allies and partners see that a strong and skilled NATO force is needed to push back the incursion and assist the allied government in protecting its civilians. That could lead the North Atlantic CouncilNATO’s governing body, to enact Article 5, launching plans for a collective defense mission.

For NATO to succeed in the type of hybrid warfare scenario described above, alliance leaders would need to specify protection of civilians as an explicit mission objective. The good news is that the alliance already has a strong basis for doing that successfully, thanks to its existing policy and supporting documents. However, work on policy implementation — building the skills, knowledge, and capabilities to protect civilians — has been insufficient. That’s the clear finding of the research that our team has been conducting since 2019. We’ve convened workshops focused on this issue with more than 100 practitioners, academics, and representatives of militaries and governments, and we presented a series of findings in a March 2021 report authored by our colleague Kathleen Dock.

NATO should take urgent actions now to ensure that it emphasizes protection of civilians as a core capability for future alliance missions — not only “out-of-area” ones, but also any conducted on NATO territory — and it should embrace protection of civilians as a cross-cutting requirement in NATO’s new strategic concept.

Homeland Security News Wire

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