The dynamic Russia-China duo: Russia and China are actively working to subvert NATO security in an era of political war.

| April 3, 2020 | 0 Comments
The Russian guided-missile cruiser Varyag was named flagship of the Russian naval task force positioned in the eastern Mediterranean in 2015. (Photo: © Vladimir Serebryanskiy)

The Russian guided-missile cruiser Varyag was named flagship of the Russian naval task force positioned in the eastern Mediterranean in 2015. (Photo: © Vladimir Serebryanskiy)

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization turned 70 in 2019 and continues to be the world’s most successful military-political alliance, if not the only one. In good news last year, NATO defence spending was up and NATO countries were working to re-arm and improve lagging readiness.
But its 70th anniversary was not without its share of troubles. In the lead-up to the end-of-year summit in London, French President Emmanuel Macron declared the alliance to be “brain dead.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chastised the alliance over Turkey’s intervention in Northern Syria and threatened to veto the NATO Baltic defence plan, which represents an update of existing defence plans to protect the Baltic States and Poland. The United Kingdom was in the process of extricating itself from the European Union. Germany, with Chancellor Angela Merkel about to leave power, was a bit of a lame duck. And U.S. President Donald Trump re-engaged NATO members on the burden-sharing that has characterized his administration’s relationship with his NATO allies, including Canada.
All this was set against the backdrop of whether the United States would stand by NATO Article V, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Finally, the world was treated to the spectre of the incident at a Buckingham Palace reception during which Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were caught on tape making fun of and criticizing Trump.
After all the petty bickering among heads of government, even at 70, the North Atlantic alliance still has the hard military power to check Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive advances in Europe and China’s increasing military power in Asia and beyond. The alliance’s pivot toward China took some observers by surprise, but it should not have. Russia and China have both attempted to covertly and overtly subvert NATO security for some time, by dividing it from the U.S. and dividing other member states from one another. It suits both countries’ short-term and long-term strategic interests of breaking the U.S.’s relationship with Europe, destabilizing the European alliance and counteracting Western military power.

Russian tactics with NATO countries
For his part, Putin regards NATO as a threat to Russian security in three ways. First, he views NATO as hampering Moscow’s attempts to undermine the sovereignty of states within what it sees as its sphere of influence, including the Baltic States, Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus. Second, in its commitment to democracy and rule of law, NATO represents a challenge to how Russia sees itself and the world. Third, Putin views NATO as attempting to subvert his regime’s authority within Russia itself. NATO’s expansion into Central Europe — to the very doorstep of Russia — had the effect of removing the strategic depth that Russia has craved since the invasion of Sweden’s Charles XII in 1708. In a speech before the Commonwealth of Independent States in 2014, Putin pledged to defend Russia’s brothers abroad with every available means. He has made it clear that he would love to rebuild the Soviet empire and restore Russia to its previous greatness.

Former foreign minister and prime minister Yevgeny Primakov is the author of an eponymous  doctrine that sees a world dominated by the U.S. as unacceptable. (Photo: Robert d. Ward, U.S. department of defense)

Former foreign minister and prime minister Yevgeny Primakov is the author of an eponymous doctrine that sees a world dominated by the U.S. as unacceptable. (Photo: Robert d. Ward, U.S. department of defense)

Not surprisingly, NATO’s most vulnerable members — the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — have all been targeted by Russia’s “political warfare.” Once encapsulated in the Soviet concept of “active measures,” Russia’s hybrid warfare combines political, economic, informational and cyber assaults against sovereign nations designed to achieve strategic objectives while falling below the target state’s threshold for a military response. Tactics include, but are not limited to, infiltrating social media, spreading propaganda, weaponizing information and using other forms of subversion, such as infiltrating political parties and front groups, foreign interference in democratic elections and espionage.
More violent tactics include terrorism, assassination, coups, military backing of separatist movements or insurgency and full-scale invasions by paramilitary, mercenary and military forces now known as “hybrid warfare.” The Soviet Union employed these tactics against enemies going back to the 1920s and Russia employs them to this day. The Baltic States are not alone in facing Russian aggression. Russia actively employs these tactics against NATO countries and the European Union as a means of splitting the alliance and diluting or negating its effectiveness and potential response. In the Russian strategic view, great power strategic competition is constant and the line between war and peace is now blurred or virtually non-existent.
Hybrid warfare has been associated with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russian chief of general staff of the armed forces and the author of the Gerasimov Doctrine, or a whole-of-government approach to confrontation with the West that employs both hard and soft power across domains and boundaries between peace and war. It is a tool that supports the more than 20-year-old Russian foreign policy doctrine formulated by its former foreign minister and prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov. The Primakov Doctrine takes the view that a unipolar world dominated by the United States is unacceptable to Russia and offers the following principles for the conduct of Russian foreign policy: Russia should strive toward a multipolar world that can counterbalance an American superpower; Russia should insist on its primacy in the post-Soviet space; and Russia should oppose NATO expansion into its former states in Central and Southern Europe.
To that end, starting in April of 2007, Russia launched a sustained cyberattack on Estonian government and commercial websites over a 22-day period, resulting in denial of service and degrading or knocking out government and commercial websites, including the country’s banking system. In 2008, after baiting Georgia into a fight over the disputed territory of the Russian-backed self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, formerly Georgian provinces, Putin ordered the invasion of Georgia. The five-day battle saw the Georgian military receive a mauling by Russian forces with 170 Georgian soldiers, 14 police officers and 228 civilians killed while 1,747 more were wounded. And in February 2014, the Kremlin used a mix of military and paramilitary forces to surprise Ukraine and seize the Crimean Peninsula and the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine with the support of local militias.
In 2018, Russia intelligence operatives used a military-grade Novichok nerve agent in an attempted murder in Salisbury that endangered the lives of more than 130 people in the United Kingdom. This attack was the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe, and it was a clear violation of British sovereignty and a clear breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Russian agents also used tea laced with radioactive polonium 210 to poison and kill former Russian spy-turned-whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko on British soil in 2006. Russian military intelligence, the GRU, is also believed to have carried out the assassination of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Germany in 2019, the attempted assassination of Emilian Gebrev in Bulgaria in 2015 and an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2017. Putin has also initiated cyberattacks on NATO member states, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Poland and the U.S., targeting critical infrastructure, including the U.S. energy sector.
Russia was behind the NotPetya malware cyberattack that caused billions of dollars in damage around the world. Additionally, Russia has conducted numerous extremely aggressive intercepts of NATO partner aircraft and vessels, including in the Nordic-Baltic region, and endangered the lives of military personnel. Russia has even used arms sales to Turkey of the S-400 air defence system to exacerbate divisions between the U.S. and Turkey and NATO. By all accounts, the Kremlin interfered in the last U.S. presidential election and Britain’s recent Brexit-inspired general election, in favour of the Conservatives.
All of these attacks were geared to whittle away at NATO cohesion and to achieve Russian strategic objectives without going to war. Ultimately, political warfare or hybrid warfare rely on hard military power behind the scenes. Russia’s ability to project power close to its borders and to do so rapidly is well known. Russia remains a nuclear-armed Eurasia land power with residual air and sea capabilities and has substantial forces close to NATO’s Baltic States as well as Poland, Ukraine and Georgia, the latter two of which are aspirant NATO members. Belarus and Moldova may be the next countries to be devoured by the Russian bear as it moves west. NATO has only three forward-deployed multinational battlegroups. They’re stationed in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. It also has a U.S. brigade in Poland and a multinational brigade in Romania, which is at best a tripwire to protect its most vulnerable members.
NATO’s ability to respond to a surprise Russian invasion of the Baltic States is not very good. Estonia has been described as essentially being a suburb of St. Petersburg and, by all counts, it would take three to four months at best to field a heavy division from U.S., British, German and French forces and NATO readiness overall is not where it needs to be. The once mighty British Armed Forces has fewer than 300 main battle tanks and is increasingly being replaced by France as the ally of choice. Few observers believe NATO would use its nuclear forces to repel a Russian unconventional or conventional war invasion of its Baltic member states or Poland.
For its part, China does not currently pose a direct military threat to European NATO countries, nor is it a strategic ally of Russia, but it does tend to partner with Russia when their interests converge. Both have a clear strategic interest in splitting the U.S. from NATO and NATO members from one another. Beijing has been more subtle in its attempts to subvert NATO countries than Russia, by trying to entice NATO’s southern tier into its Belt and Road Initiative, using the European Union as a back door and promising investment and infrastructure in return for more influence. China has its own version of Russia’s political war or hybrid-warfare approach to subverting and degrading its enemies’ capabilities as a forerunner to war and to the use of conventional military power.

Beijing controls 13 European ports

Russia and China are conducting joint naval exercises, this one in Vladivostok, Russia. (Photo: © Yuri Smityuk/TASS)

Russia and China are conducting joint naval exercises, this one in Vladivostok, Russia. (Photo: © Yuri Smityuk/TASS)

China’s strategic objectives in Europe are geared to maintaining Chinese economic, political and military power and keeping the Chinese Communist Party in power at home. The goal is not just access to markets, but to split European Union members from one another to prevent unified positions against China and to break NATO and EU cohesion. It is important to note that China’s intention is to replace the post-Second World War (1939-1945) Liberal rules-based order and security architecture with its own Beijing-centric order. China has been hostile to NATO since its embassy was accidentally bombed by NATO forces during the Kosovo War (1998-1999). The Chinese Communist Party’s goal is to separate the United States from NATO and NATO states from one another. There is one major difference between the Russian and Chinese approach to subverting NATO. China still wants access to the EU’s economies, whereas Russia’s view is dominated by an environment of total great-power conflict.
Chinese attempts to subvert Europe include divide-and-rule tactics with Southern and Central European countries. China has negotiated bilateral deals with several EU countries, including the 17+1 group of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. Eleven of these countries are EU member states and four others are candidates. Taking a page from Russia’s attempt to undermine NATO’s southern flank, in 2017, China stated it was ready to discuss Turkey’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose members are China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan and Uzebekistan.
As well, Greece and Italy have fallen into the big money-big debt trap of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese Shipping giant, COSCO, has taken the controlling share of the Greek port of Piraeus and it is said that China wants to build a high-speed rail link between Belgrade and Budapest and then onward to the western part of the continent. The Port of Piraeus is the main sea port of Athens, the largest port in Greece and one of the largest in Europe. In the past decade, Chinese companies have acquired controlling shares in 13 ports in Europe, including in Greece, Spain and Belgium. Together, these facilities handle about 10 per cent of Europe’s shipping-container capacity. In fact, China has gained access to Europe’s three largest ports: respectively Euromax in Rotterdam, of which it owns 35 per cent; Antwerp in Belgium, of which it holds a 20-per-cent stake; and Hamburg, Germany, where it is to build a new terminal. China’s People’s Liberation Army (Navy) warships have already paid a friendly port visit to Piraeus in Greece. Gary Roughead, a former U.S. chief of naval operations, warned that “Chinese port operators will be able to monitor U.S. ship movements closely, be aware of maintenance activities, have access to equipment moving to and from repair sites and interact freely with our crews over protracted periods.”

Chinese shipping giant, COSCO, has taken the controlling share of the Greek port of Piraeus, above. In the past decade, Chinese companies have acquired controlling shares in 13 European ports. (Photo: Nikolaos Diakidis)

Chinese shipping giant, COSCO, has taken the controlling share of the Greek port of Piraeus, above. In the past decade, Chinese companies have acquired controlling shares in 13 European ports. (Photo: Nikolaos Diakidis)

China is leveraging tensions in the Western alliance over U.S. economic policies, including U.S. sanctions on European countries and Washington’s trade war with China, climate change, multilateralism and the Iran nuclear deal. Beijing also builds networks among European politicians, businesses, media, think-tanks and universities to create layers of active support for Chinese policies and interests as well as a means to shut down and silence commentary from critics and dissidents. China has targeted specific European countries’ vulnerabilities to increase its economic presence, including Greece’s economic crisis and disenchantment among the countries that represent the poor cousins of the EU, those discontented with European Union conditions for investment, such as Serbia, and the United Kingdom post-Brexit. All the while, China is using its investment and new presence to acquire foreign technology through legal and illegal means, with the objective of dominating the innovation industries of the future. The U.S. Department of Defense has warned that China has sought to acquire, legally and illegally, Western technology in order to modernize its economy and build weapons to rival the strength of Western militaries by striking further, harder and faster. Chinese espionage and cyber espionage to gain access to foreign military and industrial secrets is well known. The Chinese government continues its partnership with Russia in Europe, where the two countries have similar strategic objectives and can work together to weaken and degrade U.S. and NATO interests.

Joint military exercises in the Baltic Sea
Russia and China have a long past of attempting to subvert NATO security. In the event of a Russian move against frontline NATO states, Chinese control of seaports and other critical infrastructure in NATO countries could present NATO with resupply, reinforcement and mobility problems. Similarly, Chinese railway projects in Southern and Central Europe could be built so as to complicate NATO mobility, reinforcement and resupply of embattled states closer to Russia. In effect, China could nullify NATO’s strategic advantage of interior lines in a fight in the Baltic States, Poland or Ukraine.
Allowing China and Huawei to build and develop Europe’s 5G network has the possibility to divide NATO and EU members much as it has the Five Eyes intelligence community (Canada, the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand), with potentially the same disastrous consequences in wartime. China could use its economic clout with deeply indebted NATO allies to compel them not to respond to an Article V collective defence request by another NATO member. While Russian forces make a play for the Baltic states or even Poland, China could act out in the South China Sea, to further dilute and distract the American military response there and in Europe. Lastly, it is important to note that in 2015, Russian and Chinese warships conducted joint training in the Mediterranean Sea. Then, in July of 2017, three Chinese navy warships conducted live fire exercises in the Mediterranean Sea prior to a scheduled joint exercise with Russian navy ships in the Baltic Sea. The Chinese warships went on to the Joint Sea 2017 exercise with Russia, held off the Russian port cities of Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg, along the shores of the three NATO member Baltic States.
While Russia and China are not allies, they are a dynamic duo and strategic partners when it comes to undermining NATO. Russia has hard military power and the backdrop of hybrid warfare on NATO’s doorstep and China is projecting military power out to NATO’s shores in the Mediterranean and even in the Baltic. In the end, summit silliness aside, the U.S. and NATO member states need one another as they face a new military threat for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Remember what Winston Churchill said about military alliances: “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.’’

Joe Varner is a consultant on international security and strategic intelligence and is a Fellow of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society and the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

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Joe Varner is a consultant on defence diplomacy, strategic intelligence, military operations, counter-terrorism, and emergency disaster management.

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