NATO’s doctrine revolution

The 31-nation alliance is shifting its doctrine from a reactive stance to preemptive defense, prompted by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

A person speaking into microphones
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (R) holds a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy prior to the NATO defense ministers meeting at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels on October 11, 2023. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • The 2023 summit in Vilnius laid the groundwork for a strategic transformation
  • The 2024 summit in Washington will likely formalize the new approach
  • The new trademark is defending “every inch” of alliance territory

After Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, when the Kremlin seized the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, NATO began to change its post-Cold War political and strategic doctrine. This change has been gradual. But after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, changes became more revolutionary than evolutionary. The 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius laid the foundations for new thinking, the trademark of which is the will and readiness to defend “every inch” of allied territory.

This political turn must also lead to a revolution in defense strategy. It can be expected that an entirely new strategic doctrine for the 31-nation alliance will be formulated and adopted at the 2024 NATO summit in Washington, a jubilee event celebrating the organization’s 75th anniversary.

In the post-Cold War period, the West has been guided by the policy of building a cooperative security system in Europe, including with Russia, and focusing attention on responding to crises and conflicts outside NATO territory. A defensive strategy prevailed in response to crises. A war seemed highly unlikely. Contingency plans defined scenarios of possible threats and various responses but without the preparation of forces needed for their implementation. In the event of a threat, the response would be reactive.

After 2014, when the relative post-Cold War harmony ended with Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the Alliance at its Newport summit initiated a transition to the concept of forward presence (in peacetime) and forward defense (in case of aggression), which is still in force today. It assumes stopping possible aggression with forces deployed on the eastern flank and definitively defeating the aggressor in a strategic counteroffensive.

The operational method of this approach is deep, spatial defense, based on maneuverable actions of eastern-flank countries’ troops and allied forward-presence forces supported by activated reaction forces. To carry this out, the alliance established eight international battlegroups with about 10,000 soldiers and a reaction force of roughly 40,000 soldiers. It also launched a system of large exercises and the verification of prepared operational defense plans. NATO’s particular concern in cooperating with the European Union has become ensuring the rapid and efficient movement of assembled forces through the entire Euro-Atlantic theater of war to the eastern flank.

Russia’s criminal conduct in the war on Ukraine means that NATO allies need a strong enough defense to minimize such risks on their territories. NATO allies bordering Russia have the most vital need. The goal must be to deter such an attack while a permanent defense can be organized. This is the essence of preemptive defense.

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Preemptive versus preventive action

A distinction must be made between preemptive action and preventive action. Preemptive action is allowed under the right to self-defense under strictly defined conditions, such as an imminent attack. Preventive actions are prohibited under international law. They involve fighting against an opponent who, while not posing an imminent direct threat, may do so with a high probability in the future. Only one entity in the world has the right to conduct this type of threat prevention – the United Nations Security Council. Neither states nor other international organizations, including NATO, have such a right.

Preemptive actions as an element of legitimate self-defense consist of launching an operation not only after the enemy’s troops have crossed the border or after incurring the first losses from their attack, but also striking enemy groupings prepared to attack. The decision whether to do so poses a dilemma because it means considering and defining the boundary between prohibited prevention and justified preemption.

It is easier for one country to decide in its own defense, but it is more difficult for collective political actors, such as NATO. Therefore, the emergence of political will for the priority of “defending every inch of its own territoryand the strategic consequence of the need for preemptive defense is undoubtedly a revolutionary breakthrough in the policy and strategy of the alliance.

This breakthrough includes not only defense but also deterrence, crisis prevention and cooperative security. It contrasts with the previous concept, which was dominated by deterrence through the guarantee of retaliation – punishing the aggressor by inflicting unacceptable losses.

A soldier looks through a scope
A Czech Police Intervention Unit and GROM, a special unit of the Polish Armed Forces, perform on the first day of NATO Days in the Czech Republic on September 16 , 2023. © Getty Images

Deterring an irrational Kremlin

Such deterrence can be effective against a rational opponent. However, Russia, with its barbaric methods in Ukraine, is an irrational entity. The Kremlin makes irresponsible decisions based on false premises and calculations more ideological or personal than objectively strategic. Therefore, in the face of such an adversary, NATO needs to prevent an attack or ensure that enemy aggression will not succeed. Preemptive defense may be an element of such deterrence.

The success of preemptive defense will depend on many factors. Reliable intelligence is key. A military force can effectively anticipate and overpower an enemy more easily if the foe’s composition, areas of concentration and expected moment of attack are known.

It will be possible to stop the aggressor as soon as possible in a border area only if the expected direction of its main strike is known in advance so that rapid reaction forces can be directed there. These forces must have necessary readiness and strategic depth. This approach also requires preemptive notice of the threat to use these forces to be included in respective operational plans. The use of these forces must not be a response to a crisis but should be an action taken before such a situation arises. For this reason, the very name of the reaction force (response) is not adequate to its actual role in a new Cold War security environment. Perhaps it would be worth changing it to, for example, deterring forces.

Rapid reaction forces acting as a strategic reserve capable and ready for deployment against threats is an important element of the concept of preemptive defense. The possible deployment of the bulk of its forces in advance along the entire border to try to defend “every inch” of territory would be an operational mistake. Reaction forces ready for preemptive use in the face of expected aggression are able to not only deter the enemy from invading but also reduce unpleasant surprises by strengthening first-line forces in the detected direction of the main attack. It is worth emphasizing that the new model of NATO armed forces adopted at the Madrid summit in 2022 offers good opportunities to implement such a defense doctrine.

Based on these considerations, it can be concluded that the political will of NATO countries to defend “every inch” of their territory, declared at the Vilnius summit, implies a strategic turn toward the doctrine of preemptive defense.

In these conditions, the top priority for the entire alliance, and especially its border states, must be establishing and developing anticipatory capabilities. Other important operational priorities, especially in the case of such a doctrine, include:

a) air defense, in particular missile and anti-drone defense, enabling NATO forces to maneuver throughout the Euro-Atlantic theater;

b) cyber-incapacitation of enemy reconnaissance, command and fire-control systems;

c) precision destruction over long distances;

d) permanent forward defense in the frontier zone;

e) preemptive development of reaction forces, ideally before a crisis occurs; and

f) quick and efficient transfer of primary forces to the eastern flank.

NATO’s three main tasks

The political doctrine of defending “every inch” and the necessary strategy of preemptive actions are needed because of Russia’s aggressive behavior. NATO’s main task is deterrence and defense (see NATO 2022 Strategic Concept). But the development of such an approach will also affect two other main tasks of the alliance – crisis prevention and management and cooperative security outside its treaty area. Given the risk of Russia taking actions to harm the West, NATO allies must anticipate their response outside the treaty area.

Russian military actions – either through its regular army or Wagner mercenaries – are already taking place in Syria and in several African nations. Studying past confrontations with the Soviet Union will be useful in formulating a new doctrine.

This new political and strategic defense doctrine may have the least impact on the third basic allied task of building cooperative security with partners. There is one important challenge and task here: securing the widest possible support from the international community for preemptive actions to confront imminent aggression.



There is only one probable scenario: The doctrinal change taking place in NATO is necessary amid conditions of a renewed Cold War with Russia. The change initiated at the summit in Vilnius will be continued and developed conceptually, in terms of planning and organization, and will be finalized at the NATO summit next year in Washington.

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