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Russian army threat gives NATO brief window of opportunity

November 17, 2023

If Russia can freeze the conflict in Ukraine its forces could be ready to attack Europe in as little as six years, a new study has warned.

NATO soldiers in the snow taking part in a military exercise in Pabrade, north of the capital Vilnius, Lithuania
Germany's Bundeswehr is already stationed in Lithuania, where it has been taking part in NATO military exercisesImage: Karolis Kavolelis/AP Photo/picture alliance

Europe's NATO member states have just "five to nine years" to become "war-ready" and prepare for a possible Russian attack on the alliance's territory. This warning comes from Preventing the Next War, a policy brief newly released by the German Council on Foreign Relations. 

Authors Christian Mölling and Torben Schütz of the prestigious Berlin think tank Center for Security and Defense concluded that the next war in Europe can only be effectively prevented within a limited time frame. Mölling and Schütz point out that Russia has already switched its arms production to the level needed in a wartime economy as a result of its war against Ukraine.

"Even after nearly two years of combat in Ukraine, the Russian war capability is greater than the current impression suggests. The Russian land forces suffered the greatest losses in terms of personnel and materiel," the study says. Germany and NATO are now in a "race against time" to bolster their own conventional forces to deter a possible Russian attack on NATO member states such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

German defense minister: Germany bears special responsibility for protecting eastern flank

DGAP security policy expert Mölling based the analysis on information from Germany's intelligence and defense services. It falls in line with new policy guidelines for Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, that Defense Minister Boris Pistoriusunveiled earlier in November. For the first time, Pistorius used the term "war-ready" in his presentation as the objective for rebuilding the Bundeswehr.

"With Putin's brutal attack on Ukraine, war has returned to Europe," Pistorius said as he presented the new guidelines for Germany's armed forces. "That has changed the threat assessment. As the most populous and economically powerful country in the middle of Europe, Germany must be the backbone of deterrence and collective security in Europe."

The study bases its time frame for NATO to beef up its deterrence on the assumption that Russia manages to freeze the conflict in Ukraine, which would buy time for Moscow to rebuild its army. However, few in Berlin's political circles see the Ukraine war stopping any time soon.

"Both sides have further military plans," Russia analyst Nico Lange of the Munich Security Conference told DW. "I think we must assume that it will go on for a while yet." 

Frozen fronts in Ukraine

Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, recently pointed out that to date, the military aid for his country from some 50 states under US leadership had only resulted in a "stalemate."

European security: Is Germany fit for combat?

Since it began in June, Ukraine's counteroffensive has barely shifted the front lines in the country's east and south. And Russia has the advantage in a static war, as its now-activated arms industry can supply artillery on a practically unlimited scale, Austrian military analyst Markus Reisner told DW. Ukraine can only win if the conflict again becomes mobile, and it would need the most modern weapons from the West to achieve that next spring, Reisner said.

Several observers of the war have noted that the front line in Ukraine has evolved more and more into an electronic battlefield. They say artificial intelligence is being used to wage war.

"At stake is control of the electromagnetic spectrum, where communications are conducted and drones are directed," said Reisner. Lange also confirmed that Russia can now effectively disrupt Ukrainian weapons systems run by satellite.

Failed sanctions on high-tech products?

That even includes the US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers that helped Ukraine stretch Russian supply lines as it recaptured large areas last year.

"Russia is very successful at jamming," said Lange, referring to the disruption of enemy satellite, radar and radio signals. This is especially significant because, over nearly two years, the conflict in Ukraine has been conducted more and more through drones. These can themselves be armed or use cameras to help provide a clear picture of the front line when used together with satellite intelligence. Here, too, Russia has made advances, Lange said.

US and EU sanctions have apparently not stopped Russia from maintaining access to microchips and other high-tech products. Russia also runs its own satellite navigation system to direct rocket attacks, Lange pointed out.

Why Germany's military is in a bad state, and what's being done to fix it

Enhancing NATO deterrence

The DGAP study says awareness is rising in Berlin that Russia can rapidly rebuild its land army with its up-and-running arms industry — even to the extent that its fighting power would eclipse NATO's present deterrence potential in a conventional war.

"The alliance no longer rules out a Russian attack," said Mölling. "The question for NATO and Germany no longer is whether they will ever need to be able to fight a war against another country, but only when."

This article was originally written in German.

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