The war in Ukraine has mandated a thorough reappraisal of European security. It has shocked the German Reichstag into rearming the country, while historically neutral Finland and Sweden are set to join NATO. Across the continent, there is a renewed commitment to military spending — at least 2 per cent of GDP; a NATO policy that has been avoided by many members in favour of the dubious shelter offered by the US nuclear umbrella.

The sight of armoured columns crawling towards Kyiv, coupled with NATO’s involvement, has raised the spectre of conflict along Russia’s 1,400-mile border with the EU. The US and its European allies are in the process of bolstering the frontier, but rethinking European security demands that we think beyond the conventional parameters of warfighting. In particular, now is as good a time as any to start integrating elements of environmental conservation into national security.

Conserve and Protect

This is a common practice in other parts of the world. In Africa, the membrane between security and conservation is porous. Wildlife rangers, originally tasked with combating poaching, are increasingly embroiled in counterterrorism. These rangers are often better paid, armed and trained than the official armies in the region. Their ability to operate in dense wilderness, impenetrable to heavy armour, has made them invaluable in the fight against Islamist insurgents.

This insurgency has seen a nexus of groups proliferate across Africa in recent years. Poaching is believed to constitute a major source of revenue for many of them. These groups often operate out of national parks or protected areas, due to the natural cover that they offer. In these zones, there is a clear correlation between Islamist activity and elephant poaching. As such, effective conservation is integral to regional security.

The Way of War

The intersection between conservation and security is relevant to Eastern Europe. Africa’s national parks are a haven for both wildlife and insurgents because both seek cover, which allows them to move unseen. Mountains, scrub, and dense forests can be a lethal obstacle when fighting an insurgency. In Vietnam, the US army used napalm to destroy cover, while Turkish security forces burnt the forests of Kurdistan during the 1990s. In both instances, this was a response to military setbacks despite superior numbers and firepower.

The war in Ukraine has demonstrated how little the Russian army has adapted its tactics since the end of the Cold War. While Russia has made technological progress in recent years, their preference for conventional warfighting; involving heavy armour, helicopters, and linear infantry advances has been on full display. As demonstrated in Afghanistan and Chechnya, the Russian army struggles when it comes to difficult terrains such as mountains, forests, and wetlands. These natural features are easy to defend but harder to attack, regardless of the balance of power.

Woodland Warfare

Bohdan Prots, a professor of landscape diversity in Ukraine, has identified the important role that restored ecosystems have played in halting the Russian advance. As Russian forces navigate with outdated maps, restored woodland with thick underbrush disrupts their progress. The success of Ukrainian ambush tactics against heavy armour also shows the value of natural cover for an inferior military. As almost all of Ukraine is flat — denying its army the spatial advantages that mountains offer — healthy and expansive forests become particularly important.

This is applicable throughout Eastern Europe. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland are all predominantly flat countries. Earthworks, watch towers, mines, and base camps serve no purpose beyond defence. In a possible future where extensive fortifications along the border with Russia are no longer required, they would remain an ugly, useless and dangerous disfiguration on the land. Forests are different. While providing a major obstacle to a country’s military effort, they also sink carbon, foster biodiversity and improve people’s mental health.

Poland’s Primeval Fortress

Sadly, one of the biggest, oldest, and least penetrable forests in the region is under threat. The Białowieża is one of the last and largest remaining tracts of Europe’s primeval forest. Stretching along the border between Poland and Russia-aligned Belarus, it is a natural line of defence. Just one tarmacked road crosses the border between the trees. As Belarus was used as a staging ground for the Russian encirclement of Kyiv, the forest is a valuable obstacle, as well as a haven for endangered species.

Despite its UNESCO heritage status, the Polish government has reauthorized logging operations in the Białowieża. As well as reducing the size of the forest and destroying ancient habitats, logging roads make the forest increasingly permeable. As these roads are designed to support industrial vehicles, they will also be able to support tanks and armoured personnel carriers. Although the Catholic-nationalist government in Warsaw has little interest in conservation, it has asserted itself as the lynchpin of NATO’s eastern flank. If NATO were to emphasise the strategic advantages of conservation, Poland might discover new value in its primeval forest.

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire was the sole superpower in the western hemisphere. Its armies were larger, better trained, and technologically superior to all of its adversaries. Despite this, the primeval forests of Germania marked the furthest extent of their north-westerly expansion. Roman artillery and tactics were useless in this vast and impenetrable swathe of woodland. So, there is an argument to be made that by conserving and restoring the remnants of this once great European forest, NATO can strengthen its frontiers and nurture biodiversity at the same time. There is no downside to such a policy. The question is whether NATO has the vision to act on it.

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