Just a few months ago the overwhelming majority of Western politicians and pundits thought a Russian military move into Ukraine inconceivable. And yet thus far, Vladimir Putin’s determination to restore Russia’s imperial prerogative in Europe’s East has been met with only limited economic and banking sanctions, visa denial to a handful of Russian officials, and plenty of statements condemning Russia for its “nineteenth century behavior” at a time when liberal norms and postmodern standards are supposed to rule supreme. As Russia moved swiftly to reconfigure Europe’s East, the United States was left gasping for air. Instead of developing a strategy we have been arguing about conditions for negotiations, allowing Moscow to continue to try to make linkages to the Iran nuclear arms issue, cooperation over Syria, Afghanistan withdrawal and nuclear arms control. This needs to change.
The U.S. administration and European governments should set aside their expressions of righteous anger and respond to the new environment along NATO’s periphery. Geopolitics is back in Europe in force, and it should be clear that earlier assumptions about Central Europe being somehow “done” after the Cold War have been shown to be not much more than the gaseous byproduct of inside-the-beltway punditry rather than a reflection of power realities on the ground. Nowhere has the tectonic shift been felt more acutely than in Poland and the Baltic States—NATO’s frontier states in facing the hardening periphery of Russia.
In the aftermath of Russia’s partition of Ukraine, the principal U.S. strategic objective in North-Central Europe should be to increase the costs of any future Russian expansionism. This requires two types of action: first, reassurance through political means; second, increased direct U.S. assistance to ensure that the region can credibly deter Russia’s military pressure, and, if need be, defend itself and inflict serious pain on the aggressor. These two are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Political reassurance without a credible military component will not suffice. Without an enhanced viable military strategy along NATO’s northeastern periphery, the credibility of the alliance will be forfeited over time. Russia knows this. Its parallel goal of rebuilding its empire has been to undermine NATO.
Putin is closely watching how Washington behaves in the coming weeks in order to determine the extent of America’s will to maintain NATO as a force to be reckoned with. On the political side of the ledger, the steps taken thus far have been positive. The prompt dispatch of additional F-15s to the Baltic air policing mission in Lithuania, plus the 12 F-16 jets and 300 personnel deployed to Poland have provided immediate symbolic reassurance. Vice President Biden’s visit further underscored the fact that America was re-engaging with Europe, refocusing on the core transatlantic security relationship after years of “resets” and “pivots.” The message to Putin is clear: while our response to the partition of Ukraine has lagged, the U.S. remains committed to NATO. So far so good.
But Washington still needs to do some deeper thinking on how it has provided for the security of Central Europe and the Baltics up until now, and how this needs to change going forward. Simply put, now is the time to put real U.S. military assets into North-Central Europe and to focus on helping those allies improve their defense capabilities against Russia. The strategy should be to help the countries in the region to leverage their own effort in combination with U.S. assets and assistance. For starters, the Administration needs to make clear that if there was ever any implied or explicit understanding that NATO military assets would not be deployed on the new allies’ territory, Putin’s partition of Ukraine has nullified that. The U.S. needs to expand its presence on the ground in Central Europe to send a clear message to Vladimir Putin that NATO’s defensive perimeter has not been compromised by his action in the East.
The starting point of any future engagement with Moscow should be the following: Russia’s partition of Ukraine has transformed the security landscape in East Europe, posing a direct challenge to the transatlantic security system. While efforts to ease tensions with Russia should continue, the West needs to understand that, unless checked, Putin will stay the course of his neo-imperial drive. His actions in Crimea have already undermined any residual trust in the region’s relations with Russia, nullifying the prospect of a rapid settlement of the Ukrainian crisis. Putin is in this for the long haul, and at present NATO remains the only viable vehicle for anticipating contingencies and preparing to respond should Russian aggression in the region resume. We should avoid the temptation to engage in another round of spurious debate about whether Europe should provide its own defenses; the European Union is not set up to address hard security issues, regardless of how many claims to the contrary have been made since the Balkan wars.
The focal point of U.S. assistance in the region should be Poland, a midsize power and lynchpin of regional security. The initial steps are straightforward: the temporary transfer of U.S. F-16s should become permanent so long as the threat persists, and it should be expanded further with additional aircraft and personnel. The Obama administration should move ground assets to Poland—preferably a brigade–size force to strengthen near-term deterrence. Most importantly, however, the focus should be on assisting Poland in accelerating and expanding its own military modernization programs currently underway.
The Polish government has demonstrated its commitment to addressing the country’s vulnerabilities, including an Air and Missile Defense (AMD) program, naval modernization, helicopter tenders and additional armor. The Obama administration can help Poland by facilitating defense industrial cooperation and accelerating licensing for weapons purchases. It should ask Congress to move forward quickly to release the extended range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile system (JASSM) to sell to Poland. There is a precedent for such a sale in the region, as Finland was allowed to purchase the JASSM, even though it is not a NATO country. Finding a solution that includes long-term defense industrial cooperation with Poland’s partners ought to be measured against the requirement to field a working AMD system to shorten the deployment cycle. To put it differently: the United States should assist Poland in getting modern proven equipment into the field fast.
The United States remains the key player to forming workable strategy in North-Central Europe post-Crimea, and NATO is the ideal vehicle for getting the Europeans on the same page. The Obama administration needs to make clear that regardless of how quickly and how far Putin pushes, whether in Ukraine or along Russia’s periphery in Europe and Central Asia, the United States will lead Europe toward developing a counter-strategy. We must be prepared to move proactively to enhance not just defense, but also deterrence in the region.