NATO’s Baltic members—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—are formally asking the alliance to deploy a “brigade-level permanent allied military presence” on their territory to deter Russia from repeating its salami-slice invasion of Ukraine. NATO should swiftly approve this request. It’s the best way to prevent war and preserve the alliance.
The Baltics are not overreacting. Just consider what’s happening in their neighborhood.
After deploying troops to wage asymmetric, anonymous warfare against a sovereign, peaceful neighbor in Ukraine, annexing Crimea, and carving out an armed Russian zone in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin unveiled a new military doctrine focused on confronting NATO and pledging the use of Russia’s armed forces “to ensure the protection of its citizens outside the Russian Federation.” Given that there are seven million Russians in Ukraine and a million in the Baltics—and that Putin has reserved the right to determine when, where, and whether they need to be protected—this is a recipe for something much more complicated than the Cold War.
In 2013, Russia’s troop presence in the Baltic region began to swell. Russian air force activity is reverting to Cold War-style brinkmanship. And the Russian army is conducting a nearly-constant barrage of war games on NATO’s borders. Many of them are “snap” exercises carried out with no advance warning. This makes it difficult for NATO to know what Moscow is doing—and easy for Moscow to flip the switch from exercises to invasion.
Although Putin’s military is a shell of the Red Army, Russia increased military spending 108 percent in the decade after 2004. Putin has unveiled plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks and 600 new warplanes the next ten years. Putin’s army clearly retains enough punch to reincorporate Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine and parts of Georgia. It’s not unthinkable that the Baltics could be next. As Putin himself boasts, “If I wanted, Russian troops could not only be in Kiev in two days, but in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw or Bucharest, too.” To top it all off, Moscow has violated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and withdrawn from the Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction program.
As General Phillip Breedlove, NATO’s military commander, concludes, Putin’s Russia is “blatantly attempting to change the rules and principles that have been the foundation of European security for decades.”
To be sure, Putin and his apologists argue that Moscow is simply reacting to NATO’s eastward expansion, which Putin insists is a violation of agreements made at the end of the Cold War. But as Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution details, “Putin’s NATO narrative” that the alliance double-crossed its way to the Russian border doesn’t match the recollections of the highest levels of the Soviet leadership. Mikhail Gorbachev “made clear there was no promise regarding broader enlargement,” Pifer writes. Mary Elise Sarotte, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, adds that Gorbachev signed “accords that allowed NATO to extend itself over the former East Germany in exchange for financial assistance.” Gorbachev himself concedes, “The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all.”
Insurance is a good way to contemplate a permanent NATO presence in the Baltics. Insurance, after all, is about providing protection against worst-case scenarios. Since its founding in 1949, NATO has been in the insurance business.
Prudent people hope they never have to use their insurance, but they realize that paying a little each month or each year protects them against having to pay a lot—or losing everything—if disaster strikes. The same is true in the realm of international security.
If Putin follows his Ukraine playbook and covertly violates the sovereignty of the Baltics, he will force the alliance to either blink or fire back. Neither alternative leads to a happy outcome. The former means NATO is neutralized and neutered; the latter means war.
One way to prevent that scenario is to base permanent NATO assets where they are most needed: on the territory of NATO’s most-at-risk members. That’s what the alliance did during the Cold War, and it kept the peace—as it will today. This is the best insurance against Putin. The goal here is not to start a war but quite the opposite: to prevent what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”
What the Balts are requesting is compatible with NATO’s core mission, politically feasible and militarily credible.
First, let’s consider the Baltics’ request in context of NATO’s core mission: deterrence. The Baltics can be forgiven for wanting a more permanent, more tangible commitment from NATO. After all, NATO didn’t begin drawing up contingency plans for defending the Baltics (which joined the alliance in 2004) until after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
The reason for the delay: Some members of the alliance worried that such contingency planning would provoke Moscow. In fact, the very opposite is true. Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and Georgia—and non-intervention in the Balts—strongly suggests that he takes NATO’s all-for-one Article 5 commitment seriously, at least for now.
Critics of a more robust commitment to NATO’s easternmost members worry about the remote location of the Baltics and strategic-depth issues. But few places were less defendable than West Berlin during the Cold War, which was literally surrounded by Soviet bloc armies. Yet NATO maintained permanent forces in that remote outpost of freedom to deter the Red Army—and it worked.
Second, a brigade-sized force would comprise between 3,000 and 5,000 troops. By way of background, NATO has about 3.3 million men under arms. The United States has some 67,000 troops in Europe. And NATO accounts for 60 percent of world military spending. In short, the alliance can do this.
Of course, most NATO members have been hacking away at their militaries in recent years, which explains NATO’s urgent call that each member invest at least two percent of GDP on defense. According to NATO’s latest financial data, only four of NATO’s 28 members—the United States, Britain, Greece and Estonia—meet that standard today. In fact, NATO’s European members spend an average of just 1.6 percent of GDP on defense. Britain will soon invest less than two percent on defense. Even U.S. defense spending is tumbling: 4.7 percent of GDP in 2010, 3.2 percent today, 2.3 percent by 2022-23.
To be sure, this post-recession retrenchment should be reversed. But even a NATO with fewer resources can muster enough to answer the Baltics’ SOS and deter Putin from attempting another Ukraine or Georgia.
Third, the military-strategic benefits of a brigade permanently based in the Balts are many. By definition, it would be permanent, which provides real reassurance to the host nations. In addition, it sends a clear message, but an unmistakably defensive one. Russia’s military high command knows a brigade is not large enough to invade Russia. Yet it packs real defensive punch. A U.S. armored brigade, for example, includes about 3,000 battle-ready soldiers, 150 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, and dozens of howitzers.
NATO’s promise in 2014 to deploy assets in Eastern Europe on a “rotational basis” was a step in the right direction, as are plans to build a chain of command centers in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. However, those command centers will be staffed with just 50 personnel each—not much of a deterrent—and when Putin and his tiny Baltic neighbors hear that word “rotational,” they think temporary, perhaps expendable.
Saying yes to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will make it clear to them—and Putin—that Article 5 is as valid for NATO’s youngest members as it is for NATO’s oldest members.