As the countdown clock to the July NATO summit ticks away, the discussion in Brussels about how to deal with a resurgent Russia, though vigorous, has yet to produce a solid consensus. Ever since Russia seized Crimea and ignited war in eastern Ukraine, the countries along the northeastern frontier have called for the creation of permanent U.S. bases on their territory, on the assumption that only such American tripwires can deter Putin from jumping NATO’s red line, whether in a hybrid scenario or an all-out cross-border assault. The sense of urgency in the Baltic States and Poland has been fuelled by various war-gamed scenarios; a recent RAND study, for example, showed that in an all-out conflict with Russia the Baltic States would be effectively indefensible, forcing NATO to consider either rapid escalation or defeat. For allies further west from NATO’s periphery, however, the idea of permanent bases in the east has remained problematic. They fear further damaging their relationships with Russia, and they see the growing pressure of terrorism and migration in the South as more immediate risks to European security.
The competing priorities of reorienting the alliance further to the east or to the south thus far have resulted in a delicate compromise. Still, the current European consensus about the deliverables at Warsaw in July is tenuous at best, due to the prospect that NATO’s security situation with respect to Russia will deteriorate further in the east, as well as developments in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea that would possibly require additional commitments of NATO resources. At the same time, the United States—the core member of the alliance—has security concerns not just in Europe and MENA, but also globally in Asia-Pacific. A larger question looming over the alliance as it heads to Warsaw is the extent to which the United States is going to commit itself to reorienting its policy to Europe, especially as geostrategic competition with China accelerates.
As the summit draws near, NATO has taken a two-track approach to Russia, pursuing deterrence through an enhanced rotational presence, while of late also seeking to reestablish a baseline for talks. The upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw is shaping up to produce partial solutions on all fronts: redeploying some U.S. assets to Europe and increasing its exercise regime, while carefully sidestepping extreme scenarios that would test the limits of the allies’ mutual commitment. Extreme scenarios are being discussed but are not likely to result in decisions requiring President Obama to launch a series of major strategic initiatives in Europe in the last year of his presidency, or to ask the Pentagon to address the nuclear and maritime dimensions in an all-out confrontation scenario at a time when resources are dwindling and the U.S. military continues to contract.
Thus far, the preferred approach to addressing the Nordic/Baltic/Central European region has been “reassurance” and the “strengthening of NATO’s eastern flank”—now the standard fare in pre-summit pronouncements by U.S. and European officials and in media accounts. The commitment to an agreement on a “persistent rotational presence,” with battalion-size U.S. and multinational rotational deployments in the Baltic States, Poland, and possibly Romania, seems generally accepted, as does the pre-positioning of U.S. equipment along the NATO frontier. NATO is also taking a modest step toward resuscitating enlargement with Montenegro, as NATO Foreign Ministers recently signed the Accession Protocol in Brussels, putting the country on track to start accession procedures. At the same time, the alliance is trying to ensure that it’s doing everything it can to convey to Moscow that such reassurance and reinforcement measures are not aggressive. (Whether such efforts to reach out to Moscow will have much success is another matter.) Still, with one NATO-Russia Council meeting in April and another to take place before the July Warsaw summit, the alliance’s dual-track approach continues, perhaps more to appease competing priorities among the allies than in hopes of building genuine trust with Russia.
The Russian response to the persistent exercise formula favored by NATO has been predictable and indicative more of Moscow’s determination to maintain a favorable regional balance than to address the hypothetical threat posed by such deployments. Though Russia’s envoy to NATO, Aleksandr Grushko, recently announced Russia’s determination to respond in kind, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made clear already in February that Moscow would set up new divisions in its Western military district, including Russia’s move to reactivate its 1st Tank Guards Army, dissolved in 1998—a decision clearly made before the U.S. announcement of an additional armored brigade deployment to Europe. At the time, Shoigu also spoke of three new divisions to be deployed along NATO’s eastern periphery, with one of these divisions to be created from a brigade in the Smolensk region near Belarus. There is little doubt that Vladimir Putin is determined to preserve a balance of forces that favors Russia—and this imperative is not likely to change with the planned NATO rotational deployments. More important than standing up new divisions, however, is Russia’s expansion of its so-called A2AD capabilities (its anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, both land and sea-based, as well as its combat aircraft) based in the Kaliningrad District and elsewhere on Russian territory, covering a huge area and creating in effect an anti-access bubble over the Baltic Sea.
In this context, as NATO-Russia tensions continue to increase, what matters more than the crafting of solemn declarations for Warsaw is what happens after the summit. Will NATO in fact reach the requisite consensus to respond collectively in a crisis? Once again, just like after the Wales summit, the test will be the ability of the European NATO allies to deliver real military capabilities. Their record in the two years since Wales has been mixed at best. When it comes to spending money on defense, Europe has yet to recover from the long cycle of post-Cold War defense spending reductions, which accelerated in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown. Other than the United States’ commitment of $3.4 billion in new funding to shore up its presence in Europe, improvements in European military readiness have been incremental at best, and for the most part negligible. There has been some increase in defense spending since then (most of it occurring in the frontier states), but the agreement reached two years ago at Wales whereby the allies committed to maintain defense spending at 2 percent of GDP has been largely unmet. As 2015 came to a close only four of the European allies had reached the 2 percent target. Likewise, NATO has yet to fully deliver on the decision made at Wales to stand up a NATO spear force (VJTF) of 5,000 troops ready to deploy on short notice. Recently two senior NATO generals admitted that in a crisis the VJTF could not be deployed when needed.
The picture looks better when it comes to the commitment to carry out more exercises, but their size is no match for the tempo of snap exercises the Russians have been conducting. In 2015 Russia conducted snap exercises involving some 300,000 troops. More importantly, Moscow has shown repeatedly that it can quickly mobilize 40,000–60,000 whereas NATO continues to grapple with procedural barriers to moving troops and equipment across the continent. This is key, as there is no consensus within the alliance to establish permanent bases along the northeastern frontier, making the ability to reinforce NATO’s skeletal presence in the northeast—basically just a trip wire—essential if the current rotational model is to have deterrent value.
Ten years ago the European allies provided about half of NATO’s military capabilities; today their contribution reaches barely 25 percent of the total, with the United States providing 70 percent of all the defense spending. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, spends only 1.1 percent of its GDP on defense. Reportedly, plans announced by Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to buy an additional hundred Leopard 2 tanks have been shelved, and the purchase of the TLVS air and missile defense system has been deferred. While Berlin plans to increase defense spending from 34.3 billion euros to 39.2 billion euros by 2020, half of this year’s 1.7-billion-euro increase will go to pay raises and personnel costs. To put matters in perspective, at the end of the Cold War the Bundeswehr had 600,000 personnel; today that number is set at 177,000. Von der Leyen announced the first increase of military personnel since the Cold War by 14,300 over the next seven years, with the near-term target of a mere 7,000 officers and men.
The German story is unfortunately typical of what has been happening across the continent, whereby dire warnings of Russia’s aggressive intentions are met with half-hearted commitments and underinvestment in capabilities. The NATO frontier states are doing better overall: Estonia and Poland are at 2 percent of GDP on defense, and Lithuania has reintroduced conscription. However, their efforts alone won’t change the overall balance of power in the region.
The United States is thus the key actor in determining how the upcoming NATO summit will play itself out, and whether the decisions it delivers will impress Russia as credible. In much of Moscow’s propaganda, NATO is painted as an expansionist organization intent on aggressively hemming Russia in. In reality, however, because of the perennial shortfalls in European defense spending, Russian military planners focus predominantly on U.S. capabilities and deployments, with Putin’s generals seeing not so much NATO along its borders but a swath of territory that could host U.S. bases and depots.
So it remains up to the U.S. government, as it plants tripwires in the region, to ask the fundamental question: What happens if these wires are tripped? And since this cannot be adequately addressed without taking into account the nuclear and maritime dimensions of a putative conflict in the Nordic/Baltic/Central European region, it forces the question of what resources the United States should be prepared to commit to convince Moscow to take NATO’s Article 5 guarantees seriously. If deterrence along the northeastern flank is to be credible, the United States should plan to deploy capabilities that can decisively break through and destroy the Russian A2AD bubble over the region. These capabilities need to be exercised in order to have the requisite deterrent credibility, or else they will be treated in Moscow as yet another political declaration of intent and not as assets that can be used in a crisis.
Although such steps do not constitute a catchall solution, they are bound to complicate Putin’s planning, thereby incrementally increasing deterrence in the region. What’s more, since the current Russian military strategy stipulates the use of nuclear weapons, any such deployments require a serious discussion of the role nuclear weapons are likely to play in a putative conflict in Europe. This discussion needs to take place inside the U.S. government and inside NATO, with the goal of building a consensus that has now been lacking for years. But given the current political climate in the United States, such a debate will have to wait for the next President. And although the United States has committed orders of magnitude more resources to the reinforcement of NATO’s northeastern flank, it’s still not enough to remove the ambiguity inherent in NATO’s current posture.
In debates over the deteriorating security along the northeastern flank, there are two questions that will make or break the upcoming summit. What are Putin’s intentions going forward, especially as he faces increasingly depleted resources? And can there be a meaningful deterrent posture against Russia unless the United States fundamentally rethinks its relations with Europe and recommits to a Europe-focused strategy? The first question means looking at a range of scenarios below the extreme case scenario of an all-out Russian invasion, setting aside the circular debates about how long the Baltics or Poland could possibly defend itself, and putting in place capabilities and allocating resources that have genuine deterrent value. Still, extreme scenarios must be considered in the context not just of Russian capabilities, which at present dominate the region, but also of Russian intentions.
There can be no denying that, as presently postured, NATO cannot defend itself against an all-out Russian attack. Still, this diagnosis also requires us to answer a larger question as to what conditions at home and abroad would prompt Putin to decide to take the horrendous risk of jumping NATO’s redline and galvanizing the United States into action. Much of the current discussion focuses on the Baltics, but considering the risk there and the fact that Russia has historically selected areas where it was not expected to move (who actually predicted that Putin would move into Crimea or Syria?), the level of risk in the Baltics needs to be weighed against the possibility of Russia’s probing further south, into Moldova, possibly deeper into Ukraine or, once Nursultan Nazarbayev has departed from the scene, possibly into Kazakhstan. However, this calculus does not absolve the allies from taking the necessary steps to ensure that NATO would be able to respond in an Article 5 crisis in the Nordic/Baltic/Central European region. That means returning to the idea of permanent bases along the flank. These bases, while still just a partial solution, would communicate a level of determination on the part of the alliance that would complicate Russian planning.