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Back to the Basics: Reshaping Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank

By Christopher Trzaska


When Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in early 2014, it sent shockwaves throughout the trans-Atlantic security establishment. It was the largest and most brazen land grab by a major European power on the territory of another sovereign state since the Second World War. It came as part of a trend of increasingly aggressive moves by Russia to reassert itself on the world stage and undermine the West. Since then, NATO has been left scrambling to find a way to adapt its outdated deterrence posture to work in a rapidly changing security landscape. Member states, particularly those in Eastern Europe, have begun to wonder if they are going to find themselves in the crosshairs of Russia’s revanchist President, Vladimir Putin. In order to reassure them and establish a deterrence posture effective in the 21st century, NATO must overhaul its conventional deployments, develop an effective cyber strategy and strengthen its internal political commitments to the fundamental mission of common defense.

At its core, NATO’s central mission is to deter and if necessary repel a Russian attack on European soil. However, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States saw little utility in maintaining a massive military presence on the European continent and shifted its focus elsewhere. In response to the September 11 attacks (which remains the only instance of a member state invoking the mutual defense clause in Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty), NATO began to move beyond its traditional mission of conventional deterrence and involved itself in costly and extended counterinsurgency and regime change missions in Afghanistan and Libya. Across the board, NATO’s conventional capabilities declined. Investments in key areas like cruise missiles, tanks, aerial maneuver warfare and force replenishment were slashed or canceled in order to free up resources for long term counterinsurgency campaigns.

These decisions, which may have made sense in the post-9/11 world, have left NATO drastically unprepared for the possibility of a Crimea-style attack on an Eastern member state. Simulations of a Russian attack on the Baltics for example have demonstrated that, even with a small US force of a few battalions, the capitals of the three Baltic states would fall within 30-60 hours. US forces scattered all over Europe would find it difficult to mount an effective counterattack in the face of advanced Russian surface-to-air and ground launched long range cruise missiles. NATO would be forced to make a very tough decision. Either commit to launching a full scale conventional counterattack to retake the occupied countries or determine that the cost of such a counterattack is prohibitively high and thus cede control of three member states to Russia, breaking the foundational promise NATO is predicated on.

In order to avoid a situation like this, NATO must dramatically expand both its conventional capabilities as well as expand the number of forces deployed to the continent. For years, the United States has deployed thousands of troops to Eastern Europe on a rotational basis. These forces, while fully combat capable, are mainly a political statement demonstrating US resolve to its nervous allies. Most US forces in Europe remain garrisoned in safer countries like Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In an actual conflict, these forces may struggle to reach the Baltics before the Russians.

Thus, the United States should look to permanently station forces in all three Baltic states, moving troops out of safer more distant countries and positioning them closer to the front lines of any potential Eastern European conflict. Russia knows that under NATO’s current force posture, so long as it can defeat the isolated US presence in the Baltics, it can achieve its goals. A permanent allied presence in the Baltics capable of holding the line against a serious Russian assault would go a long way in reassuring three of NATO’s most vulnerable members and greatly reduce the likelihood of further physical Russian aggression. Currently, the rotational forces that the United States has deployed to the Baltics act as tripwires; forces designed to bear the full brunt of an enemy assault and suffer massive casualties in order to jolt shocked NATO allies into action in the event of an attack. These forces are immorally condemned to die in the early stages of a Russian Baltic invasion in the hopes that their deaths will push NATO allies to act. Russia knows these forces are not designed to ward off an attack. Their deterrence value lies in the outrage their mass slaughter might hypothetically prompt. A significant permanent force capable of conducting sustained high-intensity combat would actually be able to repulse a Russian assault on the Baltics. Such a deployment would force the Russians to understand that an all out invasion is more trouble than it is worth, forcing them to consider more risky and ineffective tactics like cyber or hybrid warfare to achieve their revanchist goals.

Deterred from an all out physical assault, Russia would likely look to other methods to achieve its aims. It has consistently demonstrated a willingness to use cyberspace to attack and undermine the West. In order to confront this, NATO states must agree to establish clear lines that delineate what kinds of cyberattacks would trigger a collective response under Article V. Cyberattacks by state (or state sponsored) actors on critical infrastructure like electrical grids, telecommunications networks, health care systems, or classified government systems should be considered equivalent to physical attacks for the purposes of collective defense. NATO should also seek to clearly lay out what kinds of responses to such cyberattacks are on the table. NATO already recognizes that cyber attacks fall within the purview of Article V, however it only commits to evaluating those attacks on a “case by case” basis. NATO should lay out specifically what responses various kinds of cyberattacks merit and if necessary, respond with force to a devastating cyberattack.

None of these deterrence policy changes are possible, however, without broad and durable domestic political support across the alliance. There has been a disturbing trend of waning support for NATO among key alliance members. Former US President Donald Trump reportedly considered pulling the United States out of the alliance several times during his tumultuous presidency, a decision that likely would have spelled NATO’s demise and had disastrous global consequences. French President Emmanuel Macron has called the alliance “brain dead” and repeatedly sought to build an “EU Army” to reduce the continent’s reliance on an increasingly unreliable United States. While French discomfort with NATO is certainly not new, Macron’s commentary fits in with the broader trend of discord within the 72 year old alliance.

In order for its collective security guarantee to work, both enemies and allies alike must believe it will be taken seriously by the entire alliance. America’s Republicans must emphatically recommit themselves to the idea of common transatlantic defense. Should Donald Trump run for President again in 2024, he must unequivocally commit to defending any NATO ally that formally invokes Article V and Congressional Republicans must continue to hold their party’s leader accountable. Other countries must step up too. French President Macron must abandon his plans to create a European Army outside of the NATO command structure. Germany’s likely new chancellor Olaf Scholz must accelerate Germany’s path toward meeting the NATO standard of 2% of GDP being spent on defense.

As NATO has drifted away from its conventional deterrence roots, it has experienced a crisis of confidence that has in turn fueled internal discontent. Should the alliance get back to the basics of deterring an increasingly belligerent Russia and shift away from draining and controversial nation building efforts, it stands to claw back some of its sagging support. Countries like France, Germany, and Italy would likely find it easier to continue supporting an alliance defending European freedom and security than one committed to spreading democracy to faraway deserts.

NATO is a historic alliance and has served as a guarantor of global peace for over 70 years. Formed in the ashes of the worst conflict humanity has ever seen, NATO helped ensure that the Cold War never turned hot and ushered in the most peaceful period in European history. It successfully adapted to the horror of 9/11 and demonstrated the utility of the concept of collective security. However, the world has changed. NATO must permanently station allied forces in nervous Eastern European member states, codify and modernize its cyber policies, and reaffirm its political commitments to the idea of common defense. Should it take these steps, NATO can deter future Russian aggression and reestablish itself as an indispensable player in global politics.


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