Defending NATO’s Eastern Frontier: A Modest Proposal

The Ukraine crisis and Russia’s theft of Crimea have forced NATO to ponder territorial defense seriously again after two decades of neglect. No longer does the Alliance have the luxury of thinking that counterinsurgency in Afghanistan constitutes its top priority. The Poles, who thanks to their long history with Moscow saw the malevolent winds blowing early, got here first, announcing a national security strategy last fall that put primacy on territorial defense. Now the rest of NATO, or at least its Eastern members who experienced coerced membership in the Warsaw Pact, are following suit.

NATO must support this important effort, together. As I’ve previously discussed, it’s evident that we are entering a soft “Cold War 2.0” confrontation with Putin’s Russia and, while that struggle will not be as heavily military as the Cold War confrontation with the USSR was – indeed, the ideological and political aspects wrapped up in Special War versus the Kremlin will be considerably more important on any day-to-day basis than overtly military measures – neither will the military component be absent either.

Moreover, it’s clear that Moscow’s itching for at least a provocation with NATO, as evidenced by numerous aggressive Russian-spurred incidents recently, including alarming confrontations with even U.S. forces. That said, the risk of hazardous miscalculation is greater than overt aggression as, in any strictly military sense, Russia is dwarfed by the might of America and NATO put together, as the Russians understand. But a message of strong deterrence must be sent, and soon, if NATO expects to avoid more serious trouble emanating from the Kremlin.

Today, during President Barack Obama’s visit to Poland, the staunchly Atlanticist Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski reiterated Warsaw’s desire to have a real U.S. military base in their country. Although NATO has responded to the security worries of its Eastern members engendered by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine with fighter patrols and more military exercises, this will not suffice. The time has come for permanent deployments, and I want to sketch what a modest, sustainable proposal to defend NATO’s vulnerable Eastern frontier would look like.

To be blunt, NATO forces stationed in Eastern frontier states will be a tripwire, an ineffable sign that the Alliance will not brook overt aggression against its members. Moscow must clearly understand that even limited military moves against Eastern NATO members will be met with a military response from the full Alliance: only with such assurances can Russian misconduct be comfortably deterred.

The actual military contribution required to underwrite this insurance policy is modest. We need two heavy (meaning armored/mechanized) brigade combat teams (BCTs) in Poland – one American, one composite from across NATO. With about 5,000 troops per BCT, that’s only 10,000 soldiers in toto – hardly a large basing requirement, though they should be garrisoned in Poland’s east, close but not too close to the border with Belarus and Ukraine, to make the message impossible for Moscow to miss. (One of the oddities is that, due to Poland’s lingering Cold War basing structure, most of their heavy ground forces are located in the west of the country, far from where they need to be now.)

Additionally, NATO must station a heavy BCT in the Baltics as well, divided among Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, given the Russian threat to those small countries, and one of its three to four battle groups should be American (or Canadian: Ottawa pulled its forces out of Europe a generation ago, and it would be good to see them return). Similarly, another heavy BCT is required in Romania, given Moscow’s open designs on neighboring Moldova, and America can and should provide that, although if European NATO members wish to contribute forces too, so much the better.

In all, that’s 20,000 ground troops, only half of them American, at most. Even allowing for necessary support troops and air cover, plus air defense forces, we’re talking about 30,000 troops at the outside. The U.S. defense budget is dropping, as is our Army’s combat strength, but adding two BCTs to the two that are already serving in Europe, far from the Eastern frontier, is hardly onerous, not to mention that it represents a tiny fraction of the size of U.S. Army Europe at the end of the Cold War. There already have been complaints from some NATO members about adding forces in the East, but if the Atlantic Alliance, with its twenty-eight countries – many of which on a per capita basis are among the wealthiest and most comfortable on earth – cannot find a few thousand troops for this vital mission, one must ask what NATO is for any longer.

Last but not least, this newly created NATO Eastern Frontier Command ought to have a European – make that an Eastern European – general officer commanding (though with an American deputy). We are an Alliance and we must show that we are strong together, and that American troops need not always serve under an American general to demonstrate that strength and resolve. The sooner we start creating a viable defense for NATO’s vulnerable East, the sooner Russia will start behaving. Waiting will only encourage more Kremlin misconduct.

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