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Can NATO Reassure its Eastern Members and Deter Putin?

By John Gennace, Transatlantic Security and Global Governance Analyst


September 14th marked the start of Russia’s largest military exercise this year – Center 2015 – in which 95,000 Russian military personnel conducted war games designed to test the readiness of forces to “contain an international armed conflict.” The exercise, which took place in the immense region between the Urals and Siberia, came on the heels of a very active year for the Russian military. In August alone, it held 79 drills. For NATO’s concerned eastern members, and the Alliance as a whole, the message is clear – the eastern flank of the Alliance requires more robust reassurance and deterrence against an increasingly aggressive Russian military.

There remains, however, a disconnect between NATO’s strong rhetoric condemning Russian actions in Ukraine and how the Alliance’s actions are perceived on the ground.  While in Berlin this past June, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stressed that “as Russia aggressively modernizes its military capabilities and warfighting doctrine, it’s also actively seeking to undermine NATO….”  He went on to emphasize that although the United States does not seek conflict with Russia, it “will defend…[its] allies, the rules-based international order, and…stand up to Russia’s actions and their attempts to reestablish a Soviet-era sphere of influence.” A similar view was conveyed almost three weeks earlier by NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg when he argued that “[w]hat we see is more unpredictability, more insecurity, more unrest…[however] I believe we don’t see any immediate threat against any NATO country from the east.” Even so, NATO’s eastern member states – from Estonia to Bulgaria – are lobbying hard for permanent NATO bases on their territories as a deterrent against further Russian adventurism. This is a plan that Germany and some other NATO members oppose on the grounds that it violates a 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia known as the Founding Act, which obliges NATO not to place “substantial combat forces” in Central and Eastern Europe.

Although NATO has significantly increased the frequency of its exercises in an attempt to supplement its rhetorical reassurances and deterrence, their size and scope pale in comparison to Russia’s war gaming.  While Russian exercises routinely include tens of thousands of personnel mobilized in as little as 48-72 hours from all branches of its armed forces, recent NATO exercises are minuscule by comparison, sometimes involving only a few thousand troops and as little as a few hundred. For instance, the NATO exercise Allied Spirit II was conducted August 4th-24th with 1,600 troops from Canada, Hungary, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. The exercise Saber Guardian/Rapid Trident 15, which went from July 20th-31st, was a “regional command post exercise and field training exercise that focused on peacekeeping and stability operations” and was conducted with 1,800 troops from 18 countries. These exercises fall short of reassuring NATO’s eastern members and deterring the threat posed by Russia – a threat that the newly appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, emphatically described as “the greatest threat to…[U.S.] national security.” While NATO is scheduled to kick-off Trident Juncture 15, its largest exercise in a decade involving 36,000 troops, it will take place in Western Europe, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea – quite far from Eastern Europe, where a strong NATO presence would reassure concerned member states and is arguably more fitting.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to NATO effectively reassuring its members and deterring future Russian aggression is disagreement over the threat itself. Member states on NATO’s eastern flank are singularly focused on Russia as memories of Soviet domination inform their views on collective defense. Meanwhile, member states to the south and west are fixated on ISIS and the unfolding refugee and migrant crisis. A recent Pew study found potentially deep divisions within NATO, revealing that “at least half of Germans, French and Italians say their country should not use military force to defend a NATO ally if attacked by Russia.” Yet “coalitions of the willing” risk undermining NATO’s cohesiveness and, by extension, its reassurance and deterrence value.

Be that as it may, the near-term Russian threat remains and the U.S. must be the driving force within NATO to assume an appropriate reassurance and deterrence posture in the east.  While the U.S. has moved additional heavy weapons and equipment into the region, more should be done. The U.S. should provide Ukraine with defensive weapons in order to a) deter further Russian intervention and b) if deterrence fails, to inflict upon Russian forces such severe damage that it will reconsider its Ukraine policy and seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.  Additionally, as has been argued by some, NATO should revive the Long-Term Defense Plan (LTDP) with a particular emphasis on Eastern Europe’s security. An updated LTDP would support several workable concepts such as the prepositioning of weapons and material, the creation of a U.S. Corps headquarters based in Poland, and standardizing Eastern European forces with U.S. weapons and communications systems for optimal interoperability with U.S. and other NATO forces.

For many, the notion that Russia could pose a serious military threat to Europe seemed fantastic prior to its incursion into Ukraine in February 2014. Had the Alliance more accurately interpreted Russian intentions in the months leading up to its annexation of Crimea, it could have strengthened its deterrence posture toward Russia by taking steps such as deploying forces along its eastern flank.  As we see yet again with the “surprise” of Russia’s military deployment to Syria, Putin possesses the will to move aggressively on states bordering NATO. Therefore, it is time for NATO to boost its reassurance and deterrence value or risk more unpleasant surprises from Putin elsewhere on its periphery or on Alliance territory.


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