Baltic Peace Through NATO Strength
Borisov, Belarus. Morning. After three days of defensive operations, most of the mobilized Russian ground forces have reached their designated fighting positions. T-72B3s from 1st Guards Tank Army are advancing westward after crushing the enemy’s main forces. Similar victories and advances are taking place in nearby Pravdinsky, Luzhsky, and Strugi Krasniye. Throughout Belarus, key elements of the Russian Army use artillery to devastate troop formations and destroy the equipment of Veyshnoria—the enemy. Three days later, Russia ultimately overwhelms and defeats the enemy with an artillery-focused, ground-based push fortified by air superiority from combat aircraft, air defense platforms, anti-submarine warfare, and cooperation with Belarusian armed forces. The enemy is crushed. Veyshnoria is defeated. The date is September 20, 2017. Russia’s Zapad military exercise has concluded.
The Russian joint forces operation against Veyshnoria was only a war game, but the scenario and its circumstances were heavily grounded in reality. Veyshnoria was not some fantastically aggressive state concocted by Moscow’s defense apparatus. It was an equally capable and conventional enemy that starkly resembled a Baltic state defended by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) armed forces.
After Veyshnoria was “defeated” and Russian military personnel (ranging anywhere from 13 to 67,000) returned home, it became increasingly clear to the NATO alliance that the Zapad exercise was a Russian dress rehearsal for a fight against NATO in the Baltic region. Even worse, it seems that Russia may be the only actor worthy of a curtain call. On October 1, 2017, the New York Times published an alarming appraisal of the exercise from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which states: “Russia’s forces are becoming more mobile, more balanced and capable of conducting the full range of modern warfare.” An assessment highlighting Russia’s growing power is particularly worrying, since the country has established itself as a revisionist world power dedicated to upending the postwar, rules-based international order, shattering NATO, and challenging America’s unipolar status.
In confronting Russia and its revisionist agenda, the U.S. must dismiss recent suggestions to shift American troops from Germany to Poland, or to not militarily reinforce its Baltic allies for fear of antagonizing Russia. The time for open dialogue and pacifism on the border is over. The Kremlin may have lowered the Soviet flag more than two decades ago, but its current occupant has been as provocative and aggressive as the men who ruled under the gold hammer and sickle—if not worse. It is time for the American military to increase its involvement, manpower, and spending in Europe to weaken Russia’s belligerency, attack its credibility, protect its allies, and ensure the preservation of NATO and the international order. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has already laid sufficient groundwork to achieve these objectives. It calls on the Secretary of Defense to “enhance U.S. forward presence, combat capability, and capacity in Europe; maintain robust security assistance for allies and partners in Europe; promote reforms within…NATO; and enhance multilateral security cooperation.” The legislation also requires the Secretary to report on the “feasibility and advisability” of permanently stationing an Army heavy brigade combat team (BCT) in Poland. The NDAA has offered a comprehensive and pragmatic strategy of strength for countering Moscow. Secretary Mattis, the Pentagon, and the White House should accept and execute these recommendations, and more, to thwart Russia’s revisionist ambitions, to deter and defend a Russian invasion of the Baltics, and to preserve peace in the region.
Deterring and Defending
NATO must be focused on deterring Russia and defending its Baltic allies from an invasion. The three Baltic states have already improved their national defense by increasing their armed forces, procuring new weapons platforms, and modernizing their capabilities, along with strengthening their interoperability with the other Baltic nations, NATO, and between their domestic military and civilian institutions. They have also enhanced their cyber and propaganda defense to combat Russia’s unconventional warfare prowess.
In recent months, NATO and EUCOM has shifted their “focus from security cooperation and engagement to deterrence and defense.” This shift began at the 2014 Wales summit with the creation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VTJF), which can respond “within a few days” to challenges arising “at the periphery of NATO’s territory.” At the 2016 Warsaw summit, NATO further bolstered Baltic security and demonstrated the West’s commitment to the region’s sovereignty by enhancing its forward presence (EFP) in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland with the deployment of four rotational, multinational battalion groups. Concurrently, the U.S. launched Operation Atlantic Resolve (OAR) which includes deploying a rotational armored brigade combat team (ABCT) throughout Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Germany, and the Baltic states.
These efforts are still not enough for two reasons. First, the Baltic states cannot withstand Russia’s unconventional warfighting capabilities. Second, from a conventional standpoint, a 2016 RAND report found that with current troop and equipment levels, Russia could overrun the three Baltic states in as little as 60 hours. Since Russia will use a lethal combination of conventional and unconventional means (or hybrid warfare) to brutally achieve its geopolitical objectives, effective defense and deterrence in the region depends on implementing policies that reduces the potential for Russian aggression across all types of conflict. Here are six ways to do it.
First, the U.S. needs to publicly voice its commitment to the security and sovereignty of the three Baltic republics.
As a calculated political actor, Putin understands that a Baltic invasion would presumably trigger a retaliatory and lethal response from NATO and the United States. This deterrence, however, is only legitimate if the United States continues to deepen its involvement and enhance its credibility in Eastern Europe. The first step is publicly and clearly voicing its commitment to the Baltic states. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ May 2017 trip to the Baltic region emphasized the American commitment to the three republics and Russia. More trips to the Baltic states or invitations to Washington should be made by Trump’s key national security staff, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. These continuous and consistent reaffirmations of American support and strength are crucial in not only demonstrating to the Baltics its promise to defend the region against Russian aggression but also in signaling to Russia that American can walk the walk if Russia ever aggresses against its allies. But signals from a Pentagon press conference are not enough. American hard power and a presence on the ground are a necessity.
Second, Secretary Mattis should implement the 2019 NDAA’s recommendation and permanently station a U.S. Army armored brigade combat team (ABCT) in Poland.
Governments on NATO’s eastern periphery fear that the leading allies are not fully committed to their defense. While the U.S. operates a nine-month rotational ABCT in Poland, this commitment can be withdrawn at any time. Forward-stationing U.S. forces in Poland, however, signals an enduring commitment to its allies and Russia because of the cost and longevity associated with a permanent troop presence. It will also foster better communication and relationships between American military and diplomatic leaders and their Polish counterparts. In only nine months, it is challenging for an ABCT’s commander to fully understand the situation on the ground, let alone draft a competitive strategy for deterrence and defense. A permanent presence will allow U.S. military leaders to develop trusting and fluid relationships with European officials, which only comes with time and prolonged interaction. This will enhance America’s understanding of the concerns and objectives of its allies while deepening interoperability with allies’ governments and institutions. Another reason for a permanent presence is money. John R. Deni, a professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, found that the recurring average annual fiscal costs of a rotationally deployed ABCT is $1.2 billion while a forward-stationed ABCT costs $1.06 billion, a difference of roughly $135 million.
Poland is the most practicable location for a forward-stationed ABCT in Europe. For the past year, Polish officials have routinely publicized their willingness to permanently host American troops (as they already do for rotational forces and large-scale exercises). These wishes were published this year in the Polish Ministry of National Defence’s “Proposal for a Permanent U.S. Presence in Poland.” In it, Poland offered to enter into a joint-basing agreement with the U.S. and to contribute $1.5-2 billion to help make American forward-stationing a reality. Poland’s decision to share the fiscal burden, in accordance with cheaper construction and living costs in Poland (compared to other European countries), makes the idea far more fiscally responsible than a continued Polish rotation or permanent presence elsewhere. In addition, a permanent presence will have a greater deterrence and defense effect on Russia. Moving America’s forward-stationing posture closer toward NATO’s periphery would reduce Moscow’s ability to overwhelmingly overrun the Baltics because U.S. and NATO forces would have shorter deployment times coming from Poland than Stuttgart. It would also reduce NATO’s weakness in the Suwalki Gap, a strip of land that connects Poland and Lithuania and could be used as a Russian land bridge between Kaliningrad and Belarus. Forward-stationing U.S. troops in Poland—and so close to the Suwalki Gap—would rule out another Russian invasion option. In short, a U.S. permanent presence in Poland is cheaper than a continued heel-to-toe rotation or forward-stationing elsewhere. It’s also a great insurance policy: significantly deterring Russian aggression while enhancing NATO defense and response times.
Third, the U.S. Army should increase the magnitude of rotational troop deployments and intensity of operations in the Baltics and Southeastern Europe.
While the rotational ABCT is currently headquartered in Poland, battalions and regiments are dispersed throughout Europe. They enhance the combat capability of Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Germany. After permanently stationing an ABCT in Poland, American forces must continue to assist as many Eastern European countries as they do now, but with more manpower. Instead of diverting Polish-stationed American troops to Southeastern Europe, the 173rd Airborne BCT stationed in Vicenza should rotate two light infantry or cavalry battalions in Romania and Bulgaria and two company-sized elements to Hungary on a yearly basis. These battalions should continue training and exercising in order to enhance multilateral security cooperation in the region, provide another layer of defense for the neighboring Baltics, and deter Russia by rotating troops near Belarus. The permanent ABCT in Poland would continue to rotate two battalions in Germany along with an added nine-month rotational deployment of one light infantry company to Lithuania, since it is the only Baltic nation capable of hosting a transitory American presence. By utilizing the 173rd BCT in Italy, the permanent ABCT in Poland will able to deepen its commit to the NATO periphery by diverting more resources to working, training, and defending Poland and the Baltics while ensuring a swift response time and safe supply line from Germany in the case of an attack.
Fourth, the U.S. should push for the creation of a NATO joint forces command structure in the Baltics.
A major problem for Baltic defense is the lack of a coordinated, multinational command structure. If Russia attacked today, operational and tactical decisions would be most likely made on the national-level, which would invite confusion and discord. The U.S. needs to encourage NATO leaders and relevant partners to create a NATO joint forces command structure in the Baltics in order to craft a systematic and ruthlessly efficient response plan to Russian aggression that maintains interoperability and leadership in a crisis.
Fifth, the U.S. should encourage the termination of the NATO-Russia Founding Act.
The main opponents to an increased or permanent NATO presence in the Baltic region have cited the NATO-Russia Founding Act as a primary reason for restraint. The 1997 act, which is a political agreement, not a legally binding treaty, stipulated that NATO would no longer permanently station sizable combat forces on the territory of former Warsaw Pact countries. In turn, Russia would “exercise similar restraint [as NATO] in its conventional force deployments in Europe.” However, the U.S. should not uphold commitments made during the Clinton and Yeltsin administrations. Nearly a quarter-century later, the European security environment has drastically shifted and exercising restraint out of obedience to this agreement will only limit America’s ability to deter and defend the Baltics. While this article’s advice to forward-station troops in Poland would violate this agreement, Putin’s annexation of Crimea, military exercises, and saber-rattling near the Baltics, proves that Russia has already flouted the parameters of this agreement. Thus, the U.S. should work with NATO to showcase Russian violations of the agreement while negotiating with its 27 other allies to declare this non-observed deal dead.
Sixth, the U.S. should pre-position more equipment in the three Baltic nations.
The Army has been working to update and upgrade its pre-positioned stocks (APS) throughout Europe. These stocks, which store equipment near areas of potential conflict, give the U.S. Army and NATO allies the ability to “rapidly equip forces” and “provide support until air and sea lines of communication can be established.” This gives commanders more flexibility in responding to Russian aggression while also significantly deterring such aggression. Due to the Obama administration’s 2015 decision to pre-position tanks, artillery, and other heavy equipment in the three Baltic nations, Latvia and Lithuania already have 5 UH-60M Black Hawks and 4 F-15C Eagles, respectively. The U.S. should pre-position a greater supply of tanks, artillery, ammunition, and other heavy equipment that have been requested by the three nations. To enhance greater Eastern access to these supplies, the U.S. should also help fund and expedite Baltic infrastructure improvements. In the event of a major invasion, NATO still would not have the hard power capability or capacity to respond and crush Russian aggression. This is partly because the Central and Eastern Europe infrastructure is typically nonexistent or deteriorating. Neither railways, bridges, nor roads have been built or refurbished in more than a quarter-century to efficiently transport large U.S. or NATO military equipment. An article in Financial Times documents the serious issues faced when transporting commercial goods to the Baltics in peacetime. One can only imagine what the situation would be like when transporting military equipment in wartime. The U.S., with help from the EU and NATO, should allocate more money for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) to finance and expedite improvements in railways and other infrastructure nodes throughout Eastern Europe. They should also work to implement the European Commission’s November 2017 action plan for improving military mobility, which includes exploring dual use civilian-military infrastructure projects.
These six recommendations should be complemented by ongoing NATO air policing missions, the maritime Exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS), and following through on the recent “Cyber Defence Pledge” by prioritizing cyber defense capabilities, collaboration, coordination, and training among allies.
Despite recent rumblings of restraint from Washington’s foreign policy leaders, now is not the time for appeasing Putin. He has the means, motive, and opportunity to invade the Baltics, just as he did in Georgia and Crimea. Anything less than a strong, resilient posture from America will send Moscow the wrong message and invite more aggression. The recent lack of U.S.-NATO strength has already allowed Putin to run rampant in the region. But demonstrating American strength and commitment in the region might neutralize the Russian bear. These six recommendations embody the American ethos of “peace through strength,” which has weakened global belligerency for more than two centuries. Let’s now use it to weaken Putin’s.
The author would like to thank Tom Donnelly, Colin Dueck, and Desmond Goodwin for their advice and comments.