‘We do not seek a cold, let alone a hot war with Russia. We do not seek to make Russia an enemy. But make no mistake: We will defend our allies, the rules-based international order, and the positive future it affords us all.”
So said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on June 22. Secretary Carter is on a dual-focus mission in Europe: He wants to deter Russian president Vladimir Putin from further military adventures, and to reassure American allies that President Obama is committed to NATO. Pursuing those ends, he outlined yesterday how the U.S. military will contribute to NATO’s new “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force” (VJTF). While America’s exact contribution to the VJTF isn’t yet clear, it will involve aviation-lift capabilities (which EU nations sorely lack), intelligence-gathering platforms (which EU nations sorely lack), navy and air-force assets (which EU nations sorely lack), and special-operations forces (which most EU nations sorely lack).
But while the VJTF seems significant on paper, its physical reality is very different. Consider NATO’s VJTF fact sheet. To be sure, promising a force that can “deploy within days . . . comprised of a multinational brigade (approximately 5,000 troops), with up to five battalions, supported by air, maritime, and special forces,” the VJTF sounds strong. But then comes the caveat: “Some elements will be ready to move within two to three days.” Translation: Only part of the VJTF will actually be able to deploy rapidly. And that’s a big problem — because Russia isn’t playing games.
After all, Mr. Putin has deployed significant forces in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave that sits between Poland and Lithuania. And Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, is only 130 miles from Russia’s western border. This means two things. First, Russian armored divisions could overwhelm Estonia’s tiny military in short order. Second, with the VJTF’s inability to quickly bring heavy weapons to bear, NATO forces would face rapid encirclement from Russian forces in Kaliningrad and Russia proper. In turn, Russia could realistically hope to carve a robust defensive line across the Baltics.
NATO knows this. And so does Mr. Putin. As I say, it’s a big problem.
Only part of the VJTF will actually be able to deploy rapidly. And that’s a big problem — because Russia isn’t playing games.
Nevertheless, NATO’s physical gaps only reflect the alliance’s broader strategic weakness. NATO members like to talk about countering aggression, but they absolutely do not walk the walk. Consider that at last September’s NATO summit, alliance members pledged to increase their defense budgets. But now, not even a year later, NATO’s total-defense expenditure seems set to fall. In the Kremlin, those statistics will be read as a sure sign of NATO’s crumbling capability and its lack of interest in deterrence. Indeed, Russia already knows that most Europeans favor appeasement over deterrence. This is a factor in the VJTF’s weakness. Because EU states have chosen not to invest in the nuts and bolts of military capability – such as airlift assets to bring personnel and heavy equipment into battle — NATO lacks the means to rapidly bring decisive force to the battlefield.
It gets worse. As I explained recently, even America’s traditional steadfast ally, Britain, is now helping to burn NATO’s credibility. As Richard Norton-Taylor notes, the British government claims that its defense cuts are compensated for by “soft power” aid spending. This lunacy shows just how unserious NATO’s defense posture has become. Do we seriously expect President Putin’s ambitions in Eastern Europe to be deterred by Western development projects in Africa?
Regardless, all of this ultimately speaks to NATO’s collapsing strategic bridge: Its deterrent purpose is no longer bound to credible military means. We must face up to this reality. As I’ve argued repeatedly, NATO’s effectiveness demands both credible resolve and nuanced strategy. But it also demands honesty. President Putin won’t be deterred by PR-focused announcements and initiatives. He measures NATO deterrence by assessing NATO’s means of resistance, and the willingness of NATO leaders to employ those means.
Choosing defense acronyms over military investment isn’t a strategy of deterrence. It’s an invitation to invasion.