As President Obama travels to Warsaw for his fifth and final NATO summit meeting, the alliance faces an extraordinary and growing list of threats: the terrorism of the Islamic State, the torrent of refugees pouring into the continent, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the fallout from Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Yet even in the face of these dangers, the preeminent challenge facing NATO is Russia’s threat to the alliance itself, which the Obama administration long refused to recognize and to which it has yet to respond in a sufficient manner. At this week’s summit, NATO should recommit itself to bolstering the defenses of its Baltic member states, who have become the targets of a Russian intimidation campaign designed to test the alliance’s commitment to its newest members.
The Growing Threat of a Revanchist Russia
Just days after the invasion of Crimea in 2014, the Department of Defense published its authoritative strategic guidance, known as the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). An essential premise of the 2014 QDR was that Russia could serve as a valuable partner in the pursuit of NATO’s most important objectives. “We will continue to work to achieve a Europe that is peaceful and prosperous,” said the QDR, “and we will engage Russia constructively in support of that objective.” Even if Russia had not just attacked Ukraine, there was little justification for such a sanguine view of Moscow’s intentions.
Since 2004, Russia had worked to subvert the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, conducted a cyberattack against Estonia, and brazenly invaded and occupied portions of Georgia. In a recent report for the Atlantic Council, President Obama’s former national security adviser, retired general Jim Jones and his co-author Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. envoy to NATO, described the implications of Moscow’s dangerous behavior: “Vladimir Putin aims to roll back western influence and democratic values in Europe. Russia’s aggressive military actions in Ukraine and Crimea and threats to Eastern Europe constitute the single greatest challenge to the alliance since the Cold War.” In turn, Jones and Burns write, “Transatlantic leaders must confront a jarring reality: the peace, security, and democratic stability of Europe can no longer be taken for granted.”
Russia has also conducted a systematic effort to rebuild its military power so that it has the means to pursue its revanchist objectives. Ian Brzezinski, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Russia has spent $700 billion over the past ten years to modernize its military, which it has exercised through drills simulating attacks against NATO countries. By no means do Russian forces today present the same kind of threat as the Soviet military at the height of the Cold War. However, Moscow’s re-energized armed forces have demonstrated their ability to conduct a semi-covert war in Ukraine, to intervene from a distance in Syria, and to pursue innovative tactics in the cyber and special-operations domains. Thus, Vladimir Putin has precisely the kind of forces required to conduct a persistent campaign of intimidation and subversion against NATO’s frontline states in Eastern Europe.
The Baltics in the Balance
For a quarter of a century, American presidents have continuously affirmed the nation’s commitment to a Europe that is whole and free. President Clinton made clear that NATO’s readiness to embrace new members is essential to achieving that vision. Six years ago, at the conclusion of NATO’s Lisbon summit, President Obama praised NATO as the most successful alliance in history because it had “nurtured young democracies and welcomed them into Europe that is whole and free.”
At the same time, American presidents have stated clearly that the vision of a Europe whole and free is in no way intended to exclude Russia. If it respects the rights of its citizens and the sovereignty of its neighbors, Russia can become part of Europe. Vladimir Putin has chosen repeatedly to reject that opportunity. Thus, to preserve a Europe whole and free, NATO must now protect its most exposed members.
The frontline states under the greatest threat today are Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. These Baltic States have a combined population of slightly more than 6 million inhabitants and cover an area of about 67,000 square miles, comparable in both respects to Missouri. Latvia and Estonia share 400 miles of border with Russia, a length that is comparable to the old West German border with the Warsaw Pact. Whereas hundreds of thousands of NATO troops defended that line, the Baltics each have a single light infantry brigade.
Only Lithuania, the southernmost of the Baltics, shares a border with any other NATO member states. A 64-mile stretch of its southern border is adjacent to Poland and is known as the Suwalki Gap. If Russia cut off the Gap in the opening phases of a conflict, it could prevent the alliance from sending reinforcements over land, while employing assets in nearby Kaliningrad to prevent reinforcement by sea. The Suwalki Gap, the Wall Street Journal reports, “has replaced the Fulda Gap as the focus for the current generation of Army officers.”
Military analysts and regional experts disagree about the extent of Baltic vulnerability to a Russian thrust. After conducting a series of wargames, RAND Corporation scholars reported that “the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, is 60 hours.” This would leave NATO with two unpalatable options: “a bloody counteroffensive . . . or to concede at least temporary defeat, with uncertain but predictably disastrous consequences for the Alliance and, not incidentally, the people of the Baltics.” General Ben Hodges, the head of U.S. Army forces in Europe, concurred with this grim assessment.
One shortcoming of the RAND wargames was their premise that Russia would launch overt armored thrusts that would confront NATO with a clear and immediate choice of whether to defend the Baltics or to expose as hollow the alliance’s commitment to collective defense. Instead, as it did in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia would likely rely on semi-covert forces — so-called “little green men” — to create the appearance of a conflict within one of the Baltic States. Amidst the confusion, Russia would reinforce the initial wave, seeking to create a fait accompli before NATO could reach a consensus on the fundamental question of whether an attack was underway. To defend against this type of attack would require very different capabilities then the ones necessary to blunt an armored thrust.
Furthermore, while Russia might be able to advance rapidly if its assault began today, there are potent and cost-effective measures that the Baltic States themselves could take in order to make a Russian advance far more difficult. Wess Mitchell, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, prescribes a set of defensive measures that comprise a so-called “porcupine” strategy, which would render the Baltics a very painful meal for a predator to digest. Deliberate flooding could narrow the already limited routes available to an invasion force. Landmines could litter the remaining routes, slowing the attackers’ advance. Defenders could pre-target artillery and anti-tank weapons to inflict heavy damage on Russian forces progressing through narrow channels.
Of course, even such improved defenses cannot deter an invader as effectively as armored combat brigades. As part of its European Reassurance Initiative, the Obama administration will begin to rotate an armored brigade through Eastern Europe. This represents a useful step forward, yet the brigade will be divided between the Baltics and other frontline states. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who recently retired after serving as NATO commander, recommends that “the United States should preposition the equipment for two or three additional armored brigades in eastern Europe, along with the supplies to sustain those forces through at least two months of intense conflict.” Even better, the U.S. should arrange for the long-term deployment of such brigades in order to deter Moscow, rather than waiting for a crisis erupt.
An Agenda for Warsaw
In the face of Russia’s relentless challenge to the peace and security of Europe, NATO members must not only reaffirm the values of the transatlantic alliance, but also commit the resources necessary to defend them.
In specific, the United States and other NATO members should:
‐Approve the deployment of multinational battalions to the Baltics. In June, NATO defense ministers agreed to deploy four multinational battalions to the Baltics and Poland on a rotational basis. However, as General Breedlove noted, “If these NATO battalions are to be an effective deterrent . . . they must be able to survive for at least a limited amount of time amidst an aggressive attack. They must have sufficient lethality to impose costs on an aggressor.” It would be better if these forces were deployed permanently, not rotationally.
‐Increase NATO defense spending. NATO members pledged in 2006 to spend 2 percent of their countries’ GDP on defense, yet additional spending cuts followed in subsequent years. At the 2014 summit in Wales, the alliance made a commitment to stop these declines and reach the 2 percent target within a decade. The next year, 17 of the alliance’s European members registered an uptick in their defense budgets, yet such marginal growth has no real impact on the alliance’s capabilities. In Warsaw, member states should commit to accelerating its pursuit of the 2 percent target.
‐Keep NATO’s door open to new members. In December 2015, the alliance formally offered membership to Montenegro, and member states are currently debating the country’s accession. The U.S. and other member states should ratify Montenegro’s Accession Protocol by the end of the year. In an open letter to President Obama and the U.S. Congress, more than 30 senior officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations write that Montenegro’s swift accession would “clearly reject the notion that any third party would possess a de facto veto on NATO enlargement.”
NATO in No Way Obsolete
Only those who are blind to Putin’s hostile agenda could arrive at the mistaken conclusion that NATO is obsolete. On the diplomatic front, 28 nations speaking as one carry far greater weight than the U.S. alone or an ad hoc group of interested parties. On the military front, the U.S. currently maintains a highly disproportionate share of the alliance’s firepower. However, the European members of the alliance spend more than $250 billion a year on defense and have valuable assets that can lessen the burdens carried by the United States. Nothing would please the Kremlin more than for the U.S. to turn its back on the alliance. In contrast, strong U.S. leadership will encourage additional investments in defense along with a firmer commitment to defend the frontline states directly threatened by Moscow’s intimidation.