All Not Quiet on NATO’s Eastern Front
The last NATO summit, in Wales in 2014, was defined by the recognition that with Russia having just seized Crimea and expanded war into Ukraine, the post–Cold War security regime in Europe was effectively being dismantled. Moscow was redrawing borders in Eastern Europe while accelerating its military modernization and pushing for a sphere of privileged interest along its periphery. Since then, the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania have called for NATO to return the alliance to its traditional collective territorial defense function, asking that permanent U.S. bases be established on their territories as a means to strengthen deterrence.
As NATO leaders prepare to meet in Warsaw on July 8–9, the deep security concerns of the states along the frontier remain. That is despite the fact that in the past two years the alliance has taken steps to begin addressing the deepening NATO-Russia military imbalance along the Eastern frontier, albeit short of the request for the permanent stationing of U.S. troops.
The persistent sense of insecurity in the region has been fed by Russia’s continued military buildup—it is midway through a ten-year $700 billion modernization program. In the process, Russia has created an effective anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) bubble over the Baltic and Black Seas, forcing the larger question of what capabilities NATO must have available if deterrence is to be credible, including the need for a new NATO maritime strategy. This is felt acutely in Poland, the Baltic states, and Romania, where the recent memory of Russian (Soviet) domination remains the immediate reference point for thinking about collective defense, generating persistent calls for a strategic adaptation of the alliance.
At its most basic level, countries in the region see the permanent stationing of significant and exercised U.S. and European capabilities as the sine qua non of credible deterrence. The small force NATO currently plans to deploy through the region is a start and will hopefully send the right political message to Moscow; however, it will not fundamentally change the odds when it comes to the region’s vulnerability to a Russian attack—hybrid or conventional. To buttress this political message, NATO needs to focus after the Warsaw summit on addressing the Russian A2/AD threat with deployed and exercised capabilities to complicate Moscow’s military planning and to significantly raise the deterrence threshold.
The Balts, Poles, and Romanians have been eager to buttress their NATO security guarantees with direct defense cooperation with the United States, seeking a strategic security relationship with Washington of the kind only a few select states enjoy today. The surge in Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine has transformed the relationship of the frontier allies with the United States into one in which an increasingly elaborate pattern of cooperation exists but the goal of creating a special defense relationship remains elusive. In addition to its commitment to NATO, Washington’s competing priorities in Asia and the Middle East—with the terrorist threat dominating the 2016 presidential election—make it doubtful that the United States will fundamentally alter its strategic priorities.
Russia’s March 2014 seizure of Crimea and the subsequent war in Ukraine not only changed the regional security equation but also sowed divisions between the old and new NATO allies as to their relative willingness to accept risk in relations with Russia. Russia’s aggression created a new de facto fault line across the continent between East and West. This fault line is arguably the most enduring phenomenon, marking the return to a peripheral status of what not so long ago was—with a considerable dose of optimism—construed as Central Europe. Notwithstanding what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate intentions might be going forward—and he has shown himself to be at least as much an opportunist as he is a strategist—there can be no denying that since 2014 Russia has retained escalation dominance in the East.
NATO’s Eastern flank countries are also acutely aware of what Putin’s military adventurism has done to change the very idea of NATO enlargement as an open process. Previously a largely cost-free exercise, enlargement has been transformed into a high-risk game in which declarations of intent to bring in new members now carry real potential security costs. By rolling into Ukraine, Putin has forced the most basic questions on the Western alliance: where Europe ends, and to what extent NATO is committed to its common defense. Though disagreement on strategy and priorities is nothing new in NATO, since the war in Ukraine internal debates have become particularized to an unprecedented degree, with the security optics of individual member states now driving the debate to a greater extent than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
For NATO’s frontier countries, the overarching questions in the current strategic debate are how different allies perceive the Russian threat and, consequently, how they envision the role of the alliance going forward. While the countries along the northeastern frontier see Moscow’s growing military prowess as an urgent threat, the situation is different for the largest players in Europe: France, to an extent the UK, and especially Germany, whose thinking about NATO is defined by a more generalized vision of an alliance whose very existence, as opposed to what it actually does, defines its core value. Hence, territorial defense issues, now dominant on the agenda for the frontier NATO states, are for the largest European countries important but somewhat tangential commitments against which to measure the totality of Europe’s relations with Russia.
The current military imbalance between Russia and the West along NATO’s Eastern periphery will endure as long as the alliance remains polarized over how to deal with Russia going forward and how much money to allocate to defense. NATO will go into the Warsaw summit having agreed to take helpful but limited steps to enhance its troop presence along the northeastern flank to signal to Russia that its commitment to common defense should not be questioned. On balance, this is a positive development, but the expectation that a small forward rotational multinational presence, plus one U.S. brigade deployed in Europe, will be enough to establish credible deterrence is a stretch.
Likewise, bringing Montenegro into NATO offers only a partial answer to the question that has been hanging over the alliance since the 2008 summit in Bucharest failed to offer Membership Action Plans to Ukraine and Georgia. Perhaps NATO enlargement is not dead, but it is now more constrained than ever, and the decision to include but one small state in the Western Balkans will not dispel allied diffidence on this issue.
In both cases—the efforts to provide robust deterrence and to reinvigorate enlargement—the Warsaw summit is shaping up to be a summit of partial solutions, with the overarching question of what the next steps should be yet to be addressed. The decisions announced at the summit will be publicly welcomed across the region, despite the fact they are but the first phase in what needs to be a series of future initiatives by the United States and its NATO allies to begin addressing in earnest the core question of the region’s deteriorating security.