The INF Treaty has collapsed on the basis of Russian violation. Many seem to think that we are on the verge of a repeat of the 1980s, complete with Russian missiles aimed at Europe and new variants of American Euromissiles to counter them.
Russia does pose a threat to NATO Europe’s security. The way to deal with this is not, however, to respond to Russia’s new land-based missiles with deployments in Europe of new American ground launched systems that can reach deep into Russia. Such an effort risks replaying the divisive ‘80s-era Euromissile fight but without its benefits since a new generation of such long-range missiles would do little to solve the fundamental defense problem NATO faces today.
This problem is basically a product of the significant local military and geographical advantages Russia enjoys over Eastern NATO. Moscow’s most dangerous plausible strategy is the fait accompli. Moscow could use so-called “little green men” and disinformation to confuse an issue over, say, the Russian speaking population of a Baltic state. It could then – as it did in eastern Ukraine -- rapidly deploy military and para-military units into the area of the “uprising.” It could also use its modernized conventional forces to harden its gains by establishing an “anti-access/area denial” umbrella extending from Russian territory over NATO’s. Finally, it could – explicitly or implicitly – seek to rely on the threat of selective nuclear escalation to persuade the rest of NATO not to mount the counteroffensive needed to eject these occupying forces. The key to such a strategy of the fait accompli is success at relatively low cost, leaving NATO no options but a far wider, riskier war or acquiescence.
No one outside the Kremlin can know for sure whether Russia actually plans to employ its forces in this way – although the record of Ukraine and Georgia is worryingly instructive. What is clear, however, is that, were it to choose to do so, Russia has the needed capability. It should be a goal of U.S. and European policy to use diplomacy to attenuate Russia’s alienation from the West and its interest in undermining a stable Europe, but in the meantime we must be prepared to defend ourselves.
This is not a problem that will be solved by threatening targets deep into Russia. The fundamental problem here is that today Russia can get into the Baltics “the firstest with the mostest” – and thus potentially produce a fait accompli long before a countervailing NATO response can arrive.
Fortunately, the Alliance has more than enough power – correctly deployed and readied – to address this, and it has a good framework to do so. Nuclear capability is crucial, and the United States is rightly committed to effectively deterring Russian selective nuclear escalation, including through developing a low-yield warhead for the D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile. But much of this is really a problem of conventional forces. The United States is committing more resources to the European theater, as testified in successive European Defense Initiatives across administrations and the growing focus of the U.S. military services on preparedness for a European contingency.
But this is not and cannot be just an American effort. Germany in particular has pledged to gradually increase its defense spending and its commitment to collective defense. Poland has markedly increased its defense spending and invested in significant capabilities to arrest a Russian assault on its own. Others, like the Scandinavian countries and the Baltic states and have increased their efforts.
This is all to the good. But to be effective, these investments should align to a reasonably shared and more focused strategic goal. Fortunately, this is provided by a framework laid out in the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy developed under the leadership of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis and specifically designed for alliance cohesion and defense. This Strategy emphasizes the crucial importance of blunting a Russian assault against NATO. The purpose of blunting is to ensure that NATO can effectively counter aggression at and from its inception, by defeating limited interventions and gaining time for necessary re-enforcements to counter more massive attacks. Concretely, this means that U.S. and other NATO forces must increasingly be focused on arresting and ideally denying Russian ability to rapidly seize allied territory. If Moscow is left unable to rapidly seize and consolidate its defenses over allied territory, a fait accompli strategy will not work.
But this requires a change in the way NATO nations posture, ready, and develop their militaries. In particular, defense investments, deployments, and planning across NATO should focus on this blunting function.
Indeed, spending money wisely on this challenging but attainable priority blunting mission is as, if not more, important as what the NATO allies’ total topline defense budget is.
Mishandled, the INF controversy could threaten to jeopardize the cohesion of the Alliance. But there is no need to do so. The steps needed to effectively defend NATO are ones that can be taken without a repeat of the 1970s and 1980s.
Elbridge Colby is the Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. He served as lead official in the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Walt Slocombe served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 1994-2001 and as Deputy Under Secretary in 1979-1981 during the initial decisions regarding the deployment of Euromissiles.
This article was originally published on April 3, 2019 in The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Image credit: Press Office, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).