August 13, 2015

The United States, NATO, and Dissuading Russian Aggression

By Elbridge Colby

This past June, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that Washington would pre-position heavy military equipment in eastern and central Europe, a move that would allow the United States to respond more quickly and effectively to Russian aggression toward NATO’s exposed eastern member states. Once deployed, the equipment would serve as a physical sign of commitment of the U.S. willingness to protect NATO allies, and would facilitate further movement of U.S. forces into the region in the event of an attack against NATO frontline states by Moscow. Positioning U.S. military equipment forward is a welcome step, but it does not go far enough in deterring potential Russian aggression and coercion, not least because these deployments represent only a modest force in the face of the power and capabilities Russia could bring to bear in the event of war in the area.

Accordingly, NATO (or, if the alliance as a whole cannot agree to take such action, the United States and other interested members) should pursue a dual-track approach toward the problem that strengthens the alliance’s military posture in the exposed frontline states while simultaneously providing incentives for Moscow to reduce its military threat to these states by offering to limit these deployments. One prong of this policy should be to deploy troops, heavy equipment, and support and headquarters components to exposed NATO members in eastern Europe beyond what the United States has proposed, and do so on a permanent basis, beyond the smaller and avowedly temporary deployments pledged in June. The second prong should be for NATO to propose a new conventional arms control arrangement that would substantially limit (or even roll back) such deployments in exchange for the verifiable withdrawal and exclusion of particularly threatening Russian forces from areas close to NATO territory.

Measures to beef up NATO’s defenses in northeastern Europe in particular are necessary due to Russia’s local military superiority around the shores of the eastern Baltic. With its military advantages, Moscow could invade and occupy portions of the Baltic states and possibly even Poland with relative ease and speed, and thereby present Washington and its NATO partners with a fait accompli. Once situated on NATO territory, Russian forces would be difficult and painful to dislodge, necessitating a bloody military campaign that some NATO states would be reluctant to undertake. The alliance would therefore be well served by having a serious local defense in the area to preclude such a Russian capability. The force would not need to singlehandedly repel a determined Russian attack but, rather, would need to be able only to materially slow, complicate, and retard such an incursion, while also enabling the more effective, secure, and rapid reinforcement of such forces by NATO elements coming from out of the area.

As a consequence, NATO and the United States should build a better defense in Eastern Europe—especially within the Baltics. This should go beyond what the Defense Department announced in June, which represents a step in the right direction but is rotationally manned and thinly spread across NATO’s full eastern perimeter. A more adequately potent posture would emphasize forces designed for territorial defense, especially heavier forces, as these would diminish Moscow’s ability to seize territory quickly and easily. Their presence would also be more likely to dissuade Russian aggression, as any attempt to seize NATO ground in the face of such forces would thus be a much more formidable and dicey proposition that would require a much larger and more brazen effort than currently required. Such an attack would make a NATO response more clearly justifiable and therefore more likely, and thus should encourage caution in Moscow. A stronger deterrent would therefore contribute to—rather than detract from—stability. Larger deployments would also be compatible with a reasonable interpretation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, even if the act is now of diminished applicability, given Russia’s aggressiveness in the last year and a half.

Although the pursuit of a stronger deterrent would provide Moscow with reasons for restraint in the Baltics and NATO Europe, pursuing this approach alone would be unwise. Rather, NATO should also propose negotiations with Russia on a new conventional arms control arrangement for Europe. At a minimum, such an agreement should verifiably ensure that Moscow could not get a jump on NATO with its conventional forces by limiting the number and types of Russian forces deployed within a certain distance of the Baltic states and Poland, along with inspections and data exchanges to verify the observance of such limits. In return, the United States and NATO should be willing to agree to appropriately comparable limits on their forces in the area.


From NATO’s perspective, such a conventional arms control regime would mitigate Russia’s threat to the alliance’s vulnerable eastern members. Contrarily, if Moscow rebuffed the offer, its recalcitrance would shift the blame for increased tensions to Russia, thereby generating vital political support in Europe for U.S. and NATO deployments. The United States and NATO pursued a similar dual-track approach in the 1970s and 1980s when the United States deployed intermediate-range nuclear weapons to Europe, then negotiated them away as a bargaining chip that removed the Soviet systems that had prompted their deployment in the first place.

This pact would benefit not only NATO but Moscow as well. Concluding such an agreement with NATO could prevent (or roll back) the deployment of substantial Western forces on Russia’s doorstep while allowing Moscow to maintain suitable defensive positions in its territories bordering NATO. Furthermore, a simple rejection of the proposal would paint Moscow further into a political corner, demonstrating to the world an unreasonable unwillingness to engage with the alliance. In fact, a real danger is that Moscow might agree to negotiations and then hope to stymie NATO deployments as it slow-rolled the talks. For this reason, the alliance should proceed with the deployments even as it negotiates with Moscow.

Arms control efforts should not be limited to those to which Moscow might formally agree. Rather, NATO should also take unilateral steps to reduce potential misunderstandings by making their force deployments and posture in the Baltic states as manifestly defensive as possible, and by energetically advertising that fact. A failure to do so might result in Russia perceiving (or caricaturing for propaganda value) such forces as threatening. Although the line between offense and defense in modern warfare is rarely clear, deployments might emphasize anti-armor, anti-infantry, and anti-air systems rather than those better suited for offense. Such limitations would not be a serious problem for the NATO, as its only interest is the defense of its members’ own territory, rather than annexing Russian soil.

Even with these restraints, however, it must be conceded that such deployments could generate anger and insecurity in Moscow, as well as deepen anxieties and disagreements within NATO. But the real risks of Russian anger and alliance disharmony do not obviate the need for the deployments. Rather, this is why efforts to engage Moscow in arms control talks, to minimize the extent to which such deployments worsen instability and political friction, and to intensify intra-alliance diplomacy to build support for these policies would be important and worthwhile. For the simple reality is that NATO invited these nations to join the alliance, and thus its credibility and viability depend on protecting them. Everyone should want to avoid provoking Russia—but weakness is as, if not more, likely to provoke the current government in Moscow than a restrained demonstration of serious deterrent power. Prudence therefore dictates that, even as it offers to engage Moscow to reduce risks, the alliance should make it clear to Russia that it can and will defend its eastern members.

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