NATO Finds Balance in Eastern Europe

6 MINS READNov 26, 2014 | 23:36 GMT

As the United States aims to deal with the crisis in Ukraine and the general resurgence of Russian military capabilities, it continues planning for the pre-deployment of military hardware in Eastern Europe. Reinforcing these plans is a Nov. 26 statement that the United States will be pre-positioning more military vehicles in Europe, allowing U.S. forces to use them in exercises or potential military operations.

In this context, it is interesting to look back at how the United States and NATO have shifted their presence in this region and how that presence could evolve further down the line. The alliance has faced serious constraints in dealing with the repercussions of Russia's resurgence and aggressive foreign policy. Still, NATO has made notable attempts to shore up support of its eastern members and to raise the level of deterrence against Russian military action targeting the alliance.

Modest Measures to Reassure Allies

In the absence of a full-fledged concentration of armed forces on the borders of NATO, as was the case along the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, these current means of support consist mostly of joint military exercises that keep a number of U.S. forces permanently rotating throughout Eastern Europe. The United States grouped these exercises in Operation Atlantic Resolve, the dedicated effort to reassure its allies in Eastern Europe of continued U.S. commitment to their security imperatives.

The United States already has approximately 50 armored vehicles pre-deployed in the Baltic states and Poland. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges announced that eventually another 100 will be forward deployed to Germany or possibly the Baltics, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. These vehicles are part of the permanent rotation of a U.S. brigade combat team through different exercises in Eastern Europe, a task currently being fulfilled by the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division. Keeping these Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks in Europe minimizes the logistical strain in deploying and rotating different units through these perpetual exercise cycles.

This is not a significant deployment of materiel, and a single brigade combat team is not a significant force in the context of a larger conventional conflict between NATO and Russia. However, these deployments illustrate a qualitative shift that began about six months ago as Russia adopted a more aggressive posture in eastern Ukraine. This shift, however limited its consequences may be for now, is the United States' return to the forward deployment of materiel to Europe, even though the U.S. military had been pulling its remaining equipment out of Germany not long before. The current pre-positioning of equipment is occurring much farther eastward as a consequence of NATO's expansion following the Cold War.

During the Cold War, the United States had a large amount of materiel pre-positioned in West Germany — eventually including the vehicles necessary to equip six U.S. Army divisions, which would involve up to 120,000 troops altogether. Such a significant deployment does not make sense today, considering the current potential for a conventional Russian military invasion of Europe and the significant budgetary constraints on militaries throughout the alliance. Still, the increase in Russian military posturing requires a response.

The United States shaped this response through Operation Atlantic Resolve. The political indecisiveness demonstrated by NATO's Western European members and the budgetary constraints they face forced the United States to directly cooperate with Eastern European countries to increase the deterrent against Russia.

The United States has also been assisting Eastern European countries in improving their military capabilities. Some of this improvement happens during exercises, where actual teaching takes place and increasing interoperability prepares troops on both sides for potential interventions. Another aspect involves the sales of military equipment. Several Eastern European countries have invested in modern anti-tank weaponry and more advanced capabilities, such as Poland's recent purchase of air-launched cruise missiles. Eventually, the United States could assist in efforts to build up regional air defense capabilities as well.

Moscow's Maneuvers

Of course, Moscow is not sitting by idly. Russia has already increased its activity all around NATO's borders, including more assertive maritime patrols as well as strategic bomber flights. Russian ground forces have been conducting their own exercises on their side of the border, and of course there are the direct engagements Russia is committed to in eastern Ukraine. Moreover, it was announced Nov. 26 that governors in Russia would receive military staff training, probably to facilitate the long-distance movements of Russian troops through the country's vast territory. Moving over long distances likely has become a concern for the Russian military, which has been shrinking in size, increasing the need for quick and fluid movement of forces.

One notable element in Russia's military buildup near NATO's turf is the establishment of a Russian air force base in Babruysk, Belarus, scheduled to be operational by 2016. Belarus is a significant element of Russia's military deterrent; it not only forms a significant buffer, offering Moscow a certain degree of protection, but it also increases Moscow's ability to threaten the Baltic states.

Of all the countries in NATO, the Baltics are the least secure against potential Russian military action because of their limited military capabilities and their immediate proximity to Russia. As Russia's resurgence continues, it is not unthinkable that the United States and/or NATO will eventually have to reinforce the Baltics, pre-position equipment or deliver military capabilities that would enable a more effective defense in case of Russian aggression.

The balancing act between the NATO alliance and Russia should be seen in the context of the wider contested area between them, also known as the Intermarium. Russia's resurgence causes significant stress on the region's security plans. However, Russia has limitations, stemming from declining oil prices and significant future demographic challenges.

Regardless, as Russia tries to maneuver into a strong position that will allow it to deal with these challenges, there is still room for further escalation in the Intermarium. NATO and the United States will be forced to balance their commitment to security in Eastern Europe against the potential Russian aggression. The constraints on NATO's members will not necessarily remain as severe as they are now. Alternatively, the threat from Russia could surpass concerns about military spending. Even though the current NATO deployment is small, it is a modest option that could be expanded if needed.

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