Defending NATO’s Eastern Frontier: A Modest Proposal

The Ukraine crisis and Russia’s theft of Crimea have forced NATO to ponder territorial defense seriously again after two decades of neglect. No longer does the Alliance have the luxury of thinking that counterinsurgency in Afghanistan constitutes its top priority. The Poles, who thanks to their long history with Moscow saw the malevolent winds blowing early, got here first, announcing a national security strategy last fall that put primacy on territorial defense. Now the rest of NATO, or at least its Eastern members who experienced coerced membership in the Warsaw Pact, are following suit.

NATO must support this important effort, together. As I’ve previously discussed, it’s evident that we are entering a soft “Cold War 2.0” confrontation with Putin’s Russia and, while that struggle will not be as heavily military as the Cold War confrontation with the USSR was – indeed, the ideological and political aspects wrapped up in Special War versus the Kremlin will be considerably more important on any day-to-day basis than overtly military measures – neither will the military component be absent either.

Moreover, it’s clear that Moscow’s itching for at least a provocation with NATO, as evidenced by numerous aggressive Russian-spurred incidents recently, including alarming confrontations with even U.S. forces. That said, the risk of hazardous miscalculation is greater than overt aggression as, in any strictly military sense, Russia is dwarfed by the might of America and NATO put together, as the Russians understand. But a message of strong deterrence must be sent, and soon, if NATO expects to avoid more serious trouble emanating from the Kremlin.

Today, during President Barack Obama’s visit to Poland, the staunchly Atlanticist Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski reiterated Warsaw’s desire to have a real U.S. military base in their country. Although NATO has responded to the security worries of its Eastern members engendered by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine with fighter patrols and more military exercises, this will not suffice. The time has come for permanent deployments, and I want to sketch what a modest, sustainable proposal to defend NATO’s vulnerable Eastern frontier would look like.

To be blunt, NATO forces stationed in Eastern frontier states will be a tripwire, an ineffable sign that the Alliance will not brook overt aggression against its members. Moscow must clearly understand that even limited military moves against Eastern NATO members will be met with a military response from the full Alliance: only with such assurances can Russian misconduct be comfortably deterred.

The actual military contribution required to underwrite this insurance policy is modest. We need two heavy (meaning armored/mechanized) brigade combat teams (BCTs) in Poland – one American, one composite from across NATO. With about 5,000 troops per BCT, that’s only 10,000 soldiers in toto – hardly a large basing requirement, though they should be garrisoned in Poland’s east, close but not too close to the border with Belarus and Ukraine, to make the message impossible for Moscow to miss. (One of the oddities is that, due to Poland’s lingering Cold War basing structure, most of their heavy ground forces are located in the west of the country, far from where they need to be now.)

Additionally, NATO must station a heavy BCT in the Baltics as well, divided among Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, given the Russian threat to those small countries, and one of its three to four battle groups should be American (or Canadian: Ottawa pulled its forces out of Europe a generation ago, and it would be good to see them return). Similarly, another heavy BCT is required in Romania, given Moscow’s open designs on neighboring Moldova, and America can and should provide that, although if European NATO members wish to contribute forces too, so much the better.

In all, that’s 20,000 ground troops, only half of them American, at most. Even allowing for necessary support troops and air cover, plus air defense forces, we’re talking about 30,000 troops at the outside. The U.S. defense budget is dropping, as is our Army’s combat strength, but adding two BCTs to the two that are already serving in Europe, far from the Eastern frontier, is hardly onerous, not to mention that it represents a tiny fraction of the size of U.S. Army Europe at the end of the Cold War. There already have been complaints from some NATO members about adding forces in the East, but if the Atlantic Alliance, with its twenty-eight countries – many of which on a per capita basis are among the wealthiest and most comfortable on earth – cannot find a few thousand troops for this vital mission, one must ask what NATO is for any longer.

Last but not least, this newly created NATO Eastern Frontier Command ought to have a European – make that an Eastern European – general officer commanding (though with an American deputy). We are an Alliance and we must show that we are strong together, and that American troops need not always serve under an American general to demonstrate that strength and resolve. The sooner we start creating a viable defense for NATO’s vulnerable East, the sooner Russia will start behaving. Waiting will only encourage more Kremlin misconduct.


46 comments on “Defending NATO’s Eastern Frontier: A Modest Proposal”
  1. markottawa says:

    The odds of this (or any) Canadian government committing a battle group to Poland or Baltics are zero: cost, Army resource stress, no political imperative, no sense of Alliance obligation to that extent (let Euros do it).

    Mark Collins
    Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute’s “3Ds Blog”:

    1. 20committee says:


    2. Adrian says:

      Well, there is still some “sense of Alliance obligation” left, since the Canadians deployed 6 CF-18s in western Romania for a period of 5 months, starting in early May.

  2. carl says:

    All good ideas and very practicable, but nothing at all along these lines will be done as long a Mr. Obama is in office. Given this we have to think about what things will look like at the end of 2016 and what will need to be done and what it will be possible to do at that time. We also have to figure on our military force continuing to shrink. If the Poles and the other former Warsaw Pact draftee countries are wise they will have to think along these lines also, no real American help until at least 2017.

    More ominously, I figure Putin and the boys figure the same, they will have a window of opportunity lasting until 2017. I fear they may not let it slip by.

    1. 20committee says:

      I fear the same …

  3. FatBoy Jim says:

    An eminently reasonable and doable proposal, which would undoubtedly get Vlad’s attention. And … when the Kremlin takes umbrage at the “deployment of troop contingents of foreign states” along its border, which it defines as a “military danger” in Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation of 04 Feb 2010, we should politely remind them that they have every opportunity to physically inspect these forces onsite under the provisions of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which Moscow left in a huff in 2008.

    I kinda think stationing conventional heavy forces in Eastern Europe would get their attention. But, in the off-chance it doesn’t, we might do well to take up amphib exercises in the Baltic, maybe in Poland, or I dunno, a little closer to Kaliningrad. It might do them well to contemplate the idea that upsetting the postwar territorial status quo for one upsets it for all. Again, if they’re suddenly stricken with discomfort with this display of foreign military power along their periphery, they can send an evaluation team to observe the exercises in accordance with the Confidence and Security-Building Measures provided for in OSCE Vienna Document 2011. And if THAT don’t work, we can always infiltrate a bunch of juvenile delinquents with cans of spray paint to stencil “Königsberg is German. Königsberg was German. Königsberg will always be German” all over the place. 🙂

    1. 20committee says:

      I’ll pass on the Königsberg provocation, thanks. 🙂

  4. Mike Lumish says:

    The Washington Free Beacon

    1. 20committee says:

      It’s by a well-respected national security reporter. The story is either true or it is not. If the latter, please provide evidence so I may delete the link. Thanks.

  5. Afon says:

    Si vis pacem, para bellum

    Thank you for this. The reaction in parts of Western Europe is that of alarm. Apparently any bases in former Warsaw Pact may ‘provoke’ Russia. And break assurances given. But if so than NATO has 2 membership categories. And we know how much assurances given are worth.

    1. 20committee says:

      You’re welcome. If NATO can’t address the security needs of all members, you have to wonder its purpose any longer.

  6. mattw0699 says:

    The idea that we are only now entering a Cold War 2 is a rather late. Where have you been when the Putin administration has been threatening nuclear targeting or attack over 15 times since 2008? What about when Putin effectively threatened nuclear war on the US for helping Georgia during its war with Russia? What about the multiple (implied) threats of nuclear attack if the US keeps interfering in the Middle East? What about the time Medvedev dropped the Russian stock market a couple of percent by mentioning the possibility of nuclear war and the US in the same comment?

    When you hear multiple times that China and/or Russia must be careful so there is no “miscalculation” (escalating into a great-power war) , and they ignore these calls (which they are) then they have already made the mental leap into nuclear war. Meaning they accept and are ready for nuclear war should the other side (us) not get out of the way.

    The real problem is the threat of a calculated nuclear attack. That threat exists because the US has dangerously reduced its nuclear arsenal too much. It is now not an effective deterrent. Russia and China are certainly acting like it is not effective.

    I do agree with putting Nato troops on the eastern front, but it just might facilitate an actual (calculated) nuclear war between the US, Russia and China.

    1. 20committee says:

      I’ve been right here. Nuclear war is unlikely, the Russians are not insane.

  7. James Willerton says:

    It’s hard to disagree with this in general.

    However we need a wider response than the traditional military “deterrent”. Because 20-30k extra troops won’t really be much of a deterrent if the Kremlin really has grand designs.

    More dangerous and more current, in my humble view, is the information and propaganda war now in full swing. Russia has a new line of skirmish, on the internet, social media and in the hearts and minds of populations. The West has left an open goal with financial mismanagement, social inequality, competing national interests within a loose international alliance, and hypocritical foreign policy.

    Russia are eroding resistance and blurring the red lines as we speak. They know they cannot win a front-on war with NATO, and they aren’t waging war on this front (for the present).

    This is of course to assume there is a confrontation – but it’s a fair assumption.

    1. 20committee says:

      Indeed. Key phrase: Special War.

    2. Dizzy Csango says:

      I think the idea of stationing US troops there is not one of significantly bolstering native defences, but rather of providing a hard-to-ignore red line: one of directly engaging a competing superpower’s military.

      For this to work, unfortunately, the troops involved would have to be American. The lesson of Srebrenica and Marcel Déat’s 1939 question have not been forgotten in either Eastern Europe or Russia.

      1. 20committee says:

        “NATO tripwire,” as I said.

  8. mrmeangenes says:

    ….”one must ask what NATO is for any longer.”

    I get the very strong feeling NATO has become almost entirely a sluiceway for American funds —and another place to market military gear -purchased with those funds.

    I no longer see an alliance that makes us stronger.

    1. 20committee says:

      Many would agree with you there.

  9. Dan says:

    Good proposal. I wonder how open to subversion the Polish outpost would be however, given what is rumored about continued Communist-era “structures” still in place within all post-Soviet states. I also wonder what real concern we need to have about land war in Europe – although I agree with you – since it appears the Russian special war extends to building Iranian nuclear program and supporting its regime, supporting Pyongyang, coordinating with China, and providing backbone to the Cuba-Venezuela axis. When, in short, Russia is also behind all the other hot spots on earth. To secure Crimea and Eastern Ukraine is to preserve its fleet and its oil power, while provoking dissension within NATO ranks, it seems to me, all while potentially holding hostage a large contingent of US forces in Afghanistan via the Northern Supply Route. All this while Russian and Chinese cyber command guts our infrastructure and – in my opinion anyway – subverts our markets and financial institutions. It just seems to me that Russian landwar in Europe wouldn’t serve much strategic purpose except to unite an opposition that pretty clearly would naturally want to be divided and at odds with itself. Look at France, for example: yes, the economic objection to fulfilling the Mistral contract makes some sense in light of France’s economic situation, but does anyone believe the Socialist majority and French sentiment in General takes some delight in simply sticking it to the Anglo-Saxon NATO backbone? They love that sh’t.

    1. 20committee says:

      They do indeed….lot to chew on here, some very valid concerns. A lot of former Warsaw Pact countries have lingering “issues” with Russian penetrations of their security services…but USG is in no position to preach to anybody in the aftermath of the Snowden debacle.

      1. AJ says:

        There is a better way to secure Poland: let Poland have MEADS and other systems through a new lend-lease program. That way the US won’t need to put troops in–Poland can easily ramp up its military manpower on her own–and Russia won’t have a propaganda tool that 20,000 would be.

        Another idea worth considering might be a joint US-Polish defense system project of some sort as proposed here

  10. Jason says:

    “Dan” surely doesn’t need my “attaboy”. His arguments stand well enough on their own. But I wanted to enrich his arguments with some additional possibilities. The Kremlin claims to be following a course that is acting in the interests of the Russian “diaspora” (if you will), left out of the motherland following the dissolution of the USSR. It reattaches Crimea, just after firing up the military sirens up and down the western border of Russia; it dabbles on the border of the Ukraine, then withdraws the troops needed to guarantee the success of “breakaway” states like the Lugansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics. Meanwhile, in South Ossetia and in Abhazia, it has secured the two largest passes under the Caucasus range to itself. Just an idea, but these actions are consistent with the western incursions as strategic *ruse*. Major targets could be (in order of increasing severity) (1) seizing or blocking the proposed TANAP pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia and Turkey (a competitor to Russia’s own firm grip on the supply of gas to Europe), perhaps by invading Azerbaijan, or (2) a larger war to control much of the area in Asia south of the Caucasus, possibly including Turkey (the world’s 5th largest military), or (3) (further “out there”) an internal move to force the hand of gas overlords in Russia, gaining their assistance in securing the long-coveted 400 billion dollar gas deal with China (at prices merely comparable to those of Europe). If (3), then it could be that the Kremlin is concerned to mirror, or even best, the US “pivot” to Asia.

    1. 20committee says:

      These are all possibilities.

  11. Dr. Malcolm R Davis says:

    I agree with your overall plan for reinforcing NATO’s Eastern frontier against a clear Russian threat. This needs to be done – but the military moves alone won’t suffice. I think there needs to be a clear declaration from NATO that Article V means an attack on one is an attack on all, and that if Russia were to launch any form of destabilisation or attack on a NATO state, NATO would respond with military force against Russia. This would strengthen the deterrent effect of the force deployments you suggest. My concern is that NATO will blink if the challenge does come – say in the Baltics – and that will be the end of NATO as a credible organisation. Russia needs to understand that it can’t nibble away at the edges with little or no consequences, as happened in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. In that sense NATO needs to agree on a common definition of ‘attack’ in an age of ‘Special War’ and agree on a common response. A failure to do so will see Russia to continue to probe, even with the 30,000 US and NATO troops on the ground. If Moscow thinks they can nibble away at the edges because the NATO states will back down, the 30,000 troops won’t have deterrent effect. That deployment only works if there is a solid commitment to commit those forces to combat against Russian forces (but hopefully not ‘nuclear combat..toe to toe with the Rooskies’!)

    On the nuclear question – I noted your comment above that the Russians are not insane. I tend to agree – but they are also engaged in brinkmanship. I think if we do deploy heavy BCTs into Eastern Europe, be prepared for the Russians to respond with tactical nuclear-tipped Iskanders deployed against NATO, and potentially break-out of the 1987 INF Treaty by deploying intermediate nuclear delivery systems (which they have been testing in violation of the treaty) against NATO rear areas. Whilst they would not blindly rush into nuclear war, they clearly do think very differently about the role and utility of nuclear weapons to how the US or Europe does. They may use nuclear brinkmanship to divide NATO, and coerce states not to follow through on Article V commitments, or not support the permanent basing of US and European BCTs into Eastern Europe.

    1. If I may ‘reply to myself’ to add in this link – to an article by Ivo Daalder that came out yesterday, and which reinforces my concerns that European (as in Western European) political leaders are seeking the status-quo ante with Russia, rather than recognising the paradigm shift which has occured in European security affairs as a result of Crimea.

      I believe Daalder’s article strongly reinforces the comments made in the opening blog post – that a fundamental step change needs to occur in NATO posture, and that means forward deployed air and ground forces in Eastern European NATO states as a deterrent to a revanchist Russia – or see Moscow pursue further territorial ambitions at the expense of its neighbours interests down the track.

      Moscow may have pulled back most of its ground forces along Ukraine’s border for the moment – but given the speed at which it mobilised and deployed them to threaten Ukraine, and given Moscow’s continued waging of Special War in eastern Ukraine – a redeployment of regular forces does not mean all that much. But the risk is that NATO political leaders will not see it this way – they will see an opportunity to restore the status-quo ante, and in the process make a fundamental strategic mistake.

  12. 4MK says:

    your assessment is very optimistic try trebling those numbers,at a very minimum were taking 100.000 troops plus support personal,and as usual there will only be 3 country that provide effective forces the UK USA and Canada,you can write the others off there ether compromised(Germany Hungary Bulgaria)or weak and useless,NATO is in a far worse state of neglect than you think,And before you tell me i am wrong well i live in europe

    1. 20committee says:

      Somehow I think I’m better briefed on NATO capabilities than you are.

      1. 4MK says:

        i wouldn’t count on that,your toes would curl up if you knew who i represent,

      2. 20committee says:

        I didn’t realize James Bond was online. Great OPSEC, btw.

  13. alfonso macha says:

    From the Times of Israel an op-ed by Mr. Horowitz from Milwaukee contains the following:

    “In order for this [work between Russia and US to fight of the Islamists] to happen, the Russians need to be given assurance that the current security relationships in Europe are open for review and alteration. France and Germany have a key role to play in this regard. For Russia to compromise, the West must compromise also”

    A few days earlier the same publication ran an editorial by the perennial Dovid Katz to the effect that Ukraine is significantly fascist and should adopt the historical (“objectively correct”) narrative of Communists, yes, not perfect but much much better for Ukrainians than Nazis (apparently they were better according to the author already in 1941 – after the Holodomor but before the Nazis did any serious damage to Ukraine).

    So even our bestest, treuest and altogether most closest allies are visibly hedging their bets (in this case since 2008 at least when their leader promised to cooperate with Russians on fighting historical “lies” – a month later the do nothing in WH cancelled the missile defense project).

  14. alfonso macha says:

    To restate this, there will be no conflict with Russia because of the deescalation that is necessary to pursue bigger threats/issues. If the Russians want to liquidate NATO, NATO to the extent it already hasn’t been liquidated, will be. At this point the organization is only useful for ferreting US secrets via its ostensible allies in the alliance. Other than some of the Baltic states (depending on who is in charge) all the so-called “new” NATO members are severely compromised to the point that the US might be defending them against their will – they all have (or think they have) reached accommodation with Russia in one way or another.

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