Can NATO Deter Russia in View of the Conventional Military Imbalance in the East?

The growing terrorist threat from the so-called Islamic State, Russia’s intervention in Syria, and the migration crisis in Europe have dominated the headlines in recent weeks. But the recent downing by Turkey of a Russian Su-24 plane that violated its airspace underscores as well the risks of conflict between European states. There remains no question that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression elsewhere in Ukraine has ushered in a new period of insecurity in Europe, re-drawing boundaries by force as well as heightening confrontation and the risk of conflict between NATO and Russia. We have seen these elements before in post-World War II history. In the late 1940’s, there was a reduced American military presence on the European continent, uncertainty about the ultimate intentions of the Soviet Union, and the very real threat of Soviet military intervention to coerce countries in the gray zone between it and the West. And in the late detente period in the mid-1970's, Soviet military modernization introduced new uncertainties into the security balance with the deployment of new SS-20 nuclear missiles in Eastern Europe. Today, Europe is faced with Russian military modernization and Moscow’s willingness to coerce and to intervene in sovereign European states, countries, challenges that West must meet with a reduced U.S. military presence in Europe.

Russia has developed since 2008 the ability to rapidly deploy on the border with NATO over 100,000 troops with practically no warning to the United States and its European allies. At the same time, Russia has shed most of the meaningful measures that provided for transparency and predictability in conventional arms by suspending its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. The West has not matched these developments: NATO has abided by the intention in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act that it would not permanently station significant combat forces in the states that joined NATO after the Cold War. Europe’s NATO members have reduced defense spending since the fall of the Berlin Wall and focused their remaining forces on expeditionary operations since 2001. Thus, east of the Oder/Neisse/Danube Rivers, in territory populated by about 100 million NATO citizens, there is no significant NATO military presence to withstand an attack by Russia’s increasingly capable armed forces, should one take place. The result is a clear and growing conventional imbalance along the eastern frontier of NATO, most crucially in the near term in Poland and the Baltic countries, which border Russian territory.

Does this regional imbalance matter? Skeptics could point to the overall levels of defense spending by NATO member states. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, defense spending by NATO countries in 2014 (measured in constant 2011 dollars) was just over $880 billion, whereas Russia’s spending similarly measured was about 10% of the NATO total – just over $91 billion. Russia has argued that its modernization efforts are designed to close a gap between it and NATO; indeed, the 2014 Russian military doctrine asserts that NATO is building up its military forces and ranks this as the top external military danger to Russia. If NATO still spends ten times as much as Russia and has superior forces in number, quality, and capability, how can one speak of imbalance?

The answer is that the combination of Russia’s rapid deployability and its growing conventional capabilities weaken deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank, which has been the basis of Western strategy since the Cold War – that NATO will maintain sufficient forces (conventional and nuclear) in order to convince any potential adversary that the risks of using force against a NATO ally so clearly outweigh the potential gains that the adversary will choose peace over war. The size and composition of forces necessary to deter depends on the external environment and the adversary’s intentions – the U.S. Army presence in Europe numbered about 300,000 at the height of the Cold War, and it has been reduced to around 30,000 today for two main reasons. First, the political changes in Europe that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain enabled a period of partnership with Russia that reduced tensions and dramatically lowered the likelihood of conflict. Second, the United States and its Western partners reinforced stability by concluding with Russia in the early post-Cold War period limits on their conventional military deployments and transparency measures for movements of conventional forces. The Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and the Vienna Document (which among other things requires countries to notify large planned military exercises) provided inspections, predictability and confidence that allowed NATO allies to scale down their military posture – limitations which Russia negotiated and agreed. (The treaty on Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces – INF – advanced the same goal by eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons that was the principal cause of increased tensions between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in the late 1970s and early 1980s, beginning with the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles and the NATO deployment in response of Pershing II missiles in Europe.)

NATO reviewed its deterrence posture in 2012 and determined that, “in the current circumstances, the existing mix of capabilities and the plans for their development are sound.” But neither of the crucial post-Cold War circumstances – reduced tensions and increased transparency – exists today; indeed it is quite the opposite, with increasing tensions and a substantial loss of transparency and confidence. In 2008, Russia 'suspended' its implementation of the CFE treaty, which has effectively erased the limits that previously existed on Russia's conventional forces on NATO’s eastern flank. A last-ditch 2011 U.S.-led effort to revive conventional arms control with Russia was unsuccessful. Russia also increasingly circumvents the Vienna Document’s 6-week notification requirement for “scheduled” exercises by conducting no-notice, full combat readiness exercises, a category of activity not subject to the notification requirement. (According to the U.S. government, Russia remains in violation of the INF treaty as well, undermining the nuclear pillar of stability in Europe.)

The result, when coupled with Russia's post-2008 military modernization, has been a quantum leap in Russia's ability to amass forces and a substantial decrease in NATO's warning time. As Russia demonstrated in 2014 in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, when a 150,000-man exercise took place simultaneous with Russia’s intervention, it can concentrate forces along its western borders without significant warning to neighbors or to NATO allies. This has been underscored throughout 2014 and 2015 in other no-notice “snap” exercises, the largest of which numbered 100,000 troops. United States military officials estimate that Russia is able now to deploy 60,000 troops by air in a span of 72 hours, and they acknowledge that U.S. intelligence capabilities provide no significant advance indication or warning of the Russian “snap” exercises.

In these circumstances, NATO does not currently have the ability to repel a possible Russian attack or prevent Russia from occupying territory in the east, in particular along NATO’s eastern borders in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland. This situation is destabilizing, as these countries face the prospect of discovering on any given day that several Russian army divisions are on their frontier with unclear (or perhaps very clear) intentions. To address such concerns, NATO leaders at the 2014 Wales Summit created a “very high readiness” task force within the NATO Response Force, consisting of a multinational land brigade of around 5,000 troops, ready to move within a few days; Supreme Allied Commander Breedlove has indicated that the readiness of the forces is seven days, though that could be adjusted down if developments required it. It is open to doubt whether political and military decisions to deploy the high-readiness task force could be reached quickly, which could lengthen the effective time to deployment significantly beyond the 7 day target. This means that NATO’s current ability to respond is well beyond the window within which Russia can mobilize forces that are ten or more times larger. Given Russia’s emerging anti-access and area-denial capabilities, NATO’s response after territory has been seized will come at a much greater cost than deterring action in the first place.

The uncertainty over the security of northeast Europe is compounded by geography and ambiguity about whether and how Russia would use its nuclear arsenal. Russia’s military doctrine, which was updated in 2014, formally reserves nuclear weapons for use only in response to an attack on Russia using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or in response to a conventional attack when Russia’s existence as a state is at risk. But public comments by Russian officials and retired military officers, as well as Russian exercise scenarios, suggest that Moscow could also contemplate limited nuclear strikes as a way of raising the stakes in a conflict and “de-escalating” by confronting its opponent with the possibility of a nuclear response. This divergence between doctrine and other indications of Russian planning gives rise to a nightmare scenario for countries in NATO’s east: a Russian land grab (similarly swift as in Crimea) and the threat of nuclear “de-escalation” to confront Washington, Berlin, Paris, and London with the catastrophic choice of risking a nuclear conflict over several thousand square miles in northeast Europe. This could freeze the conflict in place, with NATO territory lost and credibility of the United States and the West vitiated worldwide.

Is that Russia’s goal? The re-drawing of Ukraine’s borders, and Russia’s continued occupation of 25% of the Republic of Georgia’s territory feeds increasing doubts about its intentions that cannot be ignored. Russia’s intentions toward NATO are harder to judge; Russia traditionally has been cautious towards NATO, but that caution may not be shared by a new generation of Russian military and political leaders – Russia increasingly engages in assertive and dangerous activities such as violations of NATO airspace by Russian warplanes, and nuclear saber-rattling against NATO members (and NATO partners such as Sweden and Finland). The alliance’s priority is avoiding a scenario ever arising in which the United States and NATO have to contemplate how to regain an ally’s conquered territory, so an updated policy and deterrence posture is prudent and necessary for stability on NATO’s eastern border. Without evidence to suggest that Russia’s posture will change, NATO and the United States must be prepared to deal with this situation for at least the coming 5-10 years.

The United States has made an important initial contribution to this end since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, by rotating U.S. Army units to the most vulnerable NATO members: the Baltic countries, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. This contribution is all the more significant given the ongoing U.S. commitments in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. Many other allies have taken similar steps as well, conveying their political and military commitment to their allies and underscoring to Russia that NATO is united. But the size of the forces involved thus far is small – a few hundred troops on rotations lasting a few months. As an immediate measure, as NATO prepares for its July 2016 summit meeting in Warsaw, putting this presence on a sustainable and militarily significant basis is a crucial priority. Bringing the disparate nations’ force rotations into a coherent military structure that is able to exercise and respond as part of a single whole is one essential step. The United States should leverage its existing contribution to security along NATO’s eastern flank by making a multi-year commitment to a forward presence in the east, and leading efforts to secure similar commitments from other NATO allies – especially from large NATO members, that would amount at least to a multinational battalion in each of the Baltic countries and in Poland. The predictable presence of sizeable NATO forces along the frontier with Russia will be a crucial ingredient in a new deterrence approach.

An essential part of that sustainable long-term response is an assessment of what is needed to deter Russia for the next decade. NATO has begun this work, but it may take time to reach a consensus amid divergent views on the urgency of the Russian threat. Time is not in NATO’s favor on the eastern frontier, however. A more robust deterrence in the form of a larger and more capable multilateral presence in the near term will allow for more detailed military and political analysis of Russia’s capabilities and intentions. A shared NATO understanding will also increase the willingness of allies to fill the force rotations. The ultimate shape of that force – its size, the length of rotations, and the type of forces – will remain open, but its necessity is beyond question, given Russia’s more threatening posture and enhanced capabilities. The United States and its allies need to work now to begin redressing the conventional imbalance before this imbalance fosters instability and heightens risks for NATO and Europe as a whole.

Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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