29 May 2017

Securing NATO’s eastern flank

Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, NATO has been reviving its core mission of defending members from outside aggression. As the illusion of a cooperative Kremlin has evaporated, the two key challenges are to contain Moscow’s ambitions and to reinforce NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank. The recent NATO summit in Brussels indicated that the Alliance is committed not only to deter Russia’s assertiveness but also to build a more capable common defense.

The focus of attention at the Brussels Summit was on President Donald Trump’s short speech at NATO’s new HQ, in which he berated several allies for not contributing their share to the Alliance. Although one can question the timing of his remarks at a venue that was designed to display NATO unity, his criticisms have some validity. However, insufficient attention was paid to a key passage in Trump’s remarks, in which he stated that “the NATO of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration, as well as threats from Russia and on NATO’s eastern and southern borders.”

Throughout the election campaign, candidate Trump was criticized for suggesting that NATO was redundant and for implying that the United States would pull its forces out of Europe. Trump’s statements may have misled both Europeans and Russians into thinking that the White House preferred to disband the Alliance and terminate U.S. commitments to the defense of Europe. In retrospect, it transpires that Trump’s strong criticism of NATO has refocused attention on Alliance missions and capabilities.

Two main factors can enable Trump to revive the Alliance: his warnings about NATO’s future and his selection of a strong security team. Trump’s main indignation was directed at those European governments who consistently fail to allocate 2 percent of GDP for their national defense despite NATO’s common requirements. Trump claimed that the American taxpayer should not be primarily responsible for defending a wealthy Europe. Although the President may have ignored the fact that not all national defense spending is allocated for the Alliance, his core point that several West European countries have not been pulling their weight in their contributions to military missions is not in dispute.

White House commitments to strengthening NATO are evident in the selection of Trump’s security team. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is a staunch supporter of the Alliance and has stated that the bond between the United States and NATO is a critical component in regional and global security. Mattis and the Pentagon understand that the Russian threat to Europe is growing and NATO needs to deal with Moscow from a position of strength. Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster also harbor no illusions about Kremlin objectives to dismantle NATO and reduce American influence in Europe.

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  Photo: U.S. Department of Defense 

Under the George W. Bush administration, NATO allies were focused on expeditionary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the Barack Obama presidency, NATO was largely neglected and Europe’s defense was downgraded until Russia’s attack on Ukraine and growing fears among NATO’s front line states about Moscow’s revisionist ambitions. There is now an opportunity to modernize and strengthen NATO with the commitment of an increasing number of Allies. To accomplish this task, the Trump team would need to pursue several initiatives.

At the core of an effective NATO are sufficient resources to increase capabilities. The recently announced boost in the U.S. defense budget is welcome among NATO’s front line states. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg asserted that it was a sign of Washington's support for Europe’s security. Trump’s fiscal blueprint includes $4.8 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), a special fund created by Obama to protect the eastern flank against Russian aggression. The fund grew to $3.4 billion in 2016 from an initial $1 billion in 2015. Trump’s proposal adds another $1.4 billion and constitutes a 40 percent increase that will result in more military exercises, weapons acquisition and infrastructure investment. It will also help ensure the presence of rotating U.S. forces along the Alliance's eastern flank.

NATO’s front line states were not distressed by Trump’s demands for more defensive spending, as they have either met the requirements or pledged to do so in subsequent budgets. They are seeking a long-term commitment to forward deterrence, which they want to develop into a more effective forward defense. This will necessitate more intense Alliance coordination and a mix of deterrents against Russia’s conventional military threats as well as its unconventional subversion, including cyber attacks, disinformation and support for political radicals.

At the conventional military level, the current forward deployments of NATO multi-national battalions are primarily tripwires to dissuade Russian intervention in the three Baltic states and Poland. They are intended to signal that any military move would trigger a full-scale NATO counterassault. The challenge for NATO is to create the capabilities, including troops, transport and infrastructure, for quickly mobilizing reinforcements and larger follow-on forces, thereby demonstrating a determination to defend every ally. Such a posture is the key to an effective deterrence.

NATO must also improve national and common defense against non-military attacks, including cyber sabotage, incitement of ethnic conflict, disinformation offensives, political interference and economic subversion. While each state needs to confront and disarm unwelcome foreign penetration, the Alliance itself must demonstrate that it is prepared for each level of conflict by developing offensive cyber capabilities and information war components, as well as special forces trained for specific operations on enemy territory. The prospect of opening alternative fronts against an aggressive adversary would create unpredictable and potentially destabilizing problems for Russia if it intervened in a NATO state. Targeted spending and creative offensive options would then become key components of a stronger common defense of the eastern flank.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: U.S. Army/Sgt. David Turneru