NATO’s Madrid summit will consider (June 28-30) its most consequential defense posture and readiness options since the Cold War. A paradigm shift seems afoot, and robust forward defense along NATO’s eastern front is the top priority.

There is a growing transatlantic awareness that the NATO response after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea was inadequate and has failed to stop Russian aggression against its neighbors. While Russia has not yet attempted open military aggression against alliance members, it is more frequently threatening to do so — most recently it officially menaced NATO ally Lithuania over its enforcement of EU sanctions, while state-controlled media openly talked of war. Russia meanwhile maintains a steady drumbeat of nuclear and other saber-rattling in the borderlands and beyond.

Until Russia commenced its full-scale 2022 war on Ukraine, many Western leaders had convinced themselves that its continued aggression and its self-proclaimed revisionist mandate required only incremental responses. An unofficial doctrine emerged; firstly, do not “antagonize” Russia too much, coupled with, secondly, let’s not invest too much on NATO’s eastern front (since no one wanted the expense of a second Cold War.) Even a week before the invasion, many did not believe that Putin would start a major war in the heart of Europe. These ideas and false assumptions, particularly since 2014, have led the West to a strategic situation unseen in Europe since World War II. Russia only understands strength. It is a lesson the West is having to relearn, at speed.

The conflict is inflicting untold costs, both human and financial. Estimates for humanitarian relief, war damage, and operations reach as high as $1 trillion. In comparison, the US Department of Defense spends about $25bn annually to maintain 175,000 American troops deployed around the globe. That is more than the total number of troops in all 10 US Army divisions. Thus, war costs so far could fund the equivalent of 175,000 US troops on NATO’s eastern front for 40 years and would deter Russia from threatening NATO allies and attacking its neighbors.

NATO does not need that number of American troops on its eastern front, but it does need to establish a 21st-century version of the Cold War forward defense of Western Europe. During that period, the US maintained hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe. In 1989, there were 250,000 American troops, just in Germany — not to mention 55,000 British troops in Rhine Army, with additional French, Canadian, Dutch, and Belgian allies alongside. Add in the West German Army and almost a million allied troops were toe-to-toe with the Russians in forward defense (with more divisions ready to reinforce from Europe and North America). The US Air Force (USAF) maintained four Fighter Wings, close to the front in Germany, and six others around Europe. The US Navy had no less than two separate fleets focused on Europe during the Cold War.

NATO’s strong Forward Defense was instrumental in defeating Soviet Russia. After the Cold War, NATO enlarged, and its “front line” shifted eastwards, but Western allied forces did not. During the 1990s, there was a sense that all was, and would remain, quiet on the eastern front. The NATO-Russia Founding Act (NRFA) limited the Western troop presence in the former Warsaw Pact nations of Central-East Europe (CEE.) US and Western NATO allies mostly returned their divisions home, or decommissioned them. By 2013, the last US Army tank departed Europe, something celebrated as an “historic moment” Just a year later, in another historic moment, American Army tanks returned to Europe after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine. But even after this, Germany still pointed to the NRFA as a key reason why NATO should take the minimalist route on Kremlin aggression. The US pushed the alliance to bolster its defenses, but not that hard; an indication of German sensitivities and its desire to keep talking to Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, Poland, the Baltic states, and Romania were sounding the alarm, to little effect.

A simple recreation of allied forward defense as seen during the Cold War is not what’s called for today. Equally, it’s clear that NATO’s unconvincing adjustments on its eastern perimeter since 2014 are not getting the job done. Allies must upgrade the current, small tripwire deployments and harden the Eastern Flank, using its determined allies in Poland and Romania as regional bulwarks as the anchor.

  • Strong US leadership is essential. A respected senior allied leader told this author: “The United States organized NATO for the United States to ‘lead’ NATO, there is no other option. Please lead!” Almost every ally makes this fundamental point in this era of renewed great power competition. The US cannot just be a nuclear backstop, or a cheerleader on Europe’s periphery. It must lead from the front with a strategy, along with permanent troop commitments and capabilities to ensure robust and credible deterrence.
  • The NATO Russia Founding Act must be formally scuttled.
  • Western allies must organize transatlantic schemes based on the Lend-Lease Act and Marshall Plan not only for Ukraine but also for vulnerable nations on the eastern front — Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria Hungary and NATO partners like Georgia and Moldova. These efforts must focus on rapid modernization and Westernization of Eastern Flank militaries; massive “no-strings” Western financial investments in the infrastructure-development Three Seas Initiative (3SI). Importantly, the 3SI fosters energy resilience and military mobility for NATO.
  • The alliance must urgently update its Maritime Strategy (which is now several years behind.) And, the US administration must organize a Black Sea strategy, in coordination with allies, synchronized with the pending 2022 US National Security Strategy.
  • Permanent brigade-sized formations (with enabling units) should be assigned to all eight of NATO’s forward presence battle groups (these are currently slightly larger than battalion-size formations, with about 1,000 troops) – i.e., they are only tripwire forces.
  • Permanently assign the US Army V “Victory” Corps full Headquarters (HQ) to Poland. Currently, the V Corps forward HQ is assigned to Poland, separated from its main HQ, making V Corps less effective. The Corps needs to be consolidated in one location, planning operations, and working daily on allied readiness with Poland and regional allies.
  • Permanently assign a US heavy division to Poland, and a second US heavy division to Romania. The US and NATO are fortunate to have such stalwart allies and both are ready to help anchor the eastern front. They are modernizing rapidly (though severe budget pressures mean the US and Western NATO allies must assist.) Both are increasing defense spending and force structure. Poland intends to become NATO’s second-highest per GDP defense spender (after the US.) Its already significant plans to increase its armed forces rose again on June 27, when it was announced personnel would increase to 400,000 from 150,000, but that and associated equipment plans will take at least 10 years to implement. The US and NATO can meanwhile help Poland and Romania (which is raising defense spending by 25%) to develop highly capable divisions. There is no better way to do this than to have a US division permanently on the ground in these nations, building capabilities, “training as we fight” and together providing real warfighting capabilities to NATO and its entire eastern front.
  • Permanently assign a USAF fighter-wing to Poland to support the region. Additionally, Western-NATO allies should permanently assign fighter squadrons to the Baltic/Black Sea regions.
  • Upgrade NATO Baltic and Black Seas Air Policing missions to Air and Missile Defense (AMD) missions, with new rules of engagement for allied fighters, and robust ground AMD capabilities.
  • Increase the number of Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMGs) from two to five. This will provide for 24/7, 365-day, NATO Baltic and Black Sea maritime defense patrolling, and the ability to cover other SNMG requirements in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. There are 29 US warships, assigned to NATO’s Maritime Command (MARCOM), and the US could fill the five-SNMG requirement on its own. But that would detract from other MARCOM responsibilities. Therefore, the US should provide up to two SNMGs, while other NATO nations should provide the other three to four SNMGS. The Montreux Convention limits deployments in the Black Sea, but non-littoral NATO has never maximized its Black Sea patrolling opportunities. That has allowed Russia to turn the Black Sea into a de facto Russian Lake, and create a global food crisis, through its blockade of Ukraine.
  • NATO must permanently position the necessary wartime stocks of equipment, ammunition, spare parts, rations, and other logistics.

Faced with an alternative of an increasingly aggressive Russia terrorizing its NATO neighbors, a robust forward defense on the eastern front makes its own case and is worth the investment. It provides credible deterrence with real warfighting capabilities. Most importantly, it is the best way to avoid a ruinous future war.

Colonel (Ret) Ray Wojcik is a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), and a 30-year Army veteran, with multiple tactical-strategic assignments culminating as US Army Attaché, American Embassy, Warsaw, Poland.