ASCF REPORT | 11.1.19

If there were any doubts about NATO’s seriousness, usefulness and readiness, they are being put to rest in 2019-20. After years of naively hoping for the best from Vladimir Putin, the alliance is investing in the common defense, rebuilding its deterrent capabilities and posturing itself to defend its most at-risk members.


Before detailing NATO’s newfound commitment to deterrence, it’s important to discuss why NATO has returned to its primary mission. Contrary to Putin and his Western apologists, Russia’s actions caused NATO to respond—and NATO never made a promise not to expand eastward.

On the issue of NATO expansion, which is often claimed as justification for Russia’s bellicose turn: Putin’s narrative that NATO violated agreements made at the end of the Cold War not to expand doesn’t correspond with history or reality. As the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer details, Mikhail Gorbachev “made clear there was no promise regarding broader enlargement.” Gorbachev himself concedes, “The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all.”

The alliance didn’t double-cross its way to the Russian border. In fact, NATO grew through a transparent process that allowed East European nations to pursue membership on their own volition—and encouraged the sort of political, institutional and economic reforms that diminished tensions with post-Soviet, pre-Putin Russia.

As to Russia’s actions: Putin grew more aggressive as NATO grew more open to cooperation with Moscow and less interested in defense. In the words of former NATO Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO “hugged the bear” in the years prior to the Ukraine invasion—a reference to Western efforts to reassure Russia, create a special Russian place within NATO headquarters, slash defense spending, and downgrade the quantity and quality of military assets in Europe.

Yet even as NATO turned the page on Cold War hostility, Putin waged cyberwar against NATO member Estonia; invaded and dismembered NATO aspirant Georgia; violated the INF Treaty; reactivated the 1st Guards Tank Army, a 500-tank force based in western Russia; conducted scores of provocative “snap” military exercises near NATO territory; militarized the Arctic; hacked the U.S. political system; mused about using nuclear weapons to somehow de-escalate military conflict; unveiled a military doctrine pledging to use Russia’s military “to ensure the protection of its citizens outside the Russian Federation”; increased military outlays by 125 percent; shipped arms to the Taliban; annexed Crimea; and invaded eastern Ukraine.


That’s what NATO has faced the past 12 years—and why NATO is responding.

Along its eastern border, NATO is beefing up its defenses. As part of its European Defense Initiative (EDI), the U.S. is constructing facilities in Eastern Europe and deploying pre-positioned assets in Western Europe. All told, EDI resources are being used to construct or enhance installations in Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Latvia and Estonia.

EDI earmarked $6.5 billion for NATO in 2019, $4.8 billion in 2018 and $3.4 billion in 2017. Along with pre-positioned equipment, construction and infrastructure upgrades, EDI resources, as European Command reports, are ensuring a “more robust U.S. military rotational presence throughout the European theater,” strengthening the capacity of NATO members “to defend themselves and enable their full participation as operational partners,” and allowing for increased training and exercises.

Exercise Defender Europe 20, which will be held early next year, is the latest example of NATO’s recommitment to large-scale exercises. Defender Europe 20 will feature the largest U.S. troop deployment from CONUS to Europe in 25 years; 37,000 troops from NATO and partner nations; 20,000 pieces of equipment deployed from CONUS; and military units from 18 nations. The exercise will see units land at 14 airbases and seaports, move along 12 convoy routes, and operate across 10 countries. The exercise will involve parachute assaults, large-unit water crossings, the use of prepositioned materiel, and full live-fire war games. Defender Europe 20 is “a very big deal,” as Lt. Gen. Chris Cavoli, commander of U.S. Army-Europe, reports.

Defender Europe 20 follows on the heels of Trident Juncture 2018, which included 65 warships, 250 aircraft, 10,000 vehicles and 50,000 troops—NATO’s largest military exercise since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Indeed, both the quantity and quality of NATO military exercises have increased in recent years: 102 exercises in 2019; 103 in 2018; 100 in 2017. Again, this is a reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its spasms of unannounced military exercises in recent years. As the Atlantic Council has pointed out, NATO’s exercises are smaller in number and in scale than Russia’s. A 2018 Russian exercise, for example, involved 300,000 personnel.


Military exercises are not the only signal NATO is sending.

After the Ukraine invasion, NATO created forward-deployed battlegroups in Poland (spearheaded by the U.S.), Estonia (spearheaded by Britain), Latvia (spearheaded by Canada) and Lithuania (spearheaded by Germany); tripled the size of its rapid-response force (to 40,000 troops); approved a U.S. proposal to develop capabilities to deploy 30 troop battalions, 30 squadrons of aircraft and 30 warships to any European crisis zone within 30 days of a go order; and launched a new Rapid Air Mobility program, which grants NATO aircraft priority to move into and through European airspace.

In addition, NATO’s European members have added 109,000 troops to their ranks since 2015. By the end of 2020, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reports, NATO’s European and Canadian members “will add $100 billion extra toward defense.” Twenty-nineteen marks the fifth consecutive year of increased defense spending in Europe and Canada. By 2024, two-thirds of the alliance will meet NATO’s standard of investing 2 percent of GDP in defense.

NATO this year officially invited the Republic of North Macedonia (RNM) to become the alliance’s 30th member. The U.S. Senate just last month approved RNM’s entry into the alliance, as it did Montenegro’s accession into NATO in 2017. In both cases, Moscow mounted tenacious propaganda campaigns and intelligence operations to prevent these free nations from joining history’s greatest alliance of free nations. NATO’s commitment to expansion sent a strong signal of solidarity and seriousness to Moscow.

NATO allies are sending individual signals as well.

Although his comments about NATO have been unproductive at times (see here, here and here), President Trump’s actions speak louder than his words. The Trump administration has reactivated the 2nd Fleet, which was—and is again—responsible for defending the North Atlantic; increased naval operations in the Black Sea; deployed troops to Georgia for training exercises; dispatched strategic bombers and stealth aircraft to Europe to highlight the U.S. deterrent; and significantly increased support for Europe’s defense through EDI.

The U.S. and German armies recently signed a “strategic vision statement” that will lead to “an unprecedented level of interoperability,” according to DefenseNews, with German brigades deploying under operational control of U.S. Army division headquarters.

Britain is standing up two Littoral Strike Groups—one based in the Mediterranean-Atlantic—and putting to sea two new aircraft carriers.

After Ukraine, Paris scuttled the sale of two amphibious-assault ships to Russia—a decision that came at high cost for France.

France is on track to reach the 2-percent threshold by 2022. Poland is already at the 2-percent standard. The Czech Republic will increase the size of its military 63 percent by 2025.

Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia will triple military spending by 2024.

Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia are establishing a Regional Special Operations Component Command to enable them to coordinate, train, enhance interoperability and jointly deploy commando units. This will position the alliance to detect and defend against Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics, which rely on the use of so-called “little green men”—troops scrubbed of insignia that are slipped into foreign territory to sow confusion and direct fifth-column elements.

It’s no surprise that the NATO’s Baltic and East European members are showing their stalwart commitment to the alliance. Within easy range of Putin’s unmarked armies, these nations understand that if Putin follows his Ukraine playbook and covertly violates the sovereignty of NATO’s easternmost members, he will force NATO to blink or fire back. Neither alternative leads to a happy outcome. The former means NATO is dead. The latter means war.

The best way to prevent those dire scenarios is through deterrent military strength, allied cohesion and cooperation, clarity of intent and frank dialogue with Moscow. That’s how NATO prevented the Cold War from turning hot, and it’s the best roadmap for Cold War 2.0.