The leaders of NATO countries are in Madrid for the alliance’s most consequential summit in a generation. The organization appears to have overcome Turkish diplomatic blackmail to bring in two new members, Sweden and Finland. It must approve a new concept for transatlantic security amid Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine.
Not least, the alliance — and the US — are set to confront an inconvenient reality: Even if the Ukraine war takes a heavy toll on Russia, NATO will need a stronger presence in eastern Europe than it possessed before the conflict.
Since Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO has had a tripwire strategy for defending its easternmost members. The alliance sprinkled a few thousand troops across Poland and the Baltic states. It chose to rotate those forces in and out rather than stationing them there permanently, in part due to cost and in part out of respect for a 1997 agreement with Russia that Moscow had already egregiously contravened.
Such a modest force could not withstand a major Russian attack. It could ensure that US and other NATO troops would be killed, thereby setting off a larger, decisive Western response.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the Pentagon has sent additional forces into eastern Europe: It has about 10,000 troops in Poland, 2,500 in Romania and 2,000 in the Baltic states.
The larger US contingent in Germany has also been reinforced, now at roughly 40,000 personnel. The goal was to ensure that Russia, perhaps emboldened by what many analysts thought would be an easy subjugation of Ukraine, was not tempted to take its aggression into NATO territory.
Yet Russia stumbled into a bloody mess, suffering massive losses of infantry, armor, special operations forces and other capabilities. The Kremlin’s bungling of the invasion also raised questions about how highly to rate those troops that remain.
Russia’s blunders have led some NATO members, such as France and Italy, to argue that greater forward presence in the east is unnecessary.
With European countries ramping up defense spending, some argue that the US should leave any additional security measures in Europe to the Europeans and consummate its perpetually postponed “pivot to Asia” instead.
Those are bad ideas. The outcome in Ukraine is still in doubt, thanks to Moscow’s gains in the east and the south and to its severe attrition of Kyiv’s armed forces.
Russia might still achieve a pared-down goal of seizing much of the Donbas and a “land bridge” to Crimea; one way or another, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown he can inflict terrible damage even with a terribly damaged military.
Well-informed analysts have also cautioned that Russia might do better in a conflict with NATO — the war it has trained and motived its forces to fight — than it has done in Ukraine.
The conflict has reminded the West that it still does not really know Putin’s mind. For years, his risk-taking has caught even the smartest Kremlin-watchers by surprise.
Most important, Ukraine has shown why a tripwire defense of eastern Europe is not enough: It requires frontline states to see key portions of their territory conquered and then wait patiently for liberation.
That has always been a nasty scenario, because it could allow Russia to grab a chunk of land and then use nuclear threats to deter NATO from fighting back. It looks even uglier now that the world knows exactly what crimes Russian forces perpetrate — rape, murder, torture and other horrific abuses.
The problem with a tripwire strategy is that being attacked by Russia means “complete destruction of countries and our culture,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said last week.
All the talk about enhanced European defense notwithstanding, there is no good alternative to the US taking the initiative. The Ukraine war has been an object lesson in the value of US leadership: In the months prior to the invasion, Washington repeatedly warned, on the basis of its unmatched intelligence capabilities, that Putin was deadly serious about invading — yet many European leaders were skeptical.
If the US were to decide that Europe can now look after itself, the result would be a weaker NATO riven by disputes between frontline states that rightly fear Putin and western European states, such as France, that still hope for some diplomatic accommodation.
We are not talking about Cold War levels of US military commitment. It would involve permanently stationing perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 additional US troops in eastern Europe and the Baltics, with commensurate additions from other NATO countries. Poland and other frontline states should cover the costs of permanent basing — and indeed, have already agreed to do so.
NATO would also need, and has signaled it would develop, enhanced rapid-response capabilities, such as prepositioned equipment larger forces can quickly take up in a crisis.
The key is to create a capability that has a serious chance of frustrating an initial Russian assault until the cavalry can arrive and beat the invaders back — the sort of effective defense that bolsters deterrence by making it hard to imagine that aggression can succeed.
After 30 years of focusing on “out of area” operations such as Afghanistan and counterpiracy off Africa, NATO is rediscovering its identity as an alliance devoted to collective defense. The leaders meeting in Madrid need to make sure it has the strength deployed in eastern Europe to get that crucial mission right.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the US Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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