The Buzz

NATO's Warsaw Summit: Can't Allies Do a Little More?

Anyone who came of age in the 1990s or flipping channels late at night now, remembers the theme song of the television show Friends intoning, “I’ll be there for you / when the rain starts to pour.” For two years since the Russian occupation of Crimea and subsequent actions in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, NATO has essentially been in a standing Article 4 consultation session: “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” With the metaphorical rain falling, the Alliance has slowly moved towards a plan to deter Russia and assure the easternmost states in the Alliance, a plan that will come to fruition at the Warsaw Summit. Since February 2014, where has the alliance been, where does deterrence go, and what is the plan?

It was not until the end of April 2014 that the first concrete response was seen with NATO ground forces—specifically small continents of American paratroopers landing in Poland and the Baltic States. “It’s a message to anyone who will listen…the United States of America will honor its commitments to Lithuania” said Major General Richard Longo, the deputy commanding general of United States Army Europe, echoing the sentiment of remarks by Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, “We know in this situation who our real friends are…If just one of our guests is harmed, this would mean an open confrontation, not with Lithuania but with the United States of America.” This is the essence of the deterrence plan which the alliance is now embarking upon with the coming announcement at the Warsaw Summit.

Having spent twenty years in a post–Cold War security environment the Alliance is relearning territorial defense and deterrence. As T.R. Fehrenbach said in his analysis of the Korean War ,“ you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it… you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men in the mud.” Both Fehrenbach and Grybauskaite recognize the truth that nothing demonstrates resolve and commitment like putting boots on the ground. Only then does a nation have blood in the game.

The combination of anti-access/area denial capabilities and Russian “new-generation warfare” can create murky situations that may fall below the convention threshold for intervention. Is the appearance of little green men or the formation of a militia by a ethnic minority in revolt against a central government sufficient to bring action under NATO’s Article 5? It is unlikely that the alliance could get an accurate understanding of the situation, conduct consultations and react in time to an attack utilizing new-generation warfare. The small size of the Baltic States could allow for a fait accompli like that described in a recent RAND report.

In such an opaque and complex situation, combining military and political warfare to deny access, and have plausible deniability of actions, deterrence by denial is the only plausible way to stop potential adversaries. The establishment of a spearhead Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) to respond within forty-eight hours was a start, but those forty-eight hours begin with the decision to act, and decisions take time. In such a situation, the VJTF (currently comprising the Spanish 7th Light Infantry Brigade) may be mobilized, and arrive too late to be of use.

The RAND study recommends multiple brigades of heavy mechanized forces to defeat a Russian attack, a course of action not currently feasible or acceptable. A forward presence changes the calculus, acting as deterrence by denial, preventing the attack rather than repulsing it. Having forces and blood in the game from other alliance members will successfully change the calculus of any action against the Baltic states and other NATO members on the eastern flank by ensuring all member states will be involved from the start of potential hostilities.