NATO's Baltic Tripwire Forces Won't Stop Russia
If and when deterrence fails, the United States and NATO will have to decide whether and how to reverse Russia’s action. RAND recently published the results from several war games involving a Russian move into the Baltics and the findings are not encouraging for NATO: Russia would be able to roll into the Baltic capitals within sixty hours. This would not leave enough time for the United States and its allies to move forces to the Baltics to augment the tripwire contingent in the event of an attack.
If we think—as I do—that the United States will be unwilling to send several divisions to Poland or Estonia, then policy makers will probably opt for one of the preferred, cheap, standoff strike instruments to compel a Russian reversal—air power, cruise missiles, drones or some combination of the three. Like the token battalion, these instruments are relatively cheap and low-risk for the United States to deploy, which is precisely why they are so attractive. As my research demonstrates, however, the United States cannot compel a target to change its behavior with the threat and even the limited use of cheap force. Cheap force can never signal that the United States is highly resolved to achieve its objectives. It can only communicate that the United States may not care enough about the issue at hand to risk anything of real value or to sustain high costs over a long period of time.
Where does this leave the United States and its allies as they face the possibility of a Russian incursion into NATO territory? The tripwire force will not be an effective deterrent if Russia is determined to invade one of its neighbors, and the token force is unprepared to deny the Russian army access to any of the Baltic capitals. Threats of air strikes won’t work either, for the reasons described above. If the United States truly wishes to keep Russia from moving into the Baltics, then the only option with the possibility for success is brute force. Without prepositioned forces and equipment, that means that the only option is a brute force campaign to dislodge Russian troops that will have had weeks to prepare their positions in heavily populated areas with easy access to internal lines of communication. NATO, on the other hand, will have to navigate a hodgepodge of privatized railways and comply with EU regulations about truck driver rest periods to move supplies and troops to Eastern Europe, and the United States will find itself operating against an enemy with substantial air defense capabilities for the first time in a long time—not to mention one with nuclear weapons. It’s one thing to enforce a no-fly zone and operate drones over Libya and quite another to do so over Russian-controlled territory.
The tripwire force is the worst course of action for the United States to choose: it is incapable of denying a determined Russia entry to the Baltics, and because it will do nothing to deter a Russian invasion, it places American soldiers in harm’s way for no strategic purpose. Remember the challenge of convincing an armed invader that you would defend your neighbor’s home? One way you could make that commitment very convincing would be to move one of your children into your neighbor’s house—or better yet, install her in a prominent location on the front porch. Now a potential invader is likely to find your promise to defend the neighbor’s home extremely convincing. Until the United States is willing to make a similarly costly deployment—perhaps five divisions of newly drafted eighteen-year-olds, i.e., the nation’s children—its pledges to defend the Baltics will not convince Russia that it would be willing to commit the resources and time necessary to reverse an invasion.
The United States should either make an extremely costly deployment to the Baltics to deter a Russian invasion and prepare for a defense after deterrence fails or admit that it lacks the interest and motivation to do so and stay home. At best, the tripwire will have the same effect as doing nothing, and at worst, it may get Americans killed for no purpose and inflame Russian feelings of insecurity. Do or do not—halfway measures are worse than taking no action at all.
Dianne Pfundstein Chamberlain, PhD, is an associate research fellow with the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. She was formerly an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of Cheap Threats: Why the United States Struggles to Coerce Weak States (Georgetown University Press, 2016).
Image: A U.S. Army soldier provides cover during exercise “Combined Resolve.” Flickr/U.S. Army