As leaders in western capitals continue to hope that Russian president Vladimir Putin will not extend his invasion further into Ukraine, or worse to the Transnistria region of Moldova, discussion has increasingly focused on what concrete measures the United States and its NATO allies might take in response. Certainly economic sanctions—stronger than what’s been done to date—must be part of the policy response, but U.S. leaders can also take other steps to bolster NATO allies now concerned with their own security, including deploying U.S. troops to Eastern Europe.
In 1949, the first Secretary General of NATO, Lord Hastings Ismay of the United Kingdom, declared that the purpose of the alliance was to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down. Although most of Europe no longer fears Germany as they did in Ismay’s time, keeping the Russians out and the Americans in remains vital to many U.S. allies across Europe. In a reminder that all politics—even international politics—is local, those NATO countries closest to Russia, especially the Baltic countries, Poland and Romania, have been most vocal in calling for a strong response from the West, including bolstering the U.S. presence in Europe.
So far, the West’s policy response has been fairly mild—certainly sanctions on several individuals and a bank are necessary, but they’re far from sufficient, judging from the reaction in Moscow, on the ground in Crimea, and along Ukraine’s eastern border. Similarly, efforts to expel the Russians from the G8 have been met with a dismissive shrug from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who reportedly said, “ so be it .” If it matters to Russia to matter in world affairs—and this seems to be the animating feature of Russian national-security policy over the last fifteen years—then excluding it from international institutions or other gatherings will have an impact, but a limited one at best.
More effective will be efforts to undermine the very basis for Russia mattering in the world—namely, its economic strength, which is underwritten largely by resource extraction. For this reason, targeting the Russian oil industry will be most effective, through a combination of sanctions and efforts to drive the price of oil down. Such steps, along with others designed to make continued Russian interaction with the global economy more difficult and more expensive, will take time but could ultimately have a significant impact on decision-makers in Moscow.
In the meantime, the United States should consider a number of other moves designed to reassure nervous American allies in Eastern Europe, deter the Russians from further adventurism, and signal to authorities in Moscow that the days of accommodating its boorish behavior are over. Augmenting the U.S. contribution to the Baltic air-policing mission and immediately increasing what has been an occasional, short-term U.S. Air Force presence in Poland have been welcome steps along these lines, but Washington and its allies should consider going further.
For example, officials in both Poland and Romania have in recent days called for a more permanent American military presence in Eastern Europe. If policymakers were to pursue this, they could take advantage of already existing infrastructure to reassure allies as quickly as possible and to make such a presence more cost effective in both Poland and Romania. For example, U.S. forces numbering up to 150 troops have previously deployed on a short-term, rotational basis to Morag, a base in northeastern Poland, for missile-defense training with Polish counterparts.
Even more promising might be the Task Force East facilities in Romania and Bulgaria. Built to temporarily host up to several thousand troops between two locations near Constanta, Romania and Burgas, Bulgaria, these facilities are used by U.S. forces today for periodic exercises, other short-duration training events, and logistical throughput for operations elsewhere. Turning the occasional U.S. presence at Task Force East—especially at the facility in Romania—into a permanent one with U.S. forces deployed from Italy, Germany, or even the United States would dramatically reassure Eastern European allies on the American commitment to their security.
In a related move, U.S. policymakers ought to consider announcing a halt to further reductions in the permanent forward presence of American forces in Europe, especially ground forces. Steadily cut since the early 1990s, U.S. forces in Europe today face the prospect of additional reductions, given defense sequestration. Those remaining forward-based troops support an array of missions including maintaining interoperability with NATO allies for ongoing and future coalition operations; building partner capacity in Europe, Africa and the Levant; providing logistical support for U.S. military operations in Africa, parts of Asia and Europe; reassuring allies of the U.S. commitment to security in Europe; and deterring aggression against those same allies. Further reductions to the U.S. forward presence in Europe risk all of these missions. To declare that such cuts are now off the table would both bolster allies and explicitly signal to Russia that it has altered the security environment across Europe for the foreseeable future.