The West is preparing to strengthen its eastern defenses if Russia invades Ukraine
But despite warnings to Putin from the White House, the Biden administration has not detailed what an enhanced presence on NATO’s eastern border would look like after a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nor have warnings of a strengthened NATO stopped Russia’s buildup of forces, missiles and armored vehicles around Ukraine.
Already, the United States has deployed about 2,000 additional forces from Fort Bragg in North Carolina, mostly in Poland, in response to Russian construction on the Ukrainian border to reassure Russia’s close allies. On Friday, US officials said 3,000 from the 82nd Airborne Division would join them, bringing the total to 5,000 within days.
Meanwhile, 1,000 US troops were expected to arrive in Romania from a US facility in Germany, adding to the 900 US troops already in the Eastern European country.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was considering adjustments to its eastern position in the longer term.
“If Russia really wants less NATO near the borders, it will get the opposite,” Stoltenberg said Feb. 7 during a joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda. “We saw this after 2014 when Russia came in and annexed Crimea and entered Donbass,” referring to Russian-backed separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine.
For years, the United States had withdrawn forces and weapons from Europe, as NATO prepared for a new mission in the aftermath of the Cold War. But after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea, Washington and its European allies changed course, again seeing the need to mount defenses against a threat emanating from Moscow, especially in the new member states. of NATO close to Russia.
In the years since 2014, NATO has established combat-ready battlegroups in the Baltic states and Poland. These multinational forces, which total about 4,500 men, are led by the United States in Poland, Germany in Lithuania, Canada in Latvia and Great Britain in Estonia.
NATO has also established a multinational brigade in Romania, as well as an air policing mission, and created the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, or VJTF, a unit on alert to deploy at all times. against NATO threats.
The United States also supported the eastern flank allies on a bilateral basis, for example by periodically rotating a US armored battalion through Lithuania, a combat aviation brigade through Latvia, and special operations forces Americans across the three Baltic countries. The U.S. Army has also established a forward command post in Poznan, Poland, to oversee rotational forces in Europe.
If Russia invades Ukraine, these activities are likely to grow in scale and quantity. The alliance plans to place combat-ready battlegroups – such as those already operating in Poland and the Baltics – in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary, according to a NATO diplomat who, like d others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The diplomat said any additional rotations to these countries would depend on the host government’s willingness to accept them.
The United States would also almost certainly step up the rotation of American forces in eastern NATO member states, the diplomat and a US official added. A senior defense official said “there have been discussions but no decision” about more permanent moves.
NATO is also likely to expand exercises, training programs and intelligence gathering, as well as air policing missions and maritime deployments in the Black and Baltic Seas, the diplomat said.
Hardening the eastern flank defenses would go against Putin’s demands. As well as insisting that NATO halt its eastward expansion, Russia has demanded that the alliance bring its forces and weaponry back to its 1997 borders.
The year is not arbitrary. In 1997, NATO and Russia signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act, declaring that they “do not consider each other as adversaries”. In the pact, NATO said that “under the current and foreseeable security environment”, the alliance does not envisage any “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” beyond existing borders. At the time, the former Warsaw Pact countries and the Soviet republics east of Germany were not yet members of NATO.
The act is one of the reasons the United States is rotating its forces to allied nations on NATO’s eastern flank rather than stationing them there permanently, even though many officials from NATO nations NATO believe Russia has already violated the act with its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. A US official said the Biden administration would not feel constrained by the act at all if Moscow were to violate the pact by staging a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
For years, countries on the eastern flank have pushed for more US forces to be deployed on their soil to deter Moscow, seeing US troops as a tripwire for the Kremlin. Russia would think twice before invading its territory if it would risk killing American soldiers and direct war with the United States, the country’s top officials say.
Romania, which joined NATO in 2004, feels particularly exposed and is pushing for additional US forces on its territory. The country shares the largest land border of any NATO country with Ukraine, as well as a difficult-to-defend Black Sea coastline. It is also home to Europe’s only operational Aegis Ashore missile defense facility, making the country a target of Moscow’s ire.
“What we need is a permanent presence of American soldiers,” Romanian Ambassador to the United States Andrei Muraru said in an interview, noting that NATO’s southeastern flank must be reinforced.
“That’s what we need – a permanent presence – because, as we have seen over the past seven years, Russia is not a friend,” he said. “It’s very, very clear. Romania is a country with a long and traumatic history of Russian aggression.
Lithuania is seeking a “heel-to-toe” rotation of US troops, which would mean there is still a US force present in the country even if it is not permanently based there, said Laurynas Kasciunas, president of the National Security and Defense Committee of the Lithuanian Parliament.
Lithuania sits between the heavily armed Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus, which is hosting tens of thousands of Russian troops and their weapons for a drill that military analysts fear is covering up an invasion of Ukraine.
“We feel like West Berlin during the Cold War era,” Kasciunas said.
The US and NATO could also provide greater air defenses for the Baltics and other eastern flank countries if Russia invades Ukraine, said Ben Hodges, the former commander of the US Army in Europe. which is now at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Romania is the only country in the region with American-made Patriot missile defenses. The alliance could also improve the logistics needed to provide rapid reinforcements to the Baltic countries in the event of a conflict with Russia, he said.
“A full-scale Russian invasion would only galvanize solidarity within the alliance,” said James Stavridis, NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander Europe. “It would also open the door to permanent deployments to NATO member states on the Russian border, including Poland.”
The pressure the United States faces from China in the Indo-Pacific also requires increased Pentagon commitments, so Western European allies will need to make a significant contribution if the NATO expands its activities and returns fully to a territorial defense mission following any Russian attack. invasion, said Jim Townsend, a former senior Defense Department politician.
“It’s a home game now,” Townsend said, “and the allies are going to have to step up like they did in the Cold War.”