Editor’s Note: Ian Brzezinski is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. The views expressed are his own and based on testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
NATO summit took place in Warsaw last week
Ian Brzezinski: Putin's strategy rests on determined modernization of Russia's armed forces
Almost 70 years after it was created, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is faced with a growing challenge, one that loomed large over the group’s summit meeting last week: Russia’s increasing assertiveness and military power.
The alliance is keen to avoid conflict with Moscow, and reiterated its determination at Friday’s summit to reduce tensions. But the list of concerns has been growing – from Russian’s aggression including the invasion of Ukraine, to provocative military conduct against NATO allies and partners such as the recent harassment of U.S aircraft and ships, to nuclear threats by senior Russian officials and warnings from President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, the shoot down last November of a Russian fighter jet along the Syrian border of NATO member Turkey, which says the fighter violated its airspace, underscored the volatility of the ongoing confrontation between Moscow and the West.
Putin’s strategy rests on determined modernization of Russia’s armed forces, and he has dedicated more than $700 billion to this effort.
The move has been effective. Russian forces can rapidly mobilize and deploy en masse over great distances. In addition, long-range precision strike weapons are being integrated into their operations, as was demonstrated by the launching of Kalibr cruise missiles to destroy targets in Syria. Moscow’s tactical and strategic nuclear arsenals have been upgraded. And Russia’s armed forces have become more adept at sophisticated combined arms operations.
Large-scale exercises – some involving between 100,000 and 160,000 personnel – have refined these capacities. Notable, for example, have been no-notice snap drills simulating attacks on NATO allies and partners along the Baltic Sea, as far west as Denmark.
All this means that the alliance today is confronted by Russia’s ability to suddenly seize limited swaths of territory along its periphery, including that of the Baltic states and Poland. Indeed, Moscow could potentially complete such aggression before the alliance’s political authorities can determine and agree on what had transpired. NATO would then have to decide whether or not it would be worth the costs and risks of reversing that loss of territory.
To counter such a contingency, NATO members agreed at Friday’s summit to deploy battalion level forces to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to deter Russian aggression. “[T]hese battalions will be robust and they will be multinational,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “They make clear that an attack on one ally will be considered an attack on the whole alliance.”
But battalions – 800 to 1,000 troops – are small units compared with the divisions of airborne, mechanized, and tank units deployed in Russia’s Western Military District and their supporting air and naval forces.
If these NATO battalions are to effectively deter a threat of that magnitude, therefore, they need to be able to survive for a limited amount of time amid an aggressive attack. In addition, they must have sufficient lethality to impose high costs on an aggressor – even if the expectation is not to defeat that adversary. Finally, the alliance must demonstrate readiness to quickly reinforce these battalions.
What should this mean in practical terms? A credible NATO presence will require:
Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Assets: These help mitigate the danger of surprise by a nearby aggressor, giving NATO forces time to move to defensive positions.
Air Defense: Russia’s airpower and missile threats are significant, meaning air defense – and possibly missile defense – capabilities will be needed to protect these battalions.
Lethality: If NATO forward-based units are to impose costly losses on an aggressor, they must bristle with firepower, including robust anti-armor capabilities, and perhaps even their own artillery and tanks.
Integrated NATO-Host Nation War Plans: The war plans that guide these NATO units should be integrated with those of their host nations to ensure full synchronization of efforts by NATO and national forces in time of crisis and conflict.
Reinforcement: The alliance must be postured to reinforce on short notice its forward-based assets. With this in mind, the alliance will have to launch in the near future its own division-level exercises focused on the logistical and combat challenges of this mission.
NATO Command Authority: When confronted by an aggressor whose advantages include proximity, speed, and massive firepower, NATO must delegate to its commanders the authorities necessary for them to marshal in real time alliance military assets in the event of provocation and/or aggression. The reality is that there may be no time for North Atlantic Council deliberations.
During the Cold War, NATO’s generals and admirals were entrusted with the authority to deploy forces and engage opponents in comparable scenarios. This trust needs to be returned to the alliance’s military chain of command.
The alliance is correctly moving forward to strengthen its eastern frontier, even as it engages Russia to reduce tension. But the credibility of NATO’s diplomatic overture will be largely shaped by the alliance’s enhanced forward presence. Whether this latest commitment is truly a steely reflection of alliance commitment to its collective defense mission will soon be readily apparent – not least to a closely watching Moscow.