Nato’s eastern front: will the military build-up make Europe safer?
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British Challenger 2 tanks prowl the Polish countryside. Elite French special forces troops keep watch on Romania’s Black Sea coast. US missile batteries scan the skies of Slovakia. A Norwegian F-35 scrambles to intercept an unidentified Russian aircraft that appears off the coast of Finland.
As battle rages in Ukraine, Nato allies along the alliance’s eastern flank have collectively embarked on the most significant — and rapid — military deployment in the history of modern Europe: a state of alert and readiness short of war, but also far from peace.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has wrenched Europe and Nato back to a scenario that it thought it had consigned to the past.
Scrambling for relevancy after the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan and riven with divides between European allies with vastly different views of its future role, the alliance had earmarked 2022 for a reboot to follow the US pivot towards Asia and the threat from China.
In the space of a few weeks, it has instead forged an unprecedented level of unity in response to its original adversary: Moscow.
Today, eastern Europe is more militarised than at any time since the height of the cold war. Once again, nuclear-armed superpowers face off across the wide expanse between the Baltic and the Black seas.
At the same time, arms control deals from the cold war era, such as the INF Treaty that banned cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,500km, and the Open Skies agreement, which allowed Russia and Nato members to conduct reconnaissance flights over the other’s military sites, have been torn up. The same goes for communication and deconfliction channels between Moscow and western capitals.
The outcome is a continent with more weapons and soldiers at a state of high alert than it has seen for decades but without the guard rails that provided reassurance during the cold war: Europe is arguably less safe today than at any point since 1945.
This has raised the question as to whether Nato’s military build-up has made Europe better protected, or simply intensified an already fraught situation.
The Russian president sees it as just the most recent step in an ever more threatening posture that justified his attack on Kyiv.
In recent days, he has stepped up his rhetoric regarding a possible strike on Nato members — a move that would almost certainly trigger Article 5, the alliance’s mutual defence pact, and most likely precipitate a world war. He has accused the alliance of both intimidation and fighting a proxy war against him in Ukraine through billions of dollars in weapons supplies.
“We have all the weapons we need for this,” he said last week of a potential response, referring to Russia’s most modern nuclear missile system. “No one else can brag about these weapons, and we won’t brag about them. But we will use them.”
Nato argues it has little choice but to expand its presence in eastern Europe.
“Is it safer? Well, not doing it will not make us safer,” says Admiral Rob Bauer, chair of the Nato Military Committee, the alliance’s highest military authority.
“Not being strong and credible is more dangerous than being strong and credible,” he adds. “The deterrence factor is very important.”
Nato’s response to the invasion
In less than a fortnight following Putin’s invasion, Nato demolished decades of conventional alliance group think over its military posture in Europe, and the risk of antagonising Moscow — even as Putin vowed to retaliate against any threats to Russia’s security and made repeated threats to deploy nuclear weapons.
Forty thousand troops in eastern Europe are under Nato’s direct command — 10 times the number on the day before Putin’s invasion. Eight countries now host Nato battle groups — twice the number previously. And a rapid response force, formed of up to 10,000 troops, has been activated in the name of collective defence for the first time in the alliance’s history.
“It flipped a switch when the Russians attacked Ukraine. The death and destruction, and the way the operations were conducted,” says Bauer.
“European security and defence has evolved more in the last six days than in the last two decades,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said on March 1, as the scale of the continent’s new reality sank in.
At the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US had 200,000 troops in West Germany.
Today, Nato’s eastern flank states, from the Baltics in the north, down to Bulgaria on the Black Sea, currently boast about 330,000 troops: national armies bolstered by reinforcements from western Europe, the US and Canada. In addition to land forces, as many as 130 Nato aircraft are on high alert, and about 150 warships patrol the seas.
“Previously unthinkable” is how one senior alliance official describes the change in Nato’s eastern European presence.
Nato commanders justify the military build-up as a necessary safety measure to bolster their ability to defend the alliance from the scale of Russian warfare seen against Ukraine — and an increase in deterrence consummate to Putin’s perceived level of risk-taking.
“We had the dilemma leading up to invasion, where people said: no we need to continue the dialogue, we need to be careful with the military posture, and we need to not push [Putin] into action because of the things we do,” says Bauer. “[But] whatever we do, he will do whatever he wants to do: that’s the problem.”
Nato’s response to the invasion of Ukraine was actually four years in the making, a series of pre-cooked emergency steps that had been devised by the alliance’s defence heads for exactly this scenario.
After the end of the cold war, a listless Nato searched for purpose as direct threats to its members appeared to fade. The alliance left its geography to intervene in conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Nato became an alliance “about wars of choice,” says Bauer. “And we did that for 20 years.”
Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, to annex Crimea in 2014, woke the alliance from that slumber.
“What Crimea taught us was that it’s not us deciding the timeline [for conflict] but the adversary, the enemy,” Bauer says. “That led to a discussion: does everything we have in terms of strategy and plans actually fit that change? And the answer basically was no.”
A series of internal agreements, given serious-sounding titles and jargon acronyms, were drafted, debated and approved between 2018 and 2021, including the first new Nato military strategy in five decades and a full rethink of what deterring an invasion by the modernised Russian armed forces would require.
As a result, when the leaders of Nato’s 30 countries assembled for a virtual emergency summit on February 25, they only needed to agree on which of the five response plans were necessary. They agreed on all five.
“While all this was being drawn up it looked rather dull and abstract. And then we pulled them out at the end of last year, and there you had it: a massive increase in force presence on the eastern flank,” says the senior Nato official.
Alliance officials say that some of the military increase has been realised simply by fully equipping missions that had previously been understaffed. Air patrols that demanded eight jets would previously be undertaken by just three.
“There were gaps before, but now it’s total blanket coverage,” the senior official adds. “All of this simply wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.”
The alliance’s most groundbreaking change, most Nato officials agree, is a conceptual one. Countries no longer feel constrained by the Nato-Russia founding act, a 1997 document signed by the alliance and Moscow that, among other things, called for a reduction of military force and the avoidance of new deployments close to each other’s geographies.
“The Nato-Russia act is still there. But nothing that we have to do is going to be hampered by its content,” says Bauer. Privately, many member state officials say they consider it dead.
“For now, the general opinion on the political level is that we do not kill [the agreement], but nothing in it . . . will stop us doing what we have to do,” Bauer adds.
Danger of escalation
Across the barricades, they see things differently. And they have done for some time.
“Nato has put its front-line forces on our borders,” Putin said in a speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference now viewed as a landmark moment in his relations with the west, and the funeral rites for partnership between Moscow and Nato. “We have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?”
Putin’s railing against what he sees as the inexorable expansion of Nato eastward has been a constant drumbeat in his more than 22 years in charge of Russia.
Since the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the USSR, 12 countries have joined the alliance. Three — the Baltic states — were former Soviet republics. Seven more were previously members of the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact military alliance. Nato’s eastern flank is 1,100km closer to the Kremlin than the West German border in 1989.
When he announced the invasion of Ukraine in February, Putin repeatedly returned to the theme of Nato expansion as a justification.
“Fundamental threats that year after year, step by step, are rudely and unceremoniously created by irresponsible politicians in the west in relation to our country: I mean the expansion of the Nato bloc to the east, bringing its military infrastructure closer to Russian borders,” Putin said.
Bauer dismisses such rhetoric as “nonsense”.
“We are responding to the actions of Mr Putin. We are not doing this because we want to show an escalatory posture,” he says. “He is attacking Ukraine. He is in Belarus. He attacked Georgia. We have not attacked Russia, not once. We are responding to his actions.”
Russia’s western military district, which covers territories bordering Finland, the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine, plus the exclave of Kaliningrad, boasts the country’s largest and best-equipped armed forces. More than 300,000 troops provide the full spectrum of warfare, from tank divisions, special forces and ground-based missile launchers, alongside naval and air force bases.
As a result of the Kremlin’s moves in recent years to deepen its control over its ally Belarus — where the Russian armed forces deployed tens of thousands of troops this winter — Nato and Russia’s enhanced military presence is now in greater proximity to each other, regardless of the ultimate outcome of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Nato has been steadfast in its refusal to countenance any direct intervention into Ukraine, while stressing its vow to defend “every inch” of alliance territory from possible spillover. But it is difficult to ignore the reality that the means to avoid escalation — more troops and more kit — also raise the risk of it happening.
“Of course, as long as the war continues, there will be a risk of escalation beyond Ukraine,” Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said last month. “And that’s exactly what Nato is focused on, to prevent that escalation . . . by increasing the presence in the eastern part of the alliance.”
“The danger of flashpoints, of escalation is obviously higher,” said a senior defence official from a large Nato member. “This stuff that has arrived in a matter of months is going to take years or decades to disappear again. Things start to become the norm very quickly.”
The official added: “And that comes over a period of time where Putin is only getting older, only thinking more and more about his legacy, and, most likely, becoming less and less predictable and less and less stable in his thoughts and actions.”
It is looking increasingly likely that the Nato-Russia frontier is only going to get more crowded, more tense, and soon. Finland and Sweden, countries that previously chose loose partnership with Nato over membership, are debating changing that longstanding policy as public opinion swings behind collective defence in light of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Finland’s membership would add more than 1,300km to the Nato-Russia border, more than doubling its current length. Add in Belarus as a Russian proxy, and the two military powers would abut along some 3,750km.
Moscow has warned that a move by Finland or Sweden to join Nato would require a military response, and end the “non-nuclear status of the Baltic Sea”.
As such, Nato says its ramp-up in the east is far from finished. At the alliance’s summit in Madrid this June, it is expected to sign off on plans to keep reinforcing the flank.
Bauer says possible future steps include more rigid command and control systems, integrated air and missile defence systems, and larger troop deployments than the existing battle groups. That would be backed up by sizeable ammunition, medical and missile defence reserves to give “the ability to sustain things for a longer time . . . and also the ability to reinforce to larger units if it is necessary”.
“Regardless of whether this war [in Ukraine] ends within weeks, months, or years, it will have long-term effects on our security, on the way Nato needs to respond and ensure continued collective defence and safety and security,” Stoltenberg said.
Bauer says Nato remains committed to de-escalation efforts, but that Russia has “cut off” all channels. He has attempted to set up calls with his opposite number — Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the general staff — before and after the invasion began, only to be rebuffed.
And while the combat ability — and reputational prestige — of Russia’s armed forces has taken a beating from more than two months of war in Ukraine, where a planned rapid capture of Kyiv failed in a morass of logistical and strategic failures and operational shortcomings, Bauer says Nato must not rest easy.
“The Russians believed their own nonsense [about Ukraine] . . . I hope they don’t, but one would have to assume they would prepare themselves properly [to attack Nato],” says Bauer.
“If you thought they were 11ft high before, you have to be very careful not to say they are 2ft high now,” he says. “I don’t think it would be wise to underestimate them.”
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