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5 Things NATO Must Do to Deter a Dangerous Russia

M1 Abrams Tank. Image Credit: US Marine Corp.

5 Steps NATO Should Take To Deter A Frightened And Dangerous Russia – The post-Cold War era is over. The invasion of Ukraine is as transformative for global security as was the start of the Korean War or the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the U.S. is not directly engaged in the battle for Ukraine, it is already deeply involved in a new Cold War.

The argument that the invasion was a result of Putin’s fear of NATO expansion misconstrues the Russian leader’s fears and motives. NATO posed no threat; the invasion of Ukraine has exposed just how weak the Alliance is military. After all, NATO only changed its strategic concept and deployed forces to the Baltic States and Poland after Russia invaded the Donbas in 2014. And these changes—small air units and a few battalion-sized battlegroups rolling into the Baltics—were relatively minor. Since then, the Alliance has done nothing to pose a threat to Russia.

Putin chose to invade a harmless neighbor as a way to protect his political position at home. In order to secure the Kremlin’s kleptocracy, Putin needs to ensure Russia’s permanent isolation from the West, and one way to do that is to prevent Ukraine from adopting Western political and economic principles from NATO or the European Union. The invasion of the Donbas in 2014 came after the Maidan revolution overthrew the Russian-backed former President because he opposed Ukraine joining the EU. Then, as now, the Russian military was used to serve Putin’s domestic political ends.

Putin could not stand the idea of Ukraine becoming a more wealthy and prosperous nation governed by the rule of law. He had the appropriate satrapy in Belarus and needed to create, at minimum, a similar regime in Ukraine.

NATO offered to negotiate with Russia to ease its concerns, however specious, regarding the Alliance’s intentions, the military balance in Europe, and the number and kinds of weapons that would be deployed on the Continent. Putin responded with a pair of draft treaties, one with NATO and the other with the U.S., that would have left all of Eastern Europe undefended.

For Putin, NATO and the U.S. pose existential threats because they deny Moscow the ability to use its military posture to force concessions in other domains. Control over Ukraine will not be enough to provide the Kremlin with the security it craves. If anything, incorporating Ukraine into a new Russian Empire will result in the creation of a thousand-mile-long hostile border with NATO. This will also exacerbate Russia’s internal economic and political strife, making the Kremlin even more likely to focus on external enemies, particularly NATO, to hold the country together.

NATO now faces a strategic threat that is, if anything, more serious than that which existed during the Cold War. Back then, the center of the threat to Europe was the Fulda gap along the border between East and West Germany. It would have offered the Soviet Group of Forces in Germany direct access to the West German heartland and was therefore guarded by more than a dozen NATO divisions. The twenty-first-century equivalent is a 64-mile-wide land bridge between the Poland-Belarus border and the Russian territory of Kaliningrad, the Suwalki Gap. Defending this corridor from a Russian attack will be no easy task.

The U.S. and Europe must now come to terms with the reality that no set of common interests, economic, cultural, or environmental, will be sufficient to keep Moscow from pursuing its strategic interests at the expense of those of other states. This includes military means. The idea of deterring Russia must now give way to that of defending Europe from the possibility of further Russian aggression.

What is to be done?

First, NATO and the U.S. must move forces eastward. This is not a temporary deployment but the permanent placement of heavy forces in Poland, Romania, and the Baltics. The U.S. should relocate the newly reestablished V Corps headquarters to Poland and, with Warsaw’s agreement, begin planning for the permanent deployment of at least a full heavy division in that country. Stryker brigades should be deployed to the Baltic and Romania. The UK, France, and Germany should also deploy forces eastward.

The U.S. also should plan now to deploy the fruits of Army modernization efforts, particularly Long Range Precision Fires (LRPFs), to Europe rather than hold them in CONUS as some have suggested. These include the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, the Precision Strike Missile, and Medium Range Missiles.

Second, NATO must begin the long and difficult process of rebuilding its conventional land warfare capabilities. Many NATO nations disinvested in heavy armor in the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union. They need to reverse course. The Alliance needs to build forces able to take on Russian armor and artillery.

One nation that is doing so is Poland. Recently, the U.S. government approved the sale of 250 M1A2 SEPv3 main battle tanks, currently available in U.S. inventories, to Warsaw. The Biden administration should accelerate the sale to get the tanks to Poland this year.

Third, the Biden administration must undertake steps to speed delivery of F-35s to European nations that have agreed to acquire the aircraft. The Polish purchase of 32 F-35As should be fast-tracked. The UK also needs to make good on its commitment to acquire 90 additional F-35s.

Fourth, the war in Ukraine demonstrates the value of ground-based air and missile defense. NATO needs more capabilities to defeat Russian strike aircraft, helicopters, and missiles. The U.S. is sending additional Patriot batteries to Europe. The U.S. needs to accelerate production of the IM-SHORAD and deploy additional units to NATO. NATO nations should consider acquiring new air and missile defense capabilities, such as the Israeli Iron Dome system.

Putin took almost no time in this latest crisis to rattle his nuclear saber. We must expect more of this. Hence, fifth, the U.S. must move forward expeditiously on its program to modernize all three legs of the Strategic Triad, something Russia has already done. The Biden administration also should proceed with the development of a new sea-based nuclear-armed cruise missile.

Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.

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Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.