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The War in Ukraine Is Remaking the NATO Alliance

M1 Abrams Tank firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
M1 Abrams Tank firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Poland Is Showing NATO What Must Be Done – President Joe Biden’s visit to Poland on March 25, coming immediately after NATO and G-7 summits in Brussels, has sent an unmistakable message that the United States is re-thinking the core principles of its increasingly Asia-centric strategy of the past decade.

The visit, and especially the President’s speech delivered at the Royal Castle in Warsaw the next day, has recommitted the United States to Europe and NATO, asserting firmly that the Article V of the Washington Treaty remains a “sacred obligation,” and that America and its allies will defend “each and every inch of NATO territory with the full force of our collective power.”

Changes to U.S. force posture in Europe, with additional deployments of troops and equipment along NATO’s Eastern frontier to enhance U.S. capabilities, have given substance to the President’s pronouncements. Most importantly, at the urging of the United States but also through deliberate decisions by European governments, NATO has begun the process of refocusing on its core business of collective defense, putting behind its meandering “out-of-area” post-Cold War mandate.

An Alliance Transformed Due to Russian Aggression

Arriving in Poland only two weeks after his Vice-President’s visit, Biden also signaled that in the wake of the political earthquake triggered by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland is today – and will be for years to come – what West Germany was during the Cold War: the key NATO frontier state, and thus a strategic ally of the United States. This geopolitical reality has already shifted the internal political dynamic within NATO, giving Poland, the Baltic States, and Central Europe writ large a bigger voice in the alliance, and a new opportunity to shape its overall strategy going forward.

For America, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the attendant danger of further escalation into NATO territory put hard power and national defense capabilities front and center. This change is affecting all NATO members, including the United States. After two decades of counterterrorism operations that pushed America into various and sundry “nation-building” cul-de-sacs, CT is finally back where it should have been all along: mid-pack among our national security priorities, with the state-on-state threat posed by Russia and China at the top of the list.  Hence, today we are at a unique moment of opportunity to return NATO to its core business and to strengthen allied solidarity.

Poland Is Leading the Way

Poland has led this effort for a number of years now, having committed funds to expand its military already after Putin’s 2008 war against Georgia and his 2014 seizure of Crimea.  In 2018 Poland signed a contract to buy Raytheon’s medium-range Patriot system currently in use by the U.S. Army, with delivery projected for 2022 or soon thereafter.  Next, in 2019 Warsaw inked a deal to buy the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) from the U.S. for $414 million. Poland’s first HIMARS unit will comprise 18 combat-ready launchers and two launchers intended for training.  In 2020 Poland signed a contract worth $4.6 billion to acquire 32 F-35A Lightning II fighter planes from the U.S.  This past February the State Department approved an estimated $6 billion sale of 250 M1A2 Abrams SEPv3 tanks; the contract is expected to be finalized within days. Poland’s extensive acquisition of U.S. weapons systems has two key benefits: (1) it increases interoperability between U.S. and Polish forces, and (2) it brings the two countries strategically closer together in NATO.

Equally important, the Polish government has committed to fielding a 300,000 person military, with 250,000 regular forces and a 50,000 person territorial defense force (WOT), the latter established in 2017. Last but not least, in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Warsaw also announced that it would increase its defense spending to 3% of its GDP. This decision will make Poland the third-largest spender on defense in NATO. According to 2021 estimates, the highest spenders were Greece at 3.82%, the United States at 3.52%, and Croatia at 2.79%, while Poland’s figure for 2021 was 2.1% of its GDP. Last but not least, Poland has become the principal conduit for Western aid to Ukraine and, as of this writing, has taken in over 2.3 million Ukrainian refugees.

Taking on Challenges of a Changed World

The current consensus across the West to return NATO to the business of collective defense owes as much to Russia’s modernized and expanded nuclear arsenal, as it does to China’s massive manufacturing base and capital accumulation from four decades of the PRC’s mercantilism-cum-theft. Either one separately is a serious challenge; if fully melded together, the Sino-Russian threat may become daunting. Hence, today NATO finds itself at a moment when real deeds – not declarations – matter most.

NATO’s current predicament when it comes to collective defense has been a self-inflicted wound.  It resulted from over twenty years of its reliance on America’s military power, coupled with Europe’s decision – especially Germany’s – to effectively disarm and free-ride under the US security umbrella. A case in point: today the equipment level in the Bundeswehr has been reduced by 90% compared to where the German armed forces were at the end of the Cold War; its manpower is down by two-thirds.  These are just the numbers; the obsolescence of those weapons paints an even grimmer picture. Likewise, the British army is too small, and while the French army remains serious about maintaining adequate military capabilities, it is operationally focused South towards the Mediterranean and into Africa, as today Europe’s southern border runs deep into the Sahel.  One could go on, but suffice it to say that today in the alliance only the United States, France, Poland, and to a lesser extent Romania have capabilities that could provide deterrence by denial, and be employed quickly should Putin decide to jump the fence into NATO territory.

NATO’s three decades of disarmament went hand in hand with self-congratulatory ideology and poor judgment, with emotion rather than a reasoned calculus of national priorities aligning with commitments of money and power to drive strategy. During the past twenty years, NATO has become a hollowed-out shell when it comes to collective defense, more like a perpetual think-tank conference than the once formidable alliance that deterred the Warsaw Pact and laid the foundation for the West’s ultimate victory over the Soviet Union. The new NATO Headquarters building in Brussels, a 2,700,000 square feet 759-million-euro project that took six years to complete best symbolizes this sorry state of affairs: a gleaming edifice representing an alliance that, without the United States military, can field precious few real exercised capabilities and depends on the US for virtually all high-end enablers.

A Return to Core Principals

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a seminal event in that it has reminded Western democracies that they must return to the fundamentals of statecraft seemingly all but forgotten in most of Europe. National defense and national security are the irreducible functions of the state, transcending economic, environmental, or ideological considerations, for without sufficiently resourced defense no country will remain sovereign to chart its political or economic course.  The flood of Ukrainian refugees continues to remind Europe’s elites that unless their countries are strong enough to deter Russia, and if need be, defend against an armed attack, human tragedy and misery may in fact come to their doorsteps.  Ukraine’s stubborn and brave resistance against the Russian invader has also prompted the allies to recall a seemingly forgotten lesson that when war breaks out, stopping the fighting through a hasty compromise is nowhere near as important as stopping the invader and winning.  It took a major war in Europe, or rather how the Ukrainian nation answered the call to arms, to remind us all of those first principles of statecraft and national security.

In the coming years, rebuilding NATO’s real exercised military capabilities will be the core test of leadership across Europe. It will take at least a decade for European NATO to rearm. At the same time, the decisive phase of our great power competition with Russia and China will likely play itself out in the next five years, possibly two or three. This means that the United States will need to perform a critical “bridging” function when it comes to deterrence along NATO’s Eastern frontier.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that even if the Europeans honor their pledges to spend on defense (Germany pledged to add 100 billion euros to its defense budget forthwith), Europe’s defense industry lacks the capacity to ramp up production quickly.  Hence, the best course of action would be for our European allies, especially Germany, to follow Poland’s lead, i.e., buy American equipment, thereby enhancing interoperability and strengthening the strategic bond across the Atlantic.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Andrew A. Michta is Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany.  He is also former a Professor of National Security Affairs at USNWC and a former Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in DC. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Written By

Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and a new Contributing Editor for 1945. He is the former Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College and former Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. You can follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMichta. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.