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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO readies for combat on its borders

American soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division firing artillery during an exercise at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, near the Black Sea port of Constanta, Romania, last month.

By Steven Erlanger

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the costliest conflict in Europe since World War II, has propelled NATO into a full-throttled effort to make itself again into the capable, war-fighting alliance it had been during the Cold War.

The shift is transformative for an alliance characterized for decades by hibernation and self-doubt. After the recent embrace of long-neutral Finland by the alliance, it also amounts to another significant unintended consequence for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, of his war.

NATO is rapidly moving from what the military calls deterrence by retaliation to deterrence by denial. In the past, the theory was that if the Russians invaded, member states would try to hold on until allied forces, mainly American and based at home, could come to their aid and retaliate against the Russians to try to push them back.

But after the Russian atrocities in areas it occupied in Ukraine, from Bucha and Irpin to Mariupol and Kherson, frontier states such as Poland and the Baltic countries no longer want to risk any period of Russian occupation. They note that in the first days of the Ukrainian invasion, Russian troops took land larger than some Baltic nations.

To prevent that, to deter by denial, means a revolution in practical terms: more troops based permanently along the Russian border, more integration of U.S. and allied war plans, more military spending and more detailed requirements for allies to have specific kinds of forces and equipment to fight, if necessary, in pre-assigned places.

Putin has long complained about NATO encirclement and encroachment. But his invasion of Ukraine provoked the alliance to shed remaining inhibitions about increased numbers of Western troops all along NATO’s border with Russia.

The intention is to make NATO’s forces not only more robust and more capable but also more visible to Russia, a key element of deterrence.

NATO has deployed a battalion of multinational troops to eight countries along the eastern border with Russia. It is detailing how to enlarge those forces to brigade strength in those front-line states to enhance deterrence and be able to push back invading forces from the start. It is also tasking thousands more forces, in case of war, to move quickly in support, with newly detailed plans for mobility and logistics and stiffer requirements for readiness.

“NATO is an organization that took a holiday from history,” said Ivo H. Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. Putin, he said, “reminded us that we have to think about defense and think about it collectively.”

The alliance will put more troops under the direct control of NATO’s top military officer, the supreme allied commander for Europe, Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, who also commands U.S. forces in Europe.

Under a new rubric of “deter and defend,” Cavoli is for the first time since the Cold War integrating U.S. and allied war-fighting plans, a senior NATO official said, speaking anonymously because of the topic’s sensitivity. Americans are back at the heart of Europe’s defense, he said, deciding with NATO precisely how America will defend Europe.

For first time since the Cold War, the official said, East European countries will know exactly what NATO intends to do to defend them — what each country should be able to do for itself and how other countries will be tasked to help. And Western countries in the alliance will know where their forces need to go, with what and how to get there.

NATO is also aligning its longer-term demands from allies with its current operational needs. If in the past NATO countries might be asked to send some lightly armed expeditionary forces with helicopters to Afghanistan, for instance, now they will be tasked to defend particular parts of NATO territory itself.

For Britain, just one example, that will mean that it must provide more heavy armor to defend NATO’s eastern flank, even if the British government would prefer to continue to field a lighter, more expeditionary army, requiring less money, fewer people and less expensive heavy equipment.

The planning in NATO is already intrusive but will become more demanding and specific. Countries answer questionnaires about their capacities and equipment; NATO planners tell them what’s missing or could be cut or thinned.

In one case, said Robert G. Bell, defense adviser to the U.S. mission at NATO until 2017, Denmark was told to stop wasting money building submarines. Canada was told it must provide air-refueling planes.

Countries can push back — for years some nations with frigates refused to put air-defense missiles on them for fear of seeming escalatory — but they must defend their plans before all NATO members. If the other allies all agree that a country’s plan is inadequate, they can vote to force adaptation in what is known as “consensus minus one.” Such a demand is rare, but happened with Canada, Bell said.

Now the demands will be tougher and more rigorous to bring the alliance back to a war-fighting capacity in Europe and make deterrence credible — to ensure that NATO can fight a high-intensity war against a rival, Russia, from the first day of conflict.

The change at NATO began slowly in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea, igniting insurrection in the eastern Donbas. At their summit that year in Wales, NATO allies agreed on a goal for military spending of 2% of gross domestic product by 2024. At the moment, only eight of 31 countries, including new member Finland, met that goal, but military spending has increased significantly, up $350 billion since 2014.

At the next NATO summit, in July, a new spending plan will be agreed upon, with 2% of GDP regarded as a minimum. Given Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine, if major countries spend between 2.5% and 3% of GDP on the military over the next decade, that should be sufficient, the senior NATO official said.

After 2014, NATO also agreed to put four small battalion-sized forces in the Baltic states and Poland. The idea was to engage invaders and hope to get reinforcements in place a week or two after an invasion.

After Russia’s invasion last year, NATO added four more forward-based battalions, to make eight such forces along NATO’s eastern edge, now including Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria. But the total troop number for all eight battle groups is only 10,232, NATO says.

NATO is planning how to scale up to brigade-sized forces, meaning putting about 4,000 to 5,000 troops in each country to make NATO’s enhanced deterrence “a more robust tripwire,” Bell said.

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