NATO’s enhanced forward presence: Will Russia react? And how?

Though NATO enhanced forward presence on the Eastern flank will be relatively small and defensive in its nature Russia is talking about countermeasures. Should we be worried or not, and why in fact in your opinion what kind of countermeasures has Russia at disposal? Read few comments.

John R. Deni*, Research Professor of National Security Studies, Strategic Studies Institute

Yes, shortly after the alliance began to leak that it would base up to four battalions in the Baltic States and Poland, Russian officials claimed that they would be creating three new divisions in the West and South of Russia.  These divisions are to be based in Smolensk, Voronezh, and Rostov-on-Don. However, the new divisions were already part of a Russian expansion of its force structure in the those areas, announced in response to an increase in NATO exercises and other activities.

This has the makings of a classic security dilemma, in the words of political scientists.  In this sort of ‘dilemma’, one side builds its capabilities in response to what it perceives as a threat from the other side.  In response, the ‘other’ side sees that build-up as a threat to it, and so it adds even more capabilities.  The first side responds again, then the other side again, and so forth, in an escalating arms race.

In this situation though, I don’t see much risk of that happening.  I think the Baltic States and Poland will be largely content with the persistent rotational presence of a battalion each, especially since this includes the Americans and the Germans.  Perhaps as importantly, I don’t see much appetite in Washington, London, Paris, or Berlin for anything beyond the four battalions already mentioned — I think those allies and many others will be content to see whether and how this enhanced forward presence both assures and deters.

* These views do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government.

Dylan LehrkeArmed Forces Analyst at IHS Jane’s

NATO military capabilities on its eastern flank are relatively small in terms of physical footprint but these forces should not be viewed in isolation. One cannot just count brigades on the front line. You need to count the rest of the iceberg beneath that small tip. The reason all of these forces must be counted is because NATO would inevitably be adapting a depth in depth strategy in the event of a conflict. Thus, its goal is not to be able to hold the front line but instead to be able to respond with vigour. The current emphasis on rotational forward forces is helping build this capacity to respond since it involves establishing and enhancing a robust logistical network to get forces to Eastern Europe quickly and maintain them once there. So while NATO may not have a large front-line force, it does have a large ‘army in being’ that must be accounted for by Moscow. This reduces Russia’s flexibility and freedom of action in the military realm. With this in mind, US and NATO forces I think are an adequate deterrent especially in light of the current low risk environment.

Regarding whether NATO should be worried about Russian counter moves in general:

As NATO reinforces its eastern flank, it should of course pay close attention to Russian counter moves. Afterall, victory in war is achieved by being able to respond and act where one’s opponent cannot, be it on a flank, in a certain place, at a certain time, or in a certain domain. Thus, any move by Russia must be met with a response just as any move by NATO must be met with a response in Moscow. This is natural as each side seeks to maintain their capacity to respond and restrain the adversary’s ability to counter. This reciprocal action can unfortunately have an escalatory dynamic. And more than any specific move by the other side, it is this escalatory dynamic that should be feared.

And one specific area of note:

While many people are focused on possible Russian counter moves in physical space, the moves in the electromagnetic spectrum are arguably of more importance and crucial to monitor. Russia is keenly aware of US dominance in the air and has paid particular attention to building up electronic warfare capabilities in an effort to break any part of the somewhat long kill chain that would be required for the US to project this air power against Russia in the event of a conflict. And as important as it is in war, it is similarly important during the current tensions as the US and Russia vie for superior situational awareness.

Magnus Nordenman, Director, Transatlantic Security Initiative, Atlantic Council

Russia’s statements about countermeasures is to be expected, and is part of a broader Russian narrative that seeks to politically isolate the Baltic States in particular, and eastern Europe in general, from the rest of the Alliance. In reality, Russia enjoys a military advantage in the broader region, in terms of both size and sophistication, although NATO remains superior strategically speaking.

Russian countermeasures could include larger exercises, the basing of Russian forces closer to the borders of the Baltic States, along with the introduction of additional long-range systems, such as air defense and conventional ballistic missiles.

I think what NATO is doing is a good start, but the Alliance needs to do more in order to put this on sustainable footing, in terms of reinforcements, supporting infrastructure, long-term commitments to providing forces on a rotational basis, and so on.

Garret Martin, Professorial Lecturer, School of International Service, Editor at Large at the European Institute, American University

We are, after all, talking about a very small number of troops (about 4,000) on a rotational basis. I do expect some sort of Russian reaction – be it public statements, maybe some additional snap unannounced exercises, or some further aggressive maneuvers in NATO airspace – but I think it will remain largely symbolic and measured.



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