Complaining about the weaknesses of European military forces has long been a favorite sport of American politicians, defense officials and pundits; this is one issue on which populists and the Establishment agree. Indeed, presidential candidate Donald Trump’s threats to withdraw from NATO unless European members pay up are really only different in quantity than in quality than Barack Obama’s “free-rider” rhetoric. Many of these complaints have merit; the failure to meet the defense-spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product is to fall before a pretty low hurdle.
Thus developments that don’t fit the conventional narrative are overlooked. Perhaps the most significant of these is the commitment made at this summer’s Warsaw summit to permanently station three “Enhanced Forward Presence” battlegroups—that is, reinforced battalion-sized units—in the three Baltic states and a fourth American unit just over the border in Poland. In conjunction with the U.S. “European Reassurance Initiative,” which will see a heavy armored brigade combat team deployed on “heel-to-toe” 9 month rotations and the building of three additional brigades’ worth of prepositioned stocks at locations in western Europe and possibly Poland, it begins to look as though the alliance is at last matching its military posture to the strategy of expansion initiated in the 1990s.
There are several further shoes to drop in this direction. First, NATO has at last gotten serious about creating—and validating through exercising—a reasonably powerful rapid-deployment brigade, now being organized under British leadership. Second, the alliance is recreating corps and divisional organizations of the sort needed to conduct large-scale operations; for some time now, there has been no command and control capability between the level of four-star general and brigade commander. And finally, there are plans afoot to conduct expansive and large-scale exercises this summer in southeast Europe; in essence, to repeat the formula that led to the breakthroughs at Warsaw.
In sum, the alliance is moving—albeit in a typical hedged, caveated, and tortoise-like NATO manner— toward the “eastern front” it created decades ago but had yet to defend. Eastern Europe has devolved into something of a no man’s land—no longer East, but not fully West—and, of course, a target for the kind of pushing, poking, and prodding Vladimir Putin has perfected. But if the current trend continues (and there is every reason to suppose it can), it may appear in a few years’ time that Putin’s provocations end up producing the very effect he wished to prevent: not only will NATO nations be on his border, but NATO troops. For the first time since 1944, the German army will be garrisoned in Lithuania.
A footnote: if the scenario sketched above comes to pass, much of the credit would accrue to the leadership of the senior U.S. military officers who have served in Europe in recent years, notably the recently retired NATO Supreme Commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove. A glimpse into Breedlove’s activities came through the recent revelation of the hacked e-mails of former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. In 2014, Breedlove wrote to Powell seeking advice on how to toughen NATO posture in response to Russian aggression, especially in Ukraine: “I do not see this [White House] really ‘engaged’ by working with Europe/NATO,” Breedlove protested. “Frankly I think we”—that is, the senior U.S. leadership in Europe—“are a ‘worry’ [for the administration]…i.e. a threat to get the nation drug into a conflict.” If, rather, NATO can contain the conflict by building a more robust deterrent to Russian attempts to subdue Eastern Europe, it will be a case of “leading from below” trumping “leading from behind.”