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Splits open at NATO about how to boost presence in Eastern Europe

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 17/05/2022 Michael Birnbaum, Missy Ryan

TALLINN, Estonia — Divisions are opening among NATO members about how to boost military deployments in Eastern Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, amid disagreements about whether the Kremlin’s faltering battlefield effort means it cannot significantly threaten alliance territory.

The debate underlines different assessments of the lessons from nearly three months of war in Ukraine. The Baltic states and Poland are asking for a significantly expanded military presence on their soil and new capabilities such as antiaircraft defense that could make it far harder for Russia to invade. Other policymakers, including from France and Italy, are voicing skepticism that the shambolic Russian invasion force will pose a threat to NATO territory anytime soon.

A British tank is used in a training exercise May 4 in Finland that also included forces from the United States, Latvia and Estonia. © Roni Rekomaa/Bloomberg A British tank is used in a training exercise May 4 in Finland that also included forces from the United States, Latvia and Estonia. An initial decision must be made by the end of June, when NATO leaders will meet at a summit in Madrid. At that gathering, they are also expected to give initial approval to Finland and Sweden’s membership applications, assuming Turkey dials back its objections. The expansion would itself significantly increase NATO’s military capability in the eastern part of the alliance.

“Russia’s direct military aggression against NATO allies cannot be excluded,” according to a confidential joint proposal from the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that was obtained by The Washington Post. “Russia can rapidly mass military forces against NATO’s eastern border and confront the Alliance with a short war and fait accompli,” the document said, proposing that a division-size contingent of about 20,000 troops be tasked with speeding to each of the countries if they are under threat.

Other countries are more cautious about robust new commitments in Eastern Europe, wary of signing on to large deployments that would be costly and would divert troops from other areas.

“We will have a peace to build tomorrow, let us never forget that,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters last week, warning against taking actions that would make it impossible to work with Russia in the future. “We will have to do this with Ukraine and Russia around the table. The end of the discussion and the negotiation will be set by Ukraine and Russia. But it will not be done in denial, nor in exclusion of each other, nor even in humiliation.”

“We are not at war with Russia,” he said in a separate tweet.

Eastern European leaders say that opting for a muted response would be a strategic mistake in the same category as the limited Western reaction to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Those were a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he could get away with attacking his neighbors, Eastern European officials say.

In invading Ukraine in February, Putin “clearly miscalculated on some basic things,” said Jonatan Vseviov, the secretary general of the Estonian Foreign Ministry.

“He believes his own propaganda. He got it wrong [in Ukraine], so he could get it wrong here” on NATO territory, and convince himself that invading the Baltic states would not draw a major response from the rest of the alliance, Vseviov said. That would be a mistake, he said, but Putin would be less likely to make the mistake if he saw a military force ready to fight back.

The deployments were one subject of a weekend meeting in Berlin of NATO foreign ministers, who agreed to keep negotiating ahead of the Madrid summit. Eastern European officials see a narrow window to secure commitments. They are worried that support will ebb in Western Europe when the Ukraine war ends.

“As soon as it’s over many of our partners in Western Europe will be quite eager to return to the status quo ante. Some of the declarations and the general spirit that we see right now might just disappear,” said one official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive and ongoing negotiations.

“We wouldn’t like that because we believe we’ve seen a tectonic shift” in European security, the official said. “We believe there’s no going back.”

While most countries in Eastern Europe don’t expect an imminent invasion, citing the fact that Russian troops are now bogged down in Ukraine and will probably take time to regroup after the war, they argue that a stronger force in the east is needed to prevent a repeat of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

“We have to reflect the security concerns by the allies that are most exposed,” Czech Deputy Defense Minister Jan Havranek said in an interview. His country has volunteered to lead a new NATO battalion in neighboring Slovakia, which is newly vulnerable because it shares a border with Ukraine. The NATO posture “needs to be scalable and tailored to the current security situation,” he said.

Eastern European countries including the Baltic states and Poland envision large NATO troop detachments, including tens of thousands of troops and “enabler” units that would provide air defenses and other protections. Under the Baltic plan, a full division of troops would not be permanently stationed in each country, but their equipment would be positioned there in advance and NATO would assign thousands of additional forces to be on standby for each country in case of a crisis. Only roughly a brigade of NATO troops — about 6,000 troops — would be on the ground in each nation on an ongoing basis, up from about 2,000 before February, according to the proposal reviewed by The Post.

“If you look at Russian strategy, if you don’t increase NATO troops on the ground, you won’t be able to respond,” said a senior European diplomat.

Poland is hosting more than 10,000 American troops, up from a prewar presence of 4,500, and would like to see even more stationed there going forward.

Why Russia is struggling in eastern Ukraine, in maps

U.S. officials say there is broad agreement across NATO that Eastern-flank nations should not be asked to endure an invasion until alliance reinforcements can arrive. But they see the permanent stationing of large numbers of NATO troops in the east as expensive and unwieldy, preferring instead to establish conditions — including positioning of equipment in advance, preselection of naval units, and a new command structure — that would allow NATO to rapidly scale up, potentially to the numbers envisioned by the most vulnerable member states.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers last month that he favored establishing permanent bases with temporarily deployed troops in Eastern Europe, “so you get the effect of permanence” without having to bear the costs of relocating families as part of longer deployments.

The Biden administration has already increased its troop footprint in Europe from about 60,000 to more than 100,000 in response to Russia’s buildup and assault on Ukraine, but many of those troops are living in conditions unsustainable for longer missions, sleeping on cots in makeshift barracks.

Eastern European countries are also pushing for NATO to officially abandon the NATO-Russia Founding Act, a 1997 agreement that limited permanent alliance deployments east of Germany in exchange for a Russian commitment to maintain peace. Most alliance officials agree the pact is void not only because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but because the Kremlin has stationed Russian troops in Belarus, within easy menacing distance of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

But some officials in Western Europe and the United States are leery of explicitly jettisoning the agreement, saying that it is a useful vehicle for future coordination between NATO and Russia, and the bloc is already strong enough to deter Russia from targeting NATO. They also think it bolsters stability because it enshrines NATO’s intent to never position nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe.

They also worry the alliance will turn away from the other threats that it has focused on in recent years, including terrorism and irregular migration across the Mediterranean, subjects of more pressing concern to countries that are far from Russia but close to North Africa such as Spain and Italy.

“We don’t see that the war in Ukraine is something that should bring the needle back to just the defense and deterrence of Russia,” a Western European official said. “Will we have a stronger Russia? A weaker Russia?”

Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who now heads the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said the accession of Finland and Sweden could significantly boost alliance security in Northern Europe, injecting a new element into discussions as the Baltic countries and other members in Eastern Europe push their deterrence requests.

Daalder said he thought NATO leaders meeting in Madrid would probably issue a more general statement committing to strengthening deterrence and defense infrastructure in Eastern Europe, which would then be followed by debates about the details and specific troop allocations.

He noted that even a promise to develop better rail links and other infrastructure that could help NATO respond quickly in an emergency would be a significant step.

“I think there’s going to be a fundamental commitment to significantly enhance the NATO presence on the eastern flank,” he said, including air, land and sea assets. “That’s important because NATO has never said that. It’s a huge change in NATO policy.”

Ryan reported from Washington.

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