Fixing NATO Deterrence in the East or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love NATO’s Crushing Defeat by Russia


A revanchist Russia and vulnerable Baltic states are on the minds of America’s defense establishment. After Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s trip to Europe to oversee the change of command at European Command (EUCOM), it’s become clear according to senior defense officials that the plan is to transition the role of the command from “reassurance to deterrence.” U.S. military presence is returning in force to Europe in search of that old familiar conventional deterrence in the face of Russian aggression. From the $3.4 billion European Reassurance Initiative, of which $1 billion would go towards adding an Armored Brigade Combat Team in Europe (for a total of three U.S. brigades) to NATO’s recently announced plan to deploy 4,000 additional troops to Poland and the Baltic states, there is a clear policy shift toward territorial defense in Europe.

Yet EUCOM’s new commander General Curtis Scaparrotti faces a daunting task, because deterrence is a difficult mistress to court. How do you know when you have it? Lost it? Gaining or losing it? When it comes to protecting NATO’s eastern flank, it could be a case of defending the indefensible. Have we thought about the different conflict scenarios for the Baltics or merely those scenarios that proponents of more forces in the Baltics would prefer to deter? Given the policy momentum, infusion of funding, and additional manpower for EUCOM, it is also time to ask some inconvenient questions about whether we truly understand what a conflict with Russia would look like in the Baltics and if conventional deterrence by denial is possible on NATO’s eastern flank.

There is a healthy debate in the analytical and policy communities on the U.S. force structure required in Europe, where to deploy U.S. troops, and the nature of Russia’s challenge to NATO. Proponents of more forces in Europe have offered their answer, and all of them are after varying degrees of more U.S. military presence in the Baltics. Their ideas range from bolstering tripwire forces into more of a razor fence to large-scale deployments in Europe. The authors of RAND’s wargame on the Baltics, David Shlapak and Michael Johnson, have pressed their case in a number of publications, including here at War on the Rocks, in an article that spread around the defense establishment like wildfire (“Outnumbered, Outranged, and Outgunnned: How Russia Defeats NATO”). Elbridge Colby and Jonathan Solomon made similar points, also at War on the Rocks (“For Peace with Russia, Prepare for War in Europe).

If you’ve been following this debate, you probably learned that at some point NATO lost its ability to deter Russia, NATO forces are hopelessly outmatched and perilously exposed to a Russian invasion if Vladimir Putin wakes up grumpy one morning. NATO is , in the best case scenario, unable to prevent a Russian fait accompli seizure of the Baltic states in a short-notice conflict. At the very least, the United States can’t afford the risk, and hence it must do what it takes to reinforce this ethereal substance known as conventional deterrence.

Yet much of this discussion, like most conversations regarding Russia, strikes me as conventional wisdom. Frankly, it’s much easier to adjust the narrative on the Russian threat for a policy prescription than it is to determine the right U.S. force posture to address the Russian threat. When did NATO lose its deterrence, and if it’s gone, why have the Russians not invaded all these years? These mysteries suggest there are still large blind spots in the “reinforce deterrence” debate. The reason is that these arguments rest on a contrived vision of Russia and one version of a high-end fight in the Baltics.

RAND’s oft-trumpeted report on a series of wargames is the best example of this phenomenon. Its authors, Shlapak and Johnson, made fairly sweeping arguments on the basis of their results, both for large-scale U.S. force deployments in the Baltic states and for retooling the U.S. Army to fight Russia. Their intention was to spark a discussion about how NATO would fare in a fight against Russia and what that fight would look like. So let’s have that discussion, because I think they got it wrong.

The Devil is in the Details of the Wargame

RAND’s series of wargames demonstrated how easily a task-organized Russian army could beat NATO in the Baltics in a short-notice contingency, including NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force — an inspirational name that belies its capability. This outcome was not exactly a revelation in analytical circles given that Russia has long been known to be a land power fielding a sizeable army, incidentally still based inside its own borders. Russia’s combined armed forces are close to 900,000 strong today. Its army, airborne, and naval infantry units together likely number 300,000, and even its newly formed National Guard will boast around 400,000. As one of the premier Eurasian land powers, Russia’s armed forces outnumber all neighbors aside from China. This should not be treated as news.

In RAND’s wargames, Russia rolled through the Baltics even with NATO airpower to contend with, but so what? The structure of such scenarios can lead to radically different conclusions about what the U.S. should do in response. RAND’s wargame is fraught with problems, starting with its assumptions and its reading of Russian strategy and military. The results have been hyped up like so much hot air filling a balloon.

The problems with the wargame start with its objective. Shlapak and Johnson write,

The strategic goal of the invasion was to demonstrate NATO’s inability to protect its most vulnerable members and divide the alliance, reducing the threat it presents from Moscow’s point of view.

It makes little sense that Russia would invade and conquer the Baltic states to demonstrate NATO’s weakness. There is no logical connection between the strategic objective and the operation simulated. Moscow can handily demonstrate the alliance’s weakness without invasion and occupation, as I discuss in more detail below. Invading and conquering entire countries is not commonly done for purposes of demonstration, just as Russia did not annex Crimea for demonstrative effect. This is problem one both for RAND’s wargame and the wider debate — no one can intelligently articulate the benefits of such potential actions for the Russians.

Paradoxically, according to RAND’s wargame, Russia planned to seize the Baltics, but apparently only had 10 days’ notice to organize its own invasion. As a consequence, the Russian army was only able to bring a total of 27 battalions (22 from the Western Military District) to this epic battle with NATO, and that total includes units already stationed in Kaliningrad. This task-organized grouping may have been sufficient for Russia to win in RAND’s wargame, but it’s an illogical formation for a country that focuses on drills in large-scale conventional warfare, gathering units from various military districts.  Although official figures are always inflated, in the last strategic exercise, Tsentr-2015, as many as 95,000 troops may have been involved. Indeed, the force they envisioned Russia fielding is just the right size to conquer the Baltic states on paper, yet small enough to potentially be deterred by several U.S. brigade combat teams.  Shlapak’s and Johnson’s Russian invasion does not seem grounded in how the Russian military prepares to fight and the scale of the battle that it trains for.

If Russia was planning a full-scale invasion of the Baltic states, it would also have to plan to take on all of NATO and defend against a counter-attack. Great powers typically don’t attack superpowers with cobbled-together forces and hope for the best. Moscow would likely bring to bear a force several times larger than that assumed in the wargame and maintain the logistics to deploy additional units from other military districts. Opinions will vary among Russian military experts about the size of force Russia could muster in a hurry, but one estimate I suspect you will not hear is 27 battalions thrown together for what could be World War III. Think much bigger and not within an arbitrary 10-day time limit.  It is unclear where the 10-day invasion rule came from. It was also referenced in a recent Atlantic Council report.  Has NATO coordinated this preferred time table with the Russians?

Between February and April 2014, the Russian General Staff demonstrated its competence in  deploying a force of roughly 40,000 to 50,000 on Ukraine’s borders and dispersing it over the course of several weeks. There are lessons to be learned from the Russian war in Ukraine, but we should take great care in extrapolating them to a hypothetical high-end fight in the Baltics between Russia and NATO. In contrast to Ukraine, it is unlikely that Russia would invade NATO as a response to an unexpected contingency with little more than an ad hoc grouping of battalion tactical groups. It is equally unlikely that an ad hoc grouping of Russian battalions — the army RAND built — would easily invade and occupy the Baltics, which have been working quite hard on conscription and mobilization to make themselves difficult to digest in such a scenario.

Sometimes wargames accurately reflect how two opponents would truly fight. Other times it’s more a table top map with blue and red unit counters. RAND’s wargame seems to have been the latter. Shlapak and Johnson write, “the novelty of the scenario meant that there was little to go on in terms of strategic or operational concepts for either side.” A Russian task force invading NATO with no operational or strategic concepts seems difficult to imagine, and raises serious questions about what the wargame simulated.

We’re Not in Germany Anymore

The more one reads the RAND wargame report alongside the authors’ related commentary, the clearer it becomes that their vision was not a modern-day fight between Russia and NATO. Rather, it is a recreation of AirLand Battle from the Cold War. They basically admit as much:

A successful defense of the Baltics will call for a degree of air-ground synergy whose intimacy and sophistication recalls the U.S. Army–U.S. Air Force “AirLand Battle” doctrine of the 1980s.

Of course, it is tempting for American Cold Warriors to simply cross out the “Soviet Union,” write in “Russia,” and then look to set up the same AirLand Battle that played out on many a hex-square table top map in the 1980s. The doctrinal premise of AirLand Battle was that NATO could win a war against the Warsaw Pact by focusing on strong integration between the Army and Air Force, a non-linear battlefield, and deep airstrikes. If we’re heading into Cold War 2.0, why not dust off AirLand Battle, write 2.0 next to it as well, and give that a go? Right? There’s even a gap to fight over! Instead of Germany’s dreaded Fulda Gap, we can battle for Poland’s Suwalki Gap. Who hasn’t been in a discussion where some expert has not mistakenly referred to Russia as the Soviet Union? Old habits die hard, along with outmoded thinking.

I’m not convinced AirLand Battle lessons apply here. The only similarities between these geographies is that they both have “gaps” in them. I don’t wish to take away from the victories of AirLand Battle warriors in the 1980s, retiring from the table top battlefield confident in their ability to achieve deterrence by denial against the Soviet Union. Thankfully, that fight never took place. The doctrine may indeed have contributed to peace in Europe, but it is worth noting that NATO successfully deterred the Soviet Union in Europe for decades prior to the advent of AirLand Battle.

Make AirLand Battle Great Again

In their War on the Rocks article, David Shlapak and Michael Johnson write that “geography is a harsh mistress in this scenario.” It is indeed, but not the land terrain they were referring to. There is a bigger problem, because the Baltic states live along the Baltic Sea, which isn’t part of RAND’s wargame. Excluding the Baltic Sea makes sense only from a 1980s AirLand Battle perspective. The U.S. Navy can rest easy — thanks to AirLand Battle, it’s going to be sitting this one out. Americans often struggle with the geography of places we’ve yet to fight a war over.  Besides the fact that all the NATO members and partners in this hypothetical fight are coastal countries, several other key geographical differences are worth noting.

For example, Russian forces are already behind NATO in Kaliningrad, and Belarus is Russia’s ally, or at the very least could serve as a springboard for Russian forces. This is why picking up a Cold War fight, moving it over a few hundred kilometers, and putting it down in the Baltics is not the right way to think about the Baltic high-end fight. Rather than the topography, the problem is that the world has changed, and we need to adjust to the geopolitical landscape of 2016.

One of the challenges with wargaming and the hex-square approach (a tactical grid dividing the map terrain into hexagonal squares) is that it can lend you to structure advice not in service of a real-world problem, but in the service of fixing the wargame. Looking at the board, no doubt Russia’s hex squares are filled with powerful red unit pieces and NATO’s are disappointingly empty. The logical conclusion is to fill NATO’s side with blue pieces — problem solved. Hence RAND recommends the deployment of seven brigades, “supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enables on the ground,” i.e. a veritable Fortress America to be planted in the Baltics and Poland. That will solve the problem of RAND’s wargame, but it may do little to solve NATO’s deterrence problems vis-a-vis Russia and could instead create a dangerous security dilemma, to boot.

I’m not the least bit opposed to more U.S. forces in the Baltics, in principle. That being said, American decision-makers must venture into this with eyes wide open.  As Georges Clemenceau remarked, “war is too important to be left to the generals,” and strategic decisions should be too important to be left to the wargamers who see the world through hex-squares. NATO’s problem is not the scenario RAND presented, and their prescriptions won’t fix it either.

The Battle of Dunkirk 2.0

If we are to have this surreal Dr. Strangelove discussion, then let’s play out a high-end fight between Russia and NATO. Imagine it is the future: NATO has done as told and forward-stationed several American brigades in the Baltics.  Russia also repositions forces in the Western Military District in response, and realizes previously announced plans for new unit formations. One day, Russia decides to roll the dice on the fate of humanity and challenge NATO through a conventional invasion. Except the Russian General Staff looks at the map and realizes that there’s no need to seize Baltic cities since they can simply walk through Belarus and link up with Kaliningrad, thereby severing NATO’s “Army of Deterrence” in the Baltics from the rest of its forces in Poland. Russia’s Baltic Fleet is not much of a naval force, but it can blockade Baltic ports for a while, mine them, and effect sea denial. Of course, the other problem is that all of U.S. forces will be within the arcs of Russia’s long-range air defense, operating at the mercy of Russian cruise missiles, artillery, and an initial air attack.

One thing AirLand Battle didn’t have to deal with is S-400 air defense systems with 250 kilometer ranges, 350 kilometer-range Iskander-M tactical missiles, or 300 kilometer-range Bastion-P coastal missile defenses. Of course, everything can be overcome in time, except that there’s no obvious way to reinforce U.S. units in the Baltics or to keep their supplies and fuel from being destroyed in the opening hours of the fight. This entire scenario starts within Russian kill zones and electronic warfare zones. Russian units can come from Belarus, Kaliningrad, Russia itself, or by sea in preparation for an assault. The ability of Moscow to compel Minsk’s cooperation plays a key role, because the railroads run right through Belarus and to the Suwalki Gap or by Vilnius. Author and retired Army Colonel Douglas MacGregor’s brief to the Senate Armed Services Committee was no less alarmist than RAND’s, but he recognized the more important problem of Russian forces attacking from Belarus to Kaliningrad.

Why would Russia make a dash for Baltic capitals, as in RAND’s wargame, when the battle is decided by whether or not NATO can successfully reinforce from Poland? Instead of fighting NATO forces in the Baltics, the best way forward is to turn that deterrent into a military hostage. What if, in the time it takes NATO to generate forces sufficient to break through a Russian defensive position across Kaliningrad, the alliance collapses politically, especially given the concern over losing its units behind enemy lines in the Baltics?

All analogies are imperfect, but it strikes me that advocates for a robust U.S. military presence want to replay the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940, where U.S. forces get to fill the unenviable shoes of the British Expeditionary Force surrounded by the German Army. Whether you have one brigade or three brigades, you’re still going to lose that fight. U.S. planners would not be the first to think you could hold a pocket against a land power and reinforce it across a gap.  The idea that a line of U.S. forces along the Russian border can achieve deterrence by denial in modern times boasts all the ingenuity of the Maginot Line. More forces in place can’t always compensate for a poor strategy and unworkable geography.

A Million Ways to Die in the East

NATO’s biggest challenge is not the balance of forces, but the fact that its credibility is attached to every square meter of Baltic terrain. A much more likely scenario is one in which Russia deploys a large land force on the borders as part of a snap exercise, as it did opposite Ukraine in early 2014, and then seizes some unknown patch of dirt. Would NATO attack this offending Russian force over a few square meters? It’s one thing to contemplate trading Washington for Vilnius — what about some farm house on the Russian-Estonian border? Let’s take another option wherein Russia simply picks up the border and moves it further into the Baltic states. That’s no fantasy. Moscow has been doing this to Georgia in South Ossetia. On the one hand, NATO cannot let the Russians break its credibility through salami-slicing tactics, but on the other hand, the Baltic states themselves might not be so eager to pick a fight they can’t win over a few feet of real estate. Who is willing to attack a Russian army on Russia’s border?

Plenty has been written on what would happen if Russian special forces tried to seize Baltic towns, leveraging the presumed camaraderie of the local ethnic Russian population. This Crimea-like scenario is improbable, especially because Russia had forces in place in Crimea from the very beginning, but it offers an important lesson that should drive NATO’s thinking about the Baltic high-end fight. The challenge is not NATO’s deterrence against a hypothetical conventional war, which is not only unlikely but wholly unnecessary for Russia to challenge NATO. The problem lies in compellence, because there are numerous scenarios in which Russia can set up a challenge to NATO’s credibility as an alliance and compel the West against a response, thereby leading to failure.

The reason Russia annexed Crimea without having to overcome resistance is in large part due to conventional compellence. Russia’s military deployment and a directly issued threat compelled Ukraine’s leaders to avoid even attempting resistance. There was no combat in Crimea. Those arguing for forward deployments keep envisioning a scenario where Russian troops or special forces cross the border and shoot first. That is one set of problems that militarily cannot be easily solved as described above, but the more perilous cases are those in which NATO must shoot first when faced with a large Russian conventional deployment. EUCOM’s true challenge is not deterrence — it’s how to handle compellence by an advanced conventional adversary capable of combining special forces and large-scale military operations.

As I’ve written elsewhere on War on the Rocks on the establishment’s obsession with hybrid warfare, the problem is also not a hybrid one. Russia has re-forged its military as a useful instrument of national power and rediscovered how to compel others using military power. Even if territorial defense was workable — a dubious prospect at best — deterrence only works if the other side plans to attack you. A smarter approach for Moscow, and one conceptually demonstrated in Crimea, is to create a crisis in which NATO’s credibility is tested on the choice of whether or not to attack Russia first.

What’s the Right Force Posture for Nuclear Oblivion?

The other problem with the fixation on conventional deterrence in the Baltic fight is that just as in the old standoff between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, this battle is fraught with opportunities for nuclear escalation. Most Russian experts I know in the military analysis community, including those in Russia, don’t see much of a chance for conventional battle with NATO to stay conventional.  RAND didn’t wargame that out, since theirs was an AirLand Battle exercise, but it makes the debate over how many brigades to stick into the Baltics somewhat moot. On any map, Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad is a central problem in keeping this a conventional fight, because this is a piece of Russian territory that NATO must either bypass or neutralize to reinforce the Baltics. That’s not just a Russian fort, projecting long arcs of anti-access and area denial weaponry between Poland and Lithuania — it’s also liable to be a nuclear landmine.

There is a possibility that if Russian forces are sufficiently degraded or defeated in Kaliningrad that Moscow may resort to or threaten nuclear first use. Even if we fill all those hex squares with blue forces, it doesn’t get around the issue that NATO’s prize for its victory is not necessarily the successful rescue of the Baltics, but an inbound tactical nuclear warhead. RAND’s report alludes to the minor problem of escalation (all of us dying in nuclear oblivion), but such thoughts get in the way of gaming out how many heavy armor brigades one needs in on the eastern flank. Nuclear escalation is not assured, but given the impact of such an outcome, perhaps the best strategy is to make decisions that afford the most opportunities for managing escalation dynamics. That means a force posture oriented toward strategic flexibility, not entrenchment.

The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming

When we understand the nuclear ramifications of this entire discussion, it becomes clear how mad much of the argumentation over conventional deterrence in the Baltics truly is. There is not even a meager attempt to explain how deterrence has failed or why Russia would attack NATO, despite the fact that through most of the Cold War and into the present, deterrence has rested more on the threat of punishment. The U.S.-Russia relationship always enjoyed deterrence by punishment aplenty (no offense to AirLand warriors), through nuclear and subsequently conventional retaliation. Despite the current tensions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there’s little to indicate that this equilibrium has been lost.

Why is it so hard for a part of the policy establishment to understand that NATO is not Ukraine? That the considerations involved in mauling a weak, unallied neighbor on one hand and taking on the world’s preeminent military power on the other are likely to be completely different? Instead of credible analysis, we have been treated to a series of ill-structured narratives that stack the Russia threat as high as necessary together with unfounded claims that deterrence has been lost. RAND’s wargamers write:

Russia today looks to its northwest and sees little between its forces and the Baltic Sea but highway and the prospect of forcing NATO into the three-sided corner described above. Our goal was to devise a posture that would present an alternative landscape.

So what’s changed in the last 16 years? If the Baltics are such low-hanging fruit, why doesn’t Putin invade? Surely it is not a love of NATO that has stayed his hand for so many years.   NATO is told that it has lost deterrence and yet some mystical force is clearly deterring Russia. Could it be U.S. treaty commitments, the same thing that deterred the Soviet Union all those years?  If Russia does not take NATO guarantees seriously, and is not deterred by the risk of war with the United States, then why invade and threaten those who consider joining the alliance?  There’s never been a Russian official statement to the effect that Moscow does not take U.S. treaty obligations seriously, nor a serious repositioning of Russian forces to NATO’s borders signaling any intent to invade. It is even more worrisome that no attempts are being made to intellectually link the recommendations to NATO with an analysis of Russian force posture and intent in the Baltics.

Careful With “More is More”

A host of Western defense establishments are seeing red when they look at Russia today, especially the U.S. policy community. I don’t want to discourage EUCOM from getting more forces into Europe as it certainly needs them, but we should also be careful not to overplay the desire to stick it to Russia and create a security dilemma. Remember, U.S. forces are on Russia’s border now, which is why in this case I respectfully disagree with Elbridge Colby and some of his thinking in articles like “Step Up to Stand Down” in Foreign Affairs. Russia’s army will not retreat or step down from Russia.  Russia’s historical and cultural capital of St. Petersburg is not far from the Baltic border. If NATO steps up too much, the Russian military will too, and then we will be staring at a force bidding contest with one of Eurasia’s premier land powers. That strikes me as a poor plan.

Ironically, contrary to many of the assertions by “the Russians are coming” camp, during the period of military reforms between 2009 and 2012 the Russian military moved, consolidated, or disbanded many of the formations in the Western Military District facing NATO’s borders.  Since 2013, some of the military strength has been trickling back near Moscow, but there’s no sudden militarization on NATO’s borders.  Russia announced the creation of the 1st Tank Army outside Moscow, though the unit has yet to form, and like NATO’s very high readiness task force, is aspirationally named. Since 2014, Russia’s General Staff has focused on preparing for another possible war with Ukraine and a color revolution in Belarus, and still lacks permanently stationed units on either country’s borders.  Russia’s Minister of Defense has announced the formation of three new divisions (these were already announced piecemeal over the past two years). Two will be positioned on Ukraine’s eastern most borders, and one between Ukraine and Belarus. We can discern in Russian force posture and organization where Moscow sees the need for permanently based forces, a division level command staff, and the ability to attack on short notice. It’s Ukraine, not NATO.  In essence, these will be expanded brigades formed from existing units with division-level command staffs. While NATO has Russia on its mind, Moscow is instead thinking about contingencies in Ukraine and Belarus.

This is one of the clearest examples where the “more deterrence” arguments seem factually divorced from changes in Russian force posture and perhaps the Russian military analysis community as a whole.  While the field of Russian military analysis is busily studying the layout of Russian forces and their capabilities, large parts of the policy community are akin to a plane flying above it, detached and unencumbered by the facts on the ground.  Yes, Russia’s brigades can generate battalions to invade the Baltics, but everything about Russia’s force posture indicates a country ill-prepared for war with NATO.  The reserve and mobilization system has been broken ever since the military reforms launched in 2008.  The Russian army is simply not setup to occupy an invaded country, particularly one likely to resist.  There are few permanent units based on NATO’s borders and no higher tier command structures to organize a fight using units pieced together from other districts.

For all the charged rhetoric, there is a dearth of military substance behind this confrontation on both sides, and we should seek to keep it that way.  If NATO and EUCOM get the force posture wrong, Russian plans can change, and these divisions may end up being formed to the north by the Baltic border. Place too many units in the Baltics and NATO creates a vulnerability for Moscow both in Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg, one Russian leaders will be forced to redress. Patience may not rule the day in a prolonged standoff, as the Cold War was not without its share of crises. Remember, Putin said in October 2015, “the streets of Leningrad taught me one thing: If a fight’s inevitable, you must strike first.”

Right now, having too many NATO units in the east seems like a good problem to have, but NATO should avoid realizing a self-fulfilled prophecy in pursuit of that mystical stuff: conventional deterrence. How will we know when we have it? Will it feel different from when we don’t, or will proponents of a more robust presence in Europe simply tells us again that we need more? More is always the answer for a section of the policy establishment that has never met a forward deployment or weapon system procurement they didn’t like. NATO’s insecurity and the Russian threat are effective arguments for spending on a range of weapons platforms, systems, and capabilities. Shlapak and Johnson have woven a host of arguments about how the U.S. army is outgunned by Russian tanks, outranged by artillery, and of course outnumbered. It’s ambitious, but perhaps the alleged deterrence problem can serve as the basis for a complete overhaul of the U.S. Army, with a new wave of spending like the “Big 5” procurements from the 1980s: the Apache, Black Hawk, Abrams, Bradley, and Patriot systems.

While some parts of the establishment are keenly discussing technological breakthroughs and the future of warfare — take Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and the third offset —  others are still measuring the Army’s artillery tube size relative to Russia’s, whose military had traditionally been one of the world’s most artillery-heavy forces. In 2016, countries like Azerbaijan are deploying loitering drone munitions against their adversaries, yet the conversation on Russia in some circles still revolves around that precious tube size and caliber gap. Indeed, Russia’s artillery tubes are bigger, fire further, and their vehicles have better firepower, but a more sophisticated knowledge of Russian military capabilities reveals that this is all generalization in place of nuance. We should temper this procurement drumbeat with common sense, because it is doubtful that the U.S. military can be configured to beat one of the world’s leading land powers and take on China on the high seas, along with a host of other global contingencies at the same time.

Instead of just looking at gaps in caliber, the United States should focus on the profound advantages it retains in airpower, seapower, undersea warfare, and in the way the U.S. military fights as a whole. Washington doesn’t need to match Russia stick for stick to maintain a leading edge in technology and retain deterrence by punishment, and more importantly it shouldn’t.

A Smarter Set of Answers to NATO’s Problems

First, I agree entirely that we need to rebuild the infrastructure and logistics that would support a territorial defense of Europe to make any military posture there credible. The Army is also in need of modernization to put it in a better place versus any peer adversary in general, though it could be informed by a more sophisticated analysis of the Russian military than that offered by a tape measure. However, we should not delude ourselves, or let others delude us, into thinking that there is a workaround the fact that having a land war with Russia on its border is a poor proposition. This is a well-trodden path in military history with more losers than winners, including both those whose military had a qualitative edge and those with vast numerical superiority.

I respect Colby’s approach, but some of his statements seem poorly linked to demonstrated Russian thinking or strategy: “Such a posture should be able to hold off, or at least bog down and bloody, a Russian force — even if it cannot quickly defeat it — until NATO can surge the forces needed to prevail forward.” The map is one large argument in and of itself against such notions. U.S. force deployments are not an answer to political warfare, nor is building a Maginot Line facing Russia any smarter than it was for France in the 1930s. As former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently said about NATO’s proposed force deployments, “I’m not sure there’s some real strategic thinking there.”

The way forward is to shore up deterrence by punishment, which has been working just fine all these years. That means leveraging U.S. airpower and the Navy as a global force able to horizontally expand the theater of conflict and inflict colossal military and economic punishment on Russia should it aggress against a NATO member state. As a consolation to AirLand Battle warriors, perhaps we can call the strategy Air-to-Land Battle. It also means the United States must focus on mobility in theater and assets that counter, rather than match, the Russian military. This is why Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, is right in arguing that the number one need is for Army combat aviation in Europe.  The United States should also revisit the nuclear toolkit, since the credible threat of nuclear escalation had always been an important pillar in deterring Russian aggression against NATO. The force in the Baltics should serve as a tripwire, activating deterrence by punishment and providing assurance to allies, but it leaves the compellence problem as demonstrated in Ukraine completely unanswered.

NATO’s best answer to compellence is strategic flexibility and ambiguity of response. While Article V dictates the defense of a member, it doesn’t stipulate what that defense must be, how it should take shape, or where it will be applied. With U.S. forces in place, NATO members can be assured that Article V will be triggered, but what happens next should be left a question mark. The more NATO emphasizes the Russian threat and argues for fixed forces in place, the less capably it can defend a challenge to its credibility as an alliance. Anyone can count the order of battle and the balance of forces. By introducing ambiguity in its potential response once Article V has been declared, NATO reduces the chance it can easily be manipulated into a credibility test. The objective should be shrouding a Baltic high-end fight in incalculable risk for Russia while maintaining uncertainty and strategic flexibility with air and naval assets.

Will the Baltic states be satisfied with anything less than several American brigades? Probably not. Unfortunately, satisfying them and defending them are not necessarily the same task. If EUCOM is switching from assurance to deterrence or to warfighting, the further back American firepower goes, the more useful it is. That means concentrating on the distinct advantages the United States has in the air and sea domains, rather than forward-basing ground forces. Washington must also change how it thinks about this problem set.  Today we have a woeful capability to rhetoric gap when it comes to the Russia threat, and the capability will not get there overnight. The current alphabet soup of NATO buzzwords — reassurance, resolve, and deterrence — are all about raising awareness of the Russian threat. I would argue that retaliation, ambiguity, strategic flexibility, and force mobility should be added to the lexicon to structure thinking on how to address the challenge.


Michael Kofman is an Analyst at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.  Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University.  The views expressed here are his own.