Nuts and Bolts Solutions to Deter a Resurgent Russia


In late February 2014, Estonians gathered to celebrate their annual independence day by hosting a parade and air display in the capital city of Tallinn. The viewing platform was full of distinguished visitors, including a representative of the Russian Federation. The crowd was waiting on a NATO fly-by that included four F-15 Eagle fighter jets from U.S. Air Forces Europe. The Russian turned to the Estonian Air Chief with a smile and remarked that he expected the F-15s to be late. A few minutes earlier, over 100 miles away, the F-15s had just completed an intercept of a Russian military aircraft violating Estonian airspace. They escorted it out of Estonia’s sovereign airspace and went supersonic over the Baltic Sea to make the fly-by on time, much to the delight of the crowd.

In the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian provocations such as this have become routine in northeastern Europe. Russia is clearly flexing its renewed military, economic, and informational capabilities to increase its influence in Europe, slow the expansion of NATO and the European Union, and create fractures within Europe. Given what some analysts say about NATO’s inability to repel a surprise Russian conventional attack into the Baltic States, the alliance’s ability to deter Moscow is highly questionable. There are yet more concerns about how Russia could use non-conventional means — cyberattacks or support for fringe European political parties — to create fractures in the alliance that it could exploit to prevent collective action without having to resort to conventional military operations.

The West has its work cut out for it. How can NATO deter Russia without provoking conflict or a spiraling security dilemma of the sort recently discussed by Michael Kofman in his recent War on the Rocks article? Can NATO deter both a conventional threat and an ambiguous threat? These challenges are daunting, but not insurmountable. Overcoming them will require a concerted effort by NATO allies to enhance particular non-combat capabilities and build national resiliency. Indeed, NATO has missed a huge opportunity offered by an existing planning process to enable each ally to field important capabilities in an integrated fashion. However, the upcoming Warsaw Summit is an opportunity for NATO to deliver on its goals for the Readiness Action Plan agreed at the 2014 Wales Summit. It is time to provide a clear way ahead to address the challenges of deterring an aggressive Russia.

Although a Russian advance into alliance territory with conventional forces is feasible and certainly represents the most dangerous scenario facing the West, many argue this is not likely. The more likely scenario is an indirect Russian approach using what many have referred to as “ambiguous warfare.” The threats from ambiguous warfare  — a term that is sometimes interchangeable with hybrid warfare and gray zone warfare— are characterized by their employment in a fog of ambiguity wherein attribution is difficult, indirect or nonmilitary means are prominent, and adversary intentions may be difficult to discern. Examples include distributed cyberattacks, the exploitation of ostensibly independent mass media, or the leveraging of ethnic diasporas to foment discontent and instability. If left unchecked, this threat to Eastern Europe could prove extremely costly, undermining state authority and alliance unity.

The U.S. response to the conventional challenge includes Operation Atlantic Resolve and the European Reassurance Initiative, which appear to have contributed to both assurance of NATO allies and deterrence of Russia. However, presence and an increased tempo of activities are insufficient on their own. To achieve an effective deterrent — one that raises the costs to Russia and/or denies Moscow the benefits of aggression — U.S. European Command (EUCOM) needs to take a closer look at how it plans and executes cooperative military training and exercises with alliance members through its security cooperation programs.

Specifically, EUCOM should leverage NATO’s Defence Planning Process to improve how the United States conducts training, exercises, and other military-to-military activities with allies. The Defence Planning Process identifies specific military capabilities that each NATO ally agrees to maintain, develop, or otherwise obtain, such as military airlift, special operations forces, missile defense, or logistics. Considered collectively, these “capability targets” enable NATO to provide for the collective defense of its members and accomplish the military missions that the alliance has agreed to take on.

One might assume that the United States uses these capability targets and the related Defence Planning Process to guide military-to-military activities with allies and partners, but this is not always the case. A lack of understanding within EUCOM of the alliance process, competing priorities that often place other objectives ahead of broader alliance goals, and the inherent challenges of synchronizing multiple plans are all to blame for this shortcoming. Yet these challenges can be overcome . Using NATO’s own capability targets would enable the United States to ensure its military-to-military efforts are more focused and aimed at achieving worthwhile, necessary objectives. It further provides an opportunity to assist allies in developing specific capabilities that they have committed to provide for the alliance, without which NATO would need to assume operational and tactical risk.

Additionally, EUCOM can make allies’ participation in NATO exercises more effective. Given the positive trend in alliance members’ spending, this is an ideal time for EUCOM to emphasize the quality instead of the pace of its military exercise program. The extraordinarily high number of U.S. military exercises and other activities across Eastern Europe is impressive, but these efforts suffer from a lack of focus and risk overtaxing the very forces that would be called upon in the event of a crisis. Focusing on higher-quality exercises and other activities would be better for allied interoperability efforts and capability development. In particular, NATO should rigorously test its command structure during such exercises, including the integration of a two- or three-star U.S. joint task force. Such a force would arguably be the first headquarters element to command and control forces in the event of a crisis in Europe, and so it makes sense for NATO to practice how that might work. Planning and conducting high-quality exercises along NATO’s eastern borders with key allies such as Germany and France builds interoperability and reassurance among allies while also sending a clear message to Russia that NATO is committed to collective defense. This signal itself is a critical contributor to credible deterrence. Making better use of NATO’s capability targets to shape EUCOM’s security cooperation programs and improving the alliance’s combined conventional capabilities through focused exercises will all contribute to providing a more capable and credible conventional deterrent.

To improve the U.S. Army’s ability to better support military-to-military activities in Europe and provide options for deterrence, the Pentagon should reconsider how it manages forces in Europe. The U.S. Army has most recently relied on the Regionally Aligned Forces (RAF) concept to provide additional forces to Europe, a program designed to provide scalable and tailorable Army capabilities for all combatant command requirements. RAF forces are identified from among U.S.-based Army units and then aligned with combatant commands like EUCOM. However, the rotating nature of the RAF units — a new one identified each year — and the rotational nature of leadership within the units has rendered this tool less effective than it could be.

EUCOM would be better served by a continual heel-to-toe presence of an armored brigade combat team in Europe — when one brigade leaves, the next replaces it immediately without any underlap. The Obama administration has announced, as part of its fiscal year 2017 budget proposal, a plan for the provision of an armored brigade combat team and expanded prepositioned stocks in Europe, but Congress has not yet approved funding for this. A heel-to-toe rotational presence would reassure allies and provide a deterrent effect. A permanent presence of a heavy armored brigade combat team would be ideal, but this is currently not possible for many reasons. To effectively manage U.S. Army military-to-military activities in Europe, support alliance exercises, and position itself for wartime command, the U.S. Army should assign a joint task force-capable two-star headquarters to U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR). Such a headquarters would allow USAREUR—which is not staffed to serve as a joint task force and is stretched thin with the increasing quantity and tempo of activities in Europe—to continue to focus on its entire area of operation, while the two-star headquarters focuses on integrating and conducting security cooperation activities. This unit would also serve as a warfighting headquarters in the event of a crisis in Europe, integrating with the NATO command structure as necessary.

While these adjustments are small, they collectively contribute to increasing the probability of costs for Moscow in the event of a Russian conventional attack into alliance territory—that is, they strengthen deterrence by punishment. NATO’s deterrence strategy must, however, be underpinned by a concerted effort among all allies. The United States is not in a position to provide a credible deterrent on its own. It must be an alliance solution, which is why efforts to assist allies in developing, and then exercising capabilities, are crucial.

In addition to building capabilities through a more focused security cooperation program, EUCOM can also assist allies in enhancing their resilience against ambiguous threats that, if left unchecked, could expand into larger regional instability. Resilience in this context refers to the ability of individuals and institutions to function during crises. In the context of Eastern Europe, developing resilience against ambiguous warfare tactics might include cooperative activities to improve border security, intelligence collection and analysis, and cybersecurity, as well as finding solutions to rifts among diaspora or marginalized groups of the population.

Enhancing resiliency requires a broader approach not only within the U.S. Department of Defense, but also within the broader U.S. government and in coordination with allies and European partners. To that end, EUCOM should increase its efforts to synchronize country-specific sections of its theater-wide security cooperation strategy with the Integrated Country Strategies written by U.S. embassies in Europe. Resiliency would also be better served by leveraging the U.S. Army National Guard’s State Partnership Program (SPP). Through the SPP, the Guard has built dozens of long-term relationships with allies and partners in Europe. By using these relationships and expertise in crisis management, military support to civil authorities, as well as skills typically associated with the civilian world such as policing, the Guard would focus all SPP activities more explicitly on building and maintaining allies’ resiliency in the face of ambiguous warfare. These efforts will improve allies’ ability to identify, respond to, and ultimately deter ambiguous warfare by denying the ability of Russia, or any adversary, to use such means to fracture allied cohesion—that is, they strengthen deterrence by denial.

These enhanced efforts will, of course, provoke a Russian response, particularly in the form of the inevitable Russian media spin. To mitigate its efficacy, the Department of Defense should reverse plans to reduce information operations specialist staffing in Europe. Countering Russian information operations will require the Joint Staff and the U.S. Army to improve manning levels of appropriate staff expertise to plan and manage “inform and influence” activities in coordination with allies.

Finally, the alliance can take certain steps to strengthen the nuts and bolts of deterrence.  Specifically, it must go beyond the Readiness Action Plan adopted at the Wales Summit in 2014 to address the challenge of moving forces long distances over multiple sovereign borders in the event of a crisis. During the Cold War, NATO forces were arrayed along the presumed battle front — the border between the former West Germany and the former East Germany. Now, alliance forces are mostly garrisoned in their home countries. Moving forces across borders in a timely manner is overly bureaucratic and has proven difficult. To mitigate this European time-distance risk, NATO should reexamine cross-border procedures and the Supreme Allied Commander’s authority to reposition forces in Europe to give him the flexibility to move forces as appropriate in a time of crisis.

Preparing to deter Russia requires a multifaceted approach that improves alliance conventional capabilities and allies’ resilience against ambiguous threats. Even though the likelihood of a Russian conventional attack on alliance territory is not likely, it is nevertheless feasible. Successful deterrence requires having the forces, capabilities, and plans in place that would convince Russia that  should it choose to attack, the costs will be high. The Obama administration’s plan to rotationally deploy an armored brigade to Europe is a welcome step – assuming Congress funds it – but it must be a heel-to-toe rotation, accompanied by adequate command and control, reinforced by modifications to military-to-military planning, coordination, and implementation, and ultimately based on refinement of the Readiness Action Plan adopted in 2014. At the same time, the alliance cannot ignore the necessity of enhancing members’ resiliency against ambiguous threats, and denying Russia the ability to achieve its objectives through means short of a massive cross-border conventional force invasion. By fixing shortcomings in how the West engages and prepares during peacetime, the United States and its allies can strengthen deterrence and mitigate the risk of an armed confrontation with Russia.


The authors are all active-duty U.S. military officers and currently resident students at the U.S. Army War College. This article is based on their new book, Strategic Landpower and a Resurgent Russia. The views and opinions in this article do not represent those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: Sgt. Daniel Cole, U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs