NATO’s Presence in the East: Necessary but Still Not Sufficient


The United States and its NATO allies have dramatically strengthened alliance deterrence against Russia in northeastern Europe through an initiative titled Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP). The initiative, which was born out of NATO’s 2016 Warsaw summit, provides a vital tripwire against a Russian attack. Now that NATO has been implementing EFP for just over a year, there have been a number of lessons learned – or at least encountered.

In the past, national caveats, shortcomings in interoperability, and duplicative capabilities have frustrated NATO operations. Today, the EFP initiative suffers from these same shortcomings. Making matters worse, though, is this key irony: EFP deters what’s arguably the least likely form of aggression from Moscow, leaving the alliance far more vulnerable to the Kremlin’s most likely tactics, namely operations that fall short of an Article 5 violation.

In theory, NATO leaders will get their next crack at better addressing their defense and security needs at the upcoming Brussels summit in July. In preparation, officials from the alliance’s 29 members have prepared a number of important “deliverables” – pre-cooked agreements and declarations teed up for approval by the various presidents and prime ministers. These likely will include a new initiative to promote military readiness, streamlining of alliance decision-making during crises, and an endorsement of the creation of additional headquarters. Unfortunately, refining and improving NATO’s forward presence in Eastern Europe are not among the anticipated deliverables. Still, alliance leaders can take a major step toward improving EFP and strengthening deterrence by using the summit to direct their subordinates to immediately tackle the shortcomings head on.

Why EFP Matters

The EFP initiative plays a vital role in deterrence and assurance in northeastern Europe. Since spring 2017, NATO member have been implementing the initiative across Poland and the three Baltic states. Through EFP, the alliance is basing combat forces – roughly 1,000 troops in each of the four countries – east of the former East-West German border for the first time.

This significant change in allied military posture was a direct result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its illegal annexation of Crimea. Until 2014, U.S. stationing in Europe had been on a steady, relentlessly downward trend. Canadian military presence on the continent had already evaporated, and U.K. military forces were due to be completely withdrawn from Germany as well. Those trends have been thrown into reverse, and the EFP battlegroups now form a necessary tripwire against Russian military incursion into the Baltic States or Poland.

Although not permanent – almost all of the EFP-related forces deployed to northeastern Europe do so on a rotational basis – the initiative nonetheless represents a strengthening of the alliance’s deterrence and reassurance posture. It is also a substantial re-embrace of Article 5 collective defense. From roughly the end of the Cold War until 2014, the alliance hasn’t seriously had to worry about defending one of its members from an attack. Instead, the alliance spent almost a quarter-century focused on crisis response, counterterrorism, and stability operations in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, as well as military diplomacy and outreach to promote security sector reform.

What is also striking about the EFP initiative is the degree of participation. This reflects both the emerging consensus among NATO allies that Russia’s actions in 2014 were more than just a passing storm in the European security environment and the allies’ durable commitment to collective security despite occasional dustups over issues like burden-sharing. In Estonia, where the United Kingdom has the lead as the framework country – and hence contributes the most forces – Denmark and Iceland also contribute personnel. In Latvia, the Canadians are in the lead, with additional troops contributed by Albania, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. Personnel from Belgium, Croatia, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, and Norway have joined the Germans in Lithuania. Finally, in Poland, where the United States leads as the framework nation, Croatia, Romania, and the United Kingdom also contribute forces.

If, in the worst-case scenario, Russia were to invade one of the four host nations, several alliance member states would likely sustain casualties. This would probably spur a faster, more unified response from the alliance. If the primary purpose of EFP is to act as a tripwire triggering broader allied involvement, it seems suitable for the task, even though there are legitimate doubts over whether it’s large enough and – as argued in a forthcoming Security Studies Institute monograph by Alexander Lanoszka and Michael A. Hunzeker – whether Russia would actually trip over it.

Spreading risk in this way is similar to multinational formations used by NATO during the Cold War. In particular, the former Allied Command Europe Mobile Force—Land was a brigade-sized force comprising 14 of NATO’s then-15 member states. It was meant to quickly deploy to an emerging crisis zone and to be a tangible manifestation of allied solidarity.

Operational Problems with EFP

However, NATO characterizes the EFP units as “robust… combat-ready forces,” and here there are significant questions yet to be answered. Most importantly, it remains to be seen whether the allies can overcome the challenges associated with the aforementioned multinationality that characterizes each battlegroup. The difficulties of multinationality at the batallion or battlegroup level should have been no great surprise for an alliance that spent years experimenting – with mixed results – with similar arrangements in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, on a recent research trip I conducted to northeastern Europe, it’s clear that multinationality is creating a number of problems, especially in terms of equipment compatibility, English-language proficiency, and duplicative capabilities such as medical support. These conclusions are based an array of discussions I conducted with officers and enlisted personnel, as well as my own observations.

Additionally, so-called “operational limitations” – what we used to call national caveats during NATO’s years in Afghanistan – similarly frustrate the effectiveness of the battlegroups. For example, in the event of a clear-cut crisis threatening allied security in Poland or the Baltic States, it’s likely the North Atlantic Council – NATO’s highest political decision-making body – would act forthrightly and provide the approval necessary for the military units of EFP-contributing states to support and operate with host nation forces. However, if the situation was ambiguous and a host nation decided to take military action absent a North Atlantic Council decision, operational limitations might prevent some contributing state forces from supporting their host nation counterparts.

Finally, it’s unclear who can order EFP units into action. NATO says that the four battlegroups are “under NATO command, through the Multinational Corps Northeast Headquarters in Szczecin, Poland.” However, I learned during my trip that EFP battlegroups are in fact embedded within host nation command and force structures, which do not fall under NATO command. This is not merely a misunderstanding over dual-hatting, something NATO militaries are used to dealing with. Rather, it reflects a potentially major disagreement over command and control, and a significant gap between what NATO is putting out publicly and the reality on the ground.

A Deeper Challenge

Beyond these operational and even tactical-level challenges associated with the EFP battlegroups, there remain far more strategic questions about what role these units play in terms of the most likely security challenges confronting the Baltic states and Poland. The battlegroups are best suited for deterring by punishment the most dangerous scenario: a Russian military incursion. However, the probability of a crisis based on an unambiguous invasion of allied territory remains low, even for the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rather, far more likely are crises that will fall below the threshold of Article 5 and the alliance’s mutual defense commitments. For instance, the Baltic states and Poland are at much greater risk from unattributable cyberattacks, especially those that strike at critical infrastructure; ethno-political discord stemming from Russian-speaking communities or other minority groups; or disinformation campaigns designed to undermine Western consensus or unity. EFP battlegroups are not trained, structured, or tasked to assist with any of these or similar “gray zone” eventualities.

NATO’s approach to deterrence and assurance in Eastern Europe remains an evolving one – the EFP battlegroup composition, command relationships, and capabilities ought to be seen as a work in progress. Make no mistake – the battlegroups as they exist presently and despite their flaws are a necessary, important part of a dynamic approach to the defense of vital U.S. and allied interests in the region. But the central irony confronting NATO is that the EFP initiative deters a security challenge – namely, invasion of the Baltic States or Poland – that is highly unlikely to materialize. As part of a broader examination of whether NATO can really use its traditional strengths to counter unconventional Russian tactics and operations, allied leaders gathering in Brussels next month should direct their staffs to harvest the lessons learned to date, propagate them among all EFP framework countries and host nations, and begin the vital work of making the EFP initiative necessary as well as sufficient.


Dr. John R. Deni is a Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and an adjunct professor at the American University’s School of International Service. He’s the author most recently of NATO and Article 5. The views expressed are his own.

Image: NATO