NATO Needs a Coherent Approach to Defending its Eastern Flank
What happens in Ukraine does not necessarily stay in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion in 2014, years of armed conflict, and persistent attempts to undermine the government in Kyiv threaten the security of NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe and alliance cohesion. Instability in Ukraine has even upended U.S. domestic politics — the House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump, in part, for threatening to withhold military aid to Ukraine in exchange for domestic political interference.
Following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, control of parts of the Donbas region, and subsequent war against Ukraine — which has inflicted over 14,000 casualties and displaced more than 1.5 million people — the alliance became convinced that its defenses and deterrents needed to be strengthened along its eastern flank. The region, which spans from the Arctic to the Caucasus and the Baltic to the Black Sea littorals, remains exposed to Moscow’s probing, limited or temporary military incursions, and even a potential territorial fait accompli in which Russia could seize and hold allied territory before NATO reinforcements are able to arrive and challenge the land grab. Moreover, with U.S. capabilities increasingly structured to respond to a major conflict in the Asia-Pacific — and the possible withdrawal of thousands of American troops from Germany in the near future — the alliance needs a more coherent strategy for the eastern flank to deter Russia from attempting to project military power in Europe.
What practical steps can NATO take towards this end? First, it should recognize the strategic significance of the Black Sea region and eliminate the existing “tiered” forward presence, which includes “enhanced Forward Presence” in the Baltic Sea region and “tailored Forward Presence” in the Black Sea region. Next, NATO members should improve situational awareness and prepare for rapid political and military responses to Kremlin provocations along the entire eastern flank. Third, allies need to upgrade air and missile capabilities and improve security cooperation programs, procedures, and personnel assignments. And finally, NATO should support NATO partners in the Black Sea region — Ukraine and Georgia — while increasing investment in their economic development.
The Strategic Setting
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO created an asymmetrical defense posture along its eastern flank. It prioritized the defense of the Baltic Sea region and the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — which the alliance considered most vulnerable to Russian pressure. This included deploying enhanced Forward Presence battle groups, bolstering Baltic air policing, increasing military readiness and exercises, improving integrated air and missile defense and long-range fires, and establishing an array of mission command and control headquarters. NATO continues to prioritize the region.
In the Black Sea Region, on the other hand, the alliance settled for tailored Forward Presence and took a more ad hoc approach to improving mission command, regional air policing, and exercises. It strengthened coastal radar systems and slowly established new land force headquarters. The United States expanded its capabilities at Mihail Kogălniceanu air base by bringing Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defenses online in Romania. Bulgaria and Romania are also modernizing their air forces. The U.S. and allied naval presence has increased in the Black Sea, but must operate within the parameters of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which recognizes Turkish sovereignty over the Bosporus Straits, grants Ankara the authority to restrict military access, and prevents non-littoral countries from possessing a permanent naval presence in the region.
NATO’s asymmetrical eastern flank deterrence — enhanced Forward Presence versus tailored Forward Presence — has created gaps and seams in both the Baltic and the Black Sea regions that Moscow could potentially exploit. By not presenting a more unified, coherent front, the alliance remains exposed to Moscow’s military probing, subversion, disinformation, cyberattacks, and overt diplomatic and economic pressure.
In contrast, Moscow views the eastern flank — its western flank — more coherently than NATO, and employs a long-term strategy aimed to restore a sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe. In the Baltic Sea region, the Kremlin has modernized its forces in the Western Military District, transformed the Kaliningrad exclave into a potential platform for limited ground invasions or attacks against NATO members, emplaced cutting-edge mobile short-range Iskander-M missiles and S-400 air defense systems, threatened nuclear attack against allies and partners, and conducted large exercises which are aggressive towards Poland and the Baltic states.
In the Black Sea region, the Kremlin has demonstrated an even greater willingness to use force. This is due to NATO’s more ad hoc deterrence posture, and less formal partnerships with regional countries compared to the Baltic Sea region. The Black Sea region is also, in many respects, of even greater strategic value to Moscow because it is the “launching pad” for destabilizing operations in Syria and naval operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia has continued militarizing Crimea and its war in eastern Ukraine, maintained the occupation of Moldovan and Georgian territories, pursued destabilizing campaigns in the Western Balkans and South Caucasus, and is attempting to drive a wedge between Turkey and NATO while threatening Ankara with mass migration flows from Idlib in Syria. Russia brazenly attacked Ukrainian navy vessels in November 2018 — only releasing the 24 Ukrainian sailors in September 2019 — and holds more than 200 “hostages.”
Effective deterrence is not just about a mathematical balance of forces, but about conveying to the Kremlin the capabilities and resolve of NATO and its partners. Any perceived absence of cohesion and coherence — like NATO’s asymmetric approach to the Baltic Sea region and Black Sea region — could unintentionally signal to Moscow that it can exploit seams within the alliance with impunity. This necessitates a new strategy for the eastern flank.
Meeting the Russian Threat
NATO needs a coherent strategy across the Baltic and Black Sea regions with a balance of capabilities that present a united, unassailable front against Moscow’s assertiveness — in short, taking the view of “one flank, one threat, one presence.” The alliance can make substantial progress towards this goal with the following practical steps.
First, NATO should raise the priority of the Black Sea region. The region is essential to Western security because it is an area where the territorial integrity and sovereignty of emerging democracies like Georgia and Ukraine are threatened by Russia — an authoritarian, revisionist power hostile to Western interests. As a result, it requires greater attention from Western defense planners. NATO should develop a graduated response plan, similar to what was accomplished in the Baltic Sea region, and adopt and publicize a common regional threat assessment which shows why NATO needs to bolster eastern flank deterrence. The Black Sea countries should also pursue a more effective diplomatic campaign in Brussels and Washington to raise the region’s profile.
Second, the alliance should upgrade “tiered” forward presence. This means declaring all capabilities across the eastern flank as forward presence by strengthening deterrence in all domains. Logistics and capabilities need to be bolstered in both the Baltic and Black Sea regions in order to minimize the gaps and seams along the Eastern Flank.
Third, NATO should improve situational awareness by addressing the policies, laws, and structures that inhibit intelligence-sharing in both regions. Presently, no common operating picture exists in either the Baltic or the Black Sea region.
Fourth, NATO needs greater investment in pan-continental infrastructure for military mobility and initiatives such as Poland’s Solidarity Transport Hub and the Three Seas Initiative. Likewise, increasing the speed of mobilization through more periodic logistical exercises would help deter Russian probing and prepare for scenarios falling short of conflict. Finally, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) should have more robust authority to begin preparing and moving forces towards a potential crisis.
Fifth, the alliance should enhance and integrate air and missile defense capabilities. NATO needs to build consensus about the perceived threats of air and missile attacks, and fully integrate various eastern flank air and missile defense capabilities. This requires early warnings and a responsive, layered defense which combines existing land, air, space, and maritime air and missile defense systems. NATO can fully enhance air and missile defense when Poland, Romania, and Sweden acquire the Patriot surface-to-air missile system.
Sixth, U.S. security cooperation programs, procedures, and personnel should better align with American policies and priorities. U.S. military officer assignments in embassies in the Baltic and Black Sea regions should align with host nation capabilities. For example, some U.S. Air Force officers — including senior defense officials or defense attachés — are currently assigned to land-centric eastern flank countries. This limits the effectiveness of acquisition processes and engagements with host nation ministries of defense. It would be better if the U.S. Department of Defense filled these assignments with officers of the rank and training most appropriate to U.S. objectives for the host nation.
Seventh, the United States and NATO should coordinate more effectively in the Baltic Sea region. The alliance should ensure that authorities and lines of communication between them are clear and provide support and liaison elements for longer than rotational tours. Polish divisional capabilities should train with the U.S. Army’s division forward presence to practice operating in high-intensity combat in a joint and combined environment. Baltic allies and partners also have significant means to counter Russia’s anti-access/area denial sea and land capabilities and should modernize land, air, maritime, special operations, and cyber capabilities.
Eighth, the alliance and its partners can develop greater maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in the Black Sea region by rotating unmanned aerial systems from U.S. squadrons in Poland. NATO should also reinforce Romania — the alliance’s regional center of gravity — by improving its road and rail infrastructure and accelerating the completion of regional command and control capabilities. Allies should also take full advantage of the tonnage and time permitted under the Montreux Convention and conduct maritime policing missions with a non-littoral NATO naval presence every day of the year.
Ninth, leading NATO member states should invest in the economic potential of the Black Sea region. Investing in transportation and energy infrastructure, including maritime transport corridors between Romanian and Georgian ports as well as the Black and Caspian Seas, could greatly benefit the overall Black Sea security environment. Romania should become a full member of the Schengen Zone, which would drive regional investment. Completing Georgia’s Anaklia deep-sea port would also create a reliable, secure gateway between Europe and Asia and enhance the region’s economic potential.
Finally, NATO should support a more assertive membership action plan for Ukraine and Georgia, building on the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest which declared that both countries would become members. Rather than inviting conflict with Moscow, this would enhance regional deterrence and stability, because Russia has demonstrated the will to attack NATO partners but not allies. NATO also needs to support the development of capabilities for both partners: Ukraine should apply Western acquisition system processes and the alliance should intensify defense cooperation with Georgia.
The Way Forward
Russia’s ambitions, capabilities, and actions along NATO’s eastern flank threaten the vital interests of the most vulnerable members of the alliance and its closest partners. This danger is not necessarily confined to low-intensity or non-military conflict. Moscow calculates that its forces can exploit uncertainties and internal political cleavages within NATO to conduct a wide range of offensives, including low-threshold probing and a variety of military incursions. Such a destabilizing strategy necessitates that the alliance remove any asymmetries in its eastern flank posture, and prepare for rapid political and military responses to Moscow’s provocations.
NATO wins when it operates as a cohesive team of allies and partners. The readiness and resolve of NATO allies to respond effectively when challenged by an expansionist, authoritarian adversary can be encapsulated in the rallying cry “one flank, one threat, one presence.”
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Ben Hodges is Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He served for 38 years in the U.S. Army, including as commander of Allied Land Command (2012-2014) and as commander of U.S. Army Europe (2014-2017).
Janusz Bugajski is Senior Fellow at CEPA and host of the “New Bugajski Hour” television broadcast in the Balkans. He has authored 20 books on Europe, Russia, and transatlantic relations, including most recently Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks.
Col. (Ret.) Ray Wojcik is Director of CEPA Warsaw. He served for 32 years in the U.S. Army, including in a variety of command, staff, army, joint, and foreign area officer assignments in Europe and the United States culminating in his final tour as attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw.
Carsten Schmiedl is Senior Program Officer in the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at CEPA and holds an MA from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).