This article is part of a series of short texts on issues that challenge the alliance as it celebrates its 75th anniversary.

NATO has refocused on deterrence and defense, and nowhere is this more important than on its eastern flank. Today, the alliance must project strength from the Arctic to the Black Sea to face a revanchist Russia. Future escalation is possible. As US President Joe Biden said in the June presidential debate, the Kremlin could next attack NATO allies Poland and Hungary.

The bloc’s task of defending from incursions is more complicated now than during the Cold War due to the threat’s ever-increasing complexity. Russia is rapidly enhancing its capabilities in space and cyberspace for military purposes. The war in Ukraine has illustrated the importance of satellite systems, such as Starlink, for command, control, and tactical maneuvers. GMF’s research on Russia-China cooperation found that Moscow and Beijing are sharing satellite data and cooperating on building ground stations on each other’s territory. China is making it easier for Russia to threaten NATO territory. 

Most worrying is the Kremlin’s effort to attain kinetic effects through hybrid tactics as seen in a series of sabotage attacks on military and civilian infrastructure, especially on the eastern flank. Russia threatened to redraw its Baltic Sea border with Finland, moved maritime border buoys in Estonia, jammed civilian GPS to disrupt air traffic over the Baltic states, and planned and executed arson attacks in Czechia, Latvia, Poland, and the United Kingdom. Together these incidents illustrate a pattern of aggression that is putting NATO civilian lives at risk. 

At the Washington NATO summit and after, the alliance must take significant steps to show that it can defend all its territory but especially a more exposed eastern flank. This requires:

  • ensuring that the regional plans approved at last year’s Vilnius summit get the resources needed to protect every inch of NATO territory. Every country must know the materiel at its disposal, the allies prepared to assist, and the speed with which reinforcements will arrive.
  • projecting unity and strength. Polarized political climates in the United States, France, and Germany mean all NATO allies need to be clear that unity and support are unwavering. With 32 members, NATO is a richer and more prepared alliance that provides defense not just by one or two members but by all. Giving particular attention to mutual support in response to sabotage and hybrid attacks would elevate the importance of these incidents and serve as a deterrent.
  • calling out Sino-Russian cooperation in the hybrid, economic, and space realms, and foreshadowing the costs of such collaboration.