Secure NATO’s Borders Before Putin’s War Spills Over
President Vladimir Putin, frustrated with the slow progress of his land operation and heavy losses, is indiscriminately destroying cities and killing civilians. Russia bombed a military base barely ten miles from the Polish border over the weekend, sparking fears that the war may soon spill onto NATO territory. At the same time, Russia threatened to target convoys with Western weaponry coming across the border from Poland to Ukraine. These actions are meant as a warning to NATO: “Keep out!”
Now is the time to prepare for the possibility that this war enters NATO territory, and today’s meeting of NATO’s ministers of defense is the perfect opportunity to do so.
The alliance should do no such thing. Now is the time to prepare for the possibility that this war enters NATO territory, and today’s meeting of NATO’s ministers of defense is the perfect opportunity to do so.
In recent weeks, the United States doubled its troop numbers in Poland from 5,000 to 10,000 and delivered two batteries of anti-missile Patriot systems. Other allies buttressed the Baltic states and Romania with additional soldiers. And NATO activated its response force and their contingency plans, granting the Supreme Allied Commander Europe greater flexibility to act in an emergency. NATO has already reinforced its eastern members. But more must be done to ensure our security and deter Russia from expanding this conflict.
NATO has already reinforced its eastern members. But more must be done to ensure our security and deter Russia from expanding this conflict.
Placing two Patriot batteries in Poland is a good beginning, but they cannot cover the entire length of Poland’s border with Ukraine—or Romania’s, or Slovakia’s. The alliance’s force posture in the northeastern flank is a real problem. Belarusian territory has become de facto Russian military space. That means that the Baltic states are surrounded by Russia to the south and east, and only the narrow “Suwalki Gap” corridor between Poland and Lithuania connects them to the rest of NATO territory. Poland now has over 700 miles of border vulnerable to Russian military operations.
And Russia’s military is ready. The most militarized corner of Europe is Kaliningrad, a Russian region bordering Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus, where 30,000 troops and 300 tanks sit ready to reach Poland, the Baltic states, and Germany. Since the Russian build-up for this war started, Russia placed an additional 30,000 troops in Belarus and brought a force of 190,000 to fight the war in Ukraine itself. Even this brief overview shows that NATO’s current reinforcements do not begin to address the existing imbalance in military power.
Given that Putin already crossed many 'uncrossable' lines, the alliance must now move from a force posture that relies on 'deterrence by presence' to 'deterrence by defense.'
NATO needs to correct this imbalance, and its members’ defense ministers should consider the following at today’s meeting: how best to support Ukraine militarily in the war against an aggressive Russia; how to immediately shore up the air-and-missile defenses of frontline states; and how to begin to change NATO’s force posture on the eastern flank. Given that Putin already crossed many “uncrossable” lines, the alliance must now move from a force posture that relies on “deterrence by presence” to “deterrence by defense.” There is a long way to go to get there.
What would a forward defense posture of the alliance look like? First, NATO needs to speed up delivery of weapons to Ukraine that will deal with Russia’s long-range artillery. That means more intelligence sharing, more long-range defense systems, and more anti-ship ammunition and naval mines. Second, NATO needs to send more anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems—like the Patriots—to the alliance’s borders, especially to Poland and Romania. Third, the alliance needs to dramatically increase military presence on its eastern flank. Right now, NATO relies largely on battalion groups of about 1,000 soldiers in each of the Baltic states and Poland as a tripwire to deter Russia, but this force posture is no longer sufficient.
During the Cold War, NATO had as many as 300,000 soldiers permanently guarding West Germany’s border. The alliance is at the beginning of deciding what forces we will need this time. This is the start of an era of a long confrontation with Russia: Putin made it clear that his ambitions extend beyond Ukraine into Central Europe. It is critical that NATO frustrates his plans in Ukraine and secures the alliance’s borders for the long run.