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Toward a New Normal in Transatlantic Collective Defense

May 25, 2022
by
John R. Deni
13 min read
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in its third month, it is already possible to draw some important lessons from the most serious security crisis in Europe in decades.

It has fundamentally altered security on the continent, prompting a reappraisal of where and how NATO allies ensure their security and stability. But there are many uncertainties ahead as to how the transatlantic community will make the dramatic changes in its approach to collective defense that seem necessary.

What We Have We Learned So Far

Even though the war has only entered its second phase—following Russia’s failed attempt at a swift stab toward Kyiv—and still rages across Ukraine, the most important strategic lesson is that it has thrust European security into a “new normal.” Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 appeared to drive a stake through the immediate post-Cold War period that started in about 1990. However, the Western response was relatively limited in hindsight. The sanctions on Russia were confined to certain parts of its energy, finance, and defense sectors. Efforts to build up NATO’s military posture in Eastern Europe were slow and small—its Enhanced Forward Presence initiative did not come to fruition until 2017 and only amounted to about 1,400 troops in each of the Baltic states and in Poland.

By the end of the 2010s, a kind of stasis had developed. This was characterized on the Russian side by ongoing but limited provocations in cyberspace, in media, and in the airspace over northeastern Europe as well as by the imposition of a frozen conflict in Donbas, apparently aimed at keeping Ukraine out of NATO and the EU. On the Western side, the stasis was exemplified by the seemingly indefinite nature of NATO’s tripwire deterrence-on-the-cheap rotational deployments and the nearly routine biannual endorsement of limited EU sanctions against Russia.

That stasis has been cast to the curb with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The new normal in European security appears characterized by three phenomena.

First, President Vladimir Putin appears to lack any strategic logic in pursuing a war against Ukraine. He may be many things—egotistical, controlling, dutiful—but unintelligent was not thought to be one. If his objective was to keep Ukraine out of NATO and the EU, the frozen conflict in Donbas as well as Russian-fueled rampant corruption in Ukraine appeared to be meeting his goal. Ukrainian membership in NATO and the EU was certainly not on any agenda in Brussels or elsewhere at the time of the invasion.

Putin may have assumed that a quick, relatively bloodless toppling of President Volodymyr Zelensky and his then-unpopular government would boost his own sagging approval ratings as he weighs another term starting in 2024. Or it may have been that he was simply the victim of wildly inaccurate intelligence on Ukraine’s prospects for joining NATO and the EU. Finally, it is possible Putin believed that Western-backed improvements in Ukraine’s military capabilities would soon result in the capitulation of the Russia-backed separatist forces in Luhansk and Donetsk.

This apparent lack of strategic logic leads to the second phenomenon characterizing the new normal: that Russia is not merely an important power on the edge of Europe but rather is an aggressively revisionist, acute security threat to it.

Russia appears to be a state in long-term decline relative to other great powers such as the United States, the EU, or China. Before February 2022, its economy was already in bad shape. Putin had failed in his efforts to diversify the economy, resource extraction remained the driving economic force, and poor demographics posed a perennial challenge. Today, as a result of the debilitating sanctions imposed since February, the Russian economy is likely to contract by as much as 15 percent this year, larger than the decline following its 1998 debt default. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of young, educated Russians are fleeing the country.

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Today, as a result of the debilitating sanctions imposed since February, the Russian economy is likely to contract by as much as 15 percent this year, larger than the decline following its 1998 debt default. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of young, educated Russians are fleeing the country.

Despite these trends, Russia has proven itself a potent aggressor with the will and capability to upend European security. For instance, the Kremlin has unleashed assassination teams across Europe while cultivating and funding the rise of anti-establishment political parties throughout the continent. The government has funneled significant national wealth and industrial energy into military modernization over the last decade, resulting in a qualitative improvement in capability.

These improvements enabled Russia to capture Crimea without any casualties, to project force into Libya and Syria, to resolve a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, to prop up a friendly leader in Kazakhstan, and most recently to implement a soft annexation of Belarus. Its second invasion of Ukraine has been qualitatively and quantitatively different from what it did in Chechnya in 1999–2000, Georgia in 2008, or Syria in 2015. The scale of destruction and war crimes against civilians is without comparison. Even as Russia’s military continues to struggle with joint operations, airspace dominance, and secure communications, it is obvious that overwhelming and mostly indiscriminate indirect firepower is a defining strength of its land forces and they are unleashing it for all to see.

Even as Russia’s military continues to struggle with joint operations, airspace dominance, and secure communications, it is obvious that overwhelming and mostly indiscriminate indirect firepower is a defining strength of its land forces and they are unleashing it for all to see.

This leads to the third phenomenon of the new normal: the sea-change in German security policy in Europe. Known as the Zeitenwende, the key elements include Berlin’s decision to devote €100 billion to a special fund to quickly improve the military’s capabilities, an immediate and enduring increase in the defense budget to meet the NATO goal of 2 percent of GDP, and a decision to send arms to a combatant for the first time. Together with the change in rhetoric—from a government led by the Social Democrats, no less—this change in Europe’s most powerful actor is remarkable.

Germany must still overcome the habit, conditioned by decades of subordinated geopolitical ambition, of being the last to do what is necessary when it comes to international or even European security. And it remains unclear whether implementation will follow these announcements. Nonetheless, the Zeitenwende represents a vitally important dynamic in Europe, one that will have long-lasting implications for security and burden sharing, especially as the United States looks to the Indo-Pacific.

Is There an Emerging Transatlantic Vision?

There is widespread agreement within the transatlantic community on these broad takeaways. The next question is whether there is a common perspective on what do to improve security and stability in Europe. The answer to that question is maybe.

Some officials, such as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, acknowledge that the post-Cold War era has ended and Europe must deal with a Russia that seems bent on contesting fundamental principles of security and previously made commitments. Additionally, Germany’s government appears to realize that the country’s decades-old approach toward Russia embodied in Ostpolitik cannot continue. For Stoltenberg and those of like mind, the new normal means NATO must reexamine its assumptions, strategic priorities, force posture, military presence in Central and Eastern Europe, and collective decision-making in the face of fast-moving threats.

Some in Europe and North America see things differently, however. For example, while willing to acknowledge that Russia’s actions amount to a watershed moment in European security, some believe the transatlantic community must retain an all-of-the-above approach. That is, that NATO must maintain its set of core tasks—collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security—and address all threats, whether from state and non-state actors. Advocates of this perspective would not favor privileging collective defense over the other core tasks, as was the case during the Cold War, nor would they favor focusing NATO’s efforts nearly entirely on the multifaceted threat from Russia (and China) at the expense of addressing international terrorism, for instance.

Meanwhile, others believe that the United States needs to empower its European allies to bear the brunt of managing Russia so that it can focus on the threat from China. According to this logic, Europe has the capability and capacity to deal with this watershed moment largely on its own and only lacks the will do so. Advocates of this perspective would not favor an increased US military presence in Europe, and they argue that Washington needs to keep its eye on the China ball.

Finally, there is the emerging view that Russia’s poor military performance in Ukraine militates against any dramatic, permanent change in US or allied force posture, defense policies, or strategy in Eastern Europe. Advocates of this perspective argue the Russians are not 10 feet tall and the West may have overestimated Moscow’s capabilities.

In assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of these differing perspectives, some critiques seem clear. For example, a strategy that relies too intensively on European countries to manage this watershed moment underestimates their capability and capacity challenges, at least through the rest of this decade. Despite the recent reversal in European defense spending trends, most of the major NATO members in Europe are in the midst of trading capacity for capability. That is, they are primarily investing in the development and acquisition of more advanced forces instead of expanding the quantity of forces or units. Until new capabilities come online in the coming years, the United States could be placing its still-vital interests in a stable and secure Europe at risk.

The view that NATO should or could remain an all-of-the-above alliance is nonsensical and impractical.

Moreover, the view that NATO should or could remain an all-of-the-above alliance is nonsensical and impractical. It is intuitively appealing because it seems to satisfy the disparate needs of 30 (soon 32) allies, which rarely align completely. But it is nonsensical because collective defense—especially the territorial defense challenge presented by Russia’s conventional and nuclear forces—is an existential task, especially for several allies across Central and Eastern Europe. By comparison, terrorism and failed states are not. And an all-of-the-above alliance is impractical because NATO simply does not have—or at least not yet—the resources to focus equally on all potential threats. It can and should ruthlessly prioritize.

Additionally, the argument that the Western approach to security in Europe does not require significant adaptation given poor Russian military performance so far is naïve. It downplays the Kremlin’s willingness to engage in riskier and deadlier military operations to avoid additional setbacks, and it discounts that immense death and destruction unleashed by the Russian military to date. Ukraine’s ability to prevent a rapid Russian victory in the opening weeks of the war is little consolation to the thousands of its civilians and military personnel killed so far nor to the devasted cities and villages subject to Russia’s rampage.

What Is to Be Done?

The transatlantic community must begin preparing for the moment when either of two dynamics—or, most worrisome, both—come to fruition.

The first is Putin’s unwillingness to permit the West to continue supplying Ukraine with lethal military aid that not only helps Kyiv defend its territory but might also be used to take the fight into Russia. Some observers are increasingly mystified as to why Russia has not attacked Western and Ukrainian supply lines, although recent attacks on rail lines and related infrastructure around Lviv may indicate a change in approach.

The second is the unwillingness of Western publics to stomach increasingly brutal, even inhuman Russian tactics. Several Western-led military operations of the last 30 years were not the result of careful deliberations among strategists weighing the costs and benefits of how best to defend vital interests. Instead, operations in places like Somalia (1992), Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999), and Libya (2011) resulted largely from revulsion at unfolding or threatened humanitarian catastrophes. If Western publics grow intolerant of seeing more bombed maternity wards and other war crimes against civilians in Ukraine, their political leaders may feel compelled to wade more deeply into the war.

There are several steps Western leaders can take in preparation that either dynamic—or both—leads to a widened conflict and to respond to the changed security environment in Europe in the long run. First, NATO should make collective defense its core task for the foreseeable future. There is no more appropriate vehicle for this than its new strategy, which is currently under development and is to be promulgated at the Madrid summit in June. The other core tasks, as well as resilience, must be relegated to a subordinate position and serve collective defense. Given limited resources and the scale of the Russia challenge, equal attention to all three core tasks is a recipe for ineffectiveness.

Second, NATO should temporarily shelve its 360-degree approach to alliance security. Most of the major European allies—including France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom—are capping or even reducing total force levels to invest in advanced capabilities. Even as several European allies—most notably, Germany—look to increase defense spending in response to Russia’s actions, it will take considerable time before this results in capable forces where they are needed in Central and Eastern Europe.

As NATO prioritizes collective defense against the threat from Russia, it should also move toward a posture of deterrence by denial across Eastern Europe.

The primary implication of NATO’s inability in the short run to achieve a more robust territorial defense capacity that includes advanced multi-domain capabilities is that it will necessarily fall to the United States to meet this need. US forces must form the centerpiece of a more robust, permanent presence in Central and Eastern Europe.

This leads to the third step allied leaders should begin implementing in the coming weeks. As NATO prioritizes collective defense against the threat from Russia, it should also move toward a posture of deterrence by denial across Eastern Europe. This differs from the tripwire posture NATO relies on now, which is a form of deterrence by punishment—in response to any attack from Russia, the alliance promises to punch back. Deterrence by denial seeks to stop a Russian attack at the alliance’s doorstep. To achieve this, NATO’s posture in the east needs to be beefed up qualitatively and quantitatively to counter specific Russian offensive capabilities in terms of artillery and rockets and to meet the scale of the threat.

Despite the capacity and capability challenges facing most of the European allies, this is feasible if the United States takes the lead. Admittedly, Washington appears to be following in the footsteps of many European countries in choosing modernization and capability development over increases in manpower. The army is slated to cut its active-duty troop levels over the next several years from 485,000 to 473,000, returning to the higher number after five years. Moreover, the recently finalized National Defense Strategy clearly prioritizes China over all other challenges.

The China challenge remains largely in the maritime, air, and cyber domains.

All that said, the China challenge remains largely in the maritime, air, and cyber domains. Certainly the US Army plays or could play several important roles in the Indo-Pacific and vis-à-vis China, but these are best conceptualized as enablers, including logistics, base support, intelligence, and air and missile defense. This means that much of its combat capability, including conventional maneuver warfare assets like armored units as well as advanced multi-domain capabilities, are available for use in Europe.

In September 2021, the US Army established a Multi-Domain Task Force in Wiesbaden, Germany. As it reaches full operational capability, this unit will be composed of field artillery units; air and missile defense units; intelligence, cyberspace, electronic warfare, and space units; and aviation and brigade support elements.

Additionally, the United States has decided to deploy the entire V Corps headquarters back to Europe, which could be made permanent. It seems likely that additional US military forces will be forward-based in Europe, given the scale and significance of Russia’s threat, even after the war in Ukraine subsides. Permanent forward-basing of armor units in Europe is less expensive than rotational presence.

Regardless, it is increasingly likely that the United States’ defense budget will grow in the near term, whereas a flat rate of growth (in real terms) was expected before Russia’s second invasion. If the US Army’s budget increases as a result, and if manpower is increased as well, expanding a permanent presence in Europe would be easier politically. In sum, the United States is most likely capable of making a stronger, enduring commitment to deterrence by denial in Europe.

Although the trajectory of collective defense in Europe seems clear, the modalities will unfold in the coming months, especially in the wake of NATO’s Madrid summit. Key questions remain over the pace and scope of Germany’s Zeitenwende and whether the expanded US commitment on the continent is durable. Signs point toward intensive discussions at Madrid and beyond that may solidify the focus on Russia and provide a strong basis for a more enduring alliance force posture in Central and Eastern Europe, underwritten by an expanded US permanent presence there, as part of the transatlantic community’s adjustment to the new normal.


John R. Deni is a research professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is the author most recently of Coalition of the unWilling and unAble. The views expressed are his own.

This policy brief is published as part of the GMF Transatlantic Security Task Force project, with the support of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs