NATO Is Focusing on the Wrong Russian Threat in Eastern Europe
This week, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton was in Moscow, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss, among other things, the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Announced by President Donald Trump last weekend, the move comes after repeated Russian violations of the treaty’s ban on developing and testing land-based intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles.
Given the particular history of the INF Treaty—a late Cold War-era deal to ratchet down tensions over the deployment of nuclear-capable, mid-range missiles on both sides of the Iron Curtain—the Trump administration’s decision to torpedo the accord further focuses attention on potential scenarios for armed conflict with Russia. In particular, it calls into question NATO’s ability to deter and, if necessary, counter a Russian act of military aggression on a member state.
The bulk of NATO’s discussions in this regard have centered on the question of Russia’s offensive military capabilities in Eastern Europe. But in the process, an equally strategically significant—and, in practice, far more problematic—issue has been ignored: Russia’s preponderance of what military strategists call “anti-access, area-denial” capabilities in the borderlands between the Baltic and Black Seas, which blunt traditional U.S. and NATO military advantages and thereby limit freedom of action. Though it fails to evoke the same urgency as the specter of a Russian invasion, it is Russia’s ability to prevent NATO forces from countering such an invasion—as well as coercive campaigns that fall short of war—that effectively gives it escalation dominance over large swaths of Eastern Europe, Eurasia and even the Eastern Mediterranean.
Since the Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015, U.S. and NATO military analysts have observed Russia’s burgeoning conventional military prowess with increased alarm. These worries reached a fever pitch following the release of a study by the RAND Corporation in 2016, which highlighted Russia’s conventional military superiority in the Baltic region and its ability to quickly overrun the NATO-member Baltic states. The report proposed that NATO establish a much more significant, permanent and forward-deployed presence as a deterrent. The ensuing debate over the merit, quality and composition of a conventional deterrent has obscured the more practical and evolving strategic problem of Russia’s area-denial capabilities.
In reality, it is widely accepted that a full-scale, blitzkrieg-style Russian invasion of a NATO member state remains extremely unlikely. Even those advocating for a more muscular forward-deployed presence admit that a Russian invasion is a low-probability proposition. But because of the extremely high risk attached to it, it makes sense that NATO members and the alliance collectively do whatever their resources and political capital allow to deter it.
At the same time, NATO efforts to fortify particular pockets of regional vulnerability, mainly the Baltic states and Poland, could do more harm than good by playing to Russian military strengths, needlessly concentrating alliance forces and exacerbating the very intra-alliance divisions that Moscow stokes. Despite periodic spikes in local demand—more often than not driven by Russia’s large-scale, annual Zapad military exercises—there appears to be little institutional appetite for a permanent U.S. and NATO regional presence.
A more practical and immediate problem facing U.S. and NATO military planners than the unlikely scenario of a sustained Russian invasion is the ever-compounding trend of Russian conventional military consolidation in key locales along its NATO borders. In particular, vast expanses of NATO’s eastern flank are surrounded by overlapping perimeters of extremely advanced Russian anti-air and anti-missile systems.
Russian anti-access, area denial capabilities in Eastern Europe represent a potentially intractable problem for Western military planners.
Russia has reportedly already deployed the S-400 air defense system—its most advanced, reportedly capable of minimizing the tactical advantages of stealth aircraft, with an effective range of approximately 250 miles—in the fortified exclave of Kaliningrad, the Baltic Sea, Russia-occupied Crimea and among Russian bases near Latakia in eastern Syria. Less advanced but still highly capable S-300 batteries, which themselves are able to threaten all but the latest-variant stealth aircraft, are in operation in many other parts of the region, such as Georgia’s breakaway province of Abkhazia, Russian bases in Armenia and aboard naval vessels in the Black and Baltic Seas. Russian cruise missiles are even more notable for their density and distribution on land and at sea. These pose significant threats to NATO forces within range, a danger that the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty could now compound.
In tandem with an array of radar and electronic warfare infrastructure, such capabilities place hard limits on NATO forces’ freedom of action in the region. Legitimate fears and frustrations expressed by front-line NATO states and key non-NATO partners aspiring to accession, such as Georgia and Ukraine, should be seen in this context. Even short of a conflict scenario, NATO’s options and freedom of maneuver are constrained in theaters with high densities of Russian anti-access, area-denial infrastructure. Just look at Syria, where U.S. and coalition forces had no choice but to carefully avoid Russian airspace for fear of triggering an unintended conflict. As things stand, only the most advanced U.S. stealth assets are regarded as being potentially capable of penetrating such multilayered defensive “bubbles,” and even then only imperfectly and not without the possibility of major casualties in the process.
Though Russia is outmanned and outgunned by NATO as a whole, its increasingly dominant local military positions along the vast stretch of Eurasia from the Baltic to the Black to the Mediterranean Seas poses a serious but largely underexamined conundrum for U.S. and NATO military planners, as well as their non-NATO partners. Faced with the escalation dominance that Russia’s defensive “bubbles” provide, NATO’s credibility threshold is drastically undermined, rendering a muscular collective response ill-suited to anything short of egregious aggression by Moscow. As a result, even a relatively large, heavy and permanent NATO force stationed in a vulnerable member state would not appreciably alter the regional balance of power—and might even serve as a net negative in deterrence value.
This is not to say that all forward deployments should be ruled out. Some configurations, such as the lighter rotational forces currently stationed in the region, are extremely useful as reassurance measures to member states. They signal NATO’s continued commitment to collective defense, without the downsides of large, cumbersome garrisons that could be easily surrounded, trapped and subjected to withering fire in the event of a conflict.
The problem of penetrating Russia’s anti-access, area-denial capabilities, however, will not be resolved overnight. The continued and accelerating adoption and deployment of F-35 stealth aircraft is a positive step. But it is unlikely to be revolutionary, given growing worries about the F-35’s ability to keep pace with emergent, stealth-sniffing advances in radar, and particularly in the S-400. Over the horizon, more promising and at times exotic concepts are beginning to emerge, including advances in so-called drone swarms, hypersonic munitions and even suborbital delivery systems, to name a few. For now, absent an unexpected breakthrough, the problem is likely to only worsen with time.
Russian anti-access, area denial capabilities in Eastern Europe may not evoke the same urgency in NATO capitals as the specter of invasion, but they represent a far more practical and potentially intractable problem for Western military planners. Current NATO capabilities are far from adequate in defeating the most advanced Russian defensive systems without a significant commitment of resources, which would almost certainly lead to escalation. Until that changes, the alliance would do well to adopt a more modest forward-basing strategy.
Michael Cecire is a policy researcher based in Washington, D.C.