NATO forces are well positioned to refight the battle of Waterloo of 1815, the first Balkan War of 1912, the botched invasion of the Dardanelles in 1915 and German panzers’ sweep through the Ardennes in 1940 -- just not to repel an attack by Russia in 2014.
Leaders of the trans-Atlantic alliance will vow to change that at a summit that began today, with eastern European countries close to Russia clamoring for a beefed-up military profile to deter the Kremlin from broadening its territorial ambitions beyond Ukraine.
Europe’s progressive demilitarization, the legacy of years of declining military budgets and varying perceptions of the Russian threat will limit how far the alliance goes, leaving eastern Europe dependent on mobile contingents of NATO-flagged troops, backed up by the full spectrum of U.S. military might and, tacitly, its nuclear arsenal.
“The message is that in the event of a confrontation, NATO could deploy a holding force very quickly and then would wait for the cavalry to arrive, which was pretty much the model during the Cold War,” said Neil Melvin, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The summit of 28 North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders started today in Newport, Wales, and runs through tomorrow afternoon.
NATO countries demobilized after the Cold War and sought to co-opt Russia as a partner. Alliance “out of area” missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan, along with cuts in defense spending, especially in Europe, led to a growing mismatch between U.S. and European firepower. NATO entered this year’s Ukraine crisis with an exposed eastern flank and a rapid-response force that takes six months to deploy.
The alliance’s absorption of eastern European countries once under the Soviet yoke set the stage for the current tensions. To reassure Russia that it wasn’t going on the offensive, NATO pledged in 1997 to refrain from new “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” near Russia’s borders.
Even in the heat of the Ukraine crisis, that non-binding pledge has held. So as not to multiply the Kremlin’s suspicions of NATO intentions, allied leaders have vowed to abide by the original commitment, at least publicly.
As a result, NATO has multinational bases and command centers dotted across western Europe, in places like Brunssum, Netherlands, and Naples, Italy. The basing map evokes past wars: supreme headquarters in Mons, Belgium, is close to the site of Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo and the scene of the first German-British clashes at the start of World War I in August 1914.
Wide swathes of eastern Europe are blank spots in NATO’s order of battle. Szczecin, Poland, hosts a headquarters for a multinational corps, and warplanes from a rotating cast of militaries patrol the alliance’s northeastern flank from bases in Estonia and Lithuania.
The air-policing mission was reinforced after Russia seized Crimea, Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula, in March. The U.S. also stepped up land and naval drills in eastern Europe, and hoisted its flag in the three Baltic states and Poland with rotating contingents of 150 soldiers in each.
“Our alliance should extend these defensive measures for as long as necessary,” President Barack Obama said in Tallinn, Estonia yesterday. He said the U.S. will provide “more U.S. forces, including American boots on the ground, continuously rotating through Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania.”
At the summit, NATO will flesh out a readiness plan that retools the slow-moving NATO Response Force, now with a strength on paper of around 40,000. It will be equipped with a brigade-sized “spearhead” -- 3,000 to 5,000 troops -- which could go into action on 48 hours notice, an official told Brussels reporters on Sept. 1.
“Numbers don’t matter as much as the political commitment,” said Bruno Tertrais, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “What’s critical is to send a message that we would be ready to defend the first inches of Estonian or Polish territory.”
The spearhead will be “a military unit that can be deployed at very short notice if needed,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said as he arrived for the summit. It could be followed into battle by a U.K.-led seven-nation expeditionary force now in the works, resupplying from fuel stocks and ammunition stockpiled at forward bases.
The strategic thinking goes back to a quip attributed to Winston Churchill that all it would take to defend Europe is one American soldier, “preferably dead,” since the aggressor would face a massive U.S. counterattack. That same logic protected the encircled city of West Berlin during the Cold War, when it was garrisoned by U.S., British and French troops acting as a tripwire.
At an Atlantic Council conference before the summit, Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas spoke of “three P’s: presence, prepositioning and planning in the east.” U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top military commander, said the alliance will create “an entity in these forward nations that on a routine basis prepares and exercises with our fellow forces, and is setting the stage so that if we need to, we can rapidly respond with much larger and capable forces if we see an act of aggression.”
There is more consensus over how to retarget and re-equip NATO forces than over who will pay the bills. U.S. grumbling that it bears an excessive burden is reflected in data showing that only four countries -- the U.S., the U.K., pint-sized Estonia and debt-swamped Greece -- meet an alliance target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.
The American goal is to bend the curve: halt the decline in military budgets, and shift spending from manpower to equipment. Obama’s insistence that Europe do more to finance its defense is bearing initial fruit. Since the Ukraine crisis broke out, seven more countries have pledged to get up to 2 percent, though on variable deadlines.