Editorial Board

Send Putin a Message in Eastern Europe

More needed.

Photographer: Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s new budget is very generous to the Pentagon -- at $600 billion, overly so. But one welcome proposal is a quadrupling of military spending in Eastern and Central Europe, to $3.4 billion. As a message to Russia and to ease the rising fears of the ex-Soviet Baltic states, it could be money well-spent.

The anxiety in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is not unjustified. Russian President Vladimir Putin, his military adventurism having paid dividends in Syria and Ukraine, could soon turn his attention to the Baltics. And several reports -- from within the military and without -- suggest that a greater U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe would make a difference.

Admittedly, it’s improbable that Putin would undertake a ground invasion of a NATO member. More likely, he would follow the Ukraine script: dubious claims of oppression against the countries’ sizable Russian ethnic minorities, covert campaigns of propaganda and subversion, financial support to separatist groups, even infiltrating with non-uniformed special forces -- aka “little green men.” This approach would give Russia plausible deniability while carving out a foothold in the Baltics.

The best way to deter Putin’s belligerence is to put a military presence in Eastern Europe sufficient to convince him that any aggression would be vulnerable to a serious American-led reprisal.

Unfortunately, as Putin looks west, he sees little to intimidate him. U.S. Army troop numbers in Europe have dropped from 200,000 to 30,000 since the end of the Cold War. Almost none of the European NATO states reach the alliance's target of spending at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. The three Baltic nations have about 10,000 active-duty soldiers combined, and no real air forces or navies. And while the Atlantic alliance has expanded eastward from the Baltic Sea in the north to Romania and Bulgaria in the south, most of the military infrastructure remains in the middle, on the western side of the former Iron Curtain.

Meanwhile, Russia could bring 22 battalion tactical groups to bear in the area, and some 100,000 troops. It can also call in overwhelming air power. Despite falling oil prices and sanctions, Russian military spending rose 21 percent in 2015.

In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. decided to rotate in and out of the region a new armored brigade combat team of about 5,000 troops. The Pentagon has permanently positioned heavy equipment for that force. It has also been rotating in more fighters, bombers and support aircraft. All of this might raise the political stakes for Kremlin aggression, but it doesn’t amount to much militarily. The West needs a more serious and permanent force further to the east.

There is a 1997 nonbinding agreement between the U.S. and Russia which says that the West would avoid “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” inside NATO’s new member states. The Russians have violated other aspects of this agreement in Ukraine, even as the U.S. has been careful to adhere to its letter. But it’s time to abandon the moral high road.

As a start, the U.S. should add a second armored brigade combat team, and one if not both of them should be permanently positioned in the area. And more of the support equipment should be moved out of Germany and into Poland and the Baltics. Additional aircraft should also be rotated in. In response, Russia is sure to ramp up its own forces -- but that’s less of a concern than it seems, since Russia already has such an overwhelming advantage in Eastern Europe that more military might would be overkill.

Adding a permanent new U.S. brigade in Eastern Europe of course wouldn’t hold off a full-scale Russian invasion for long. But as a strategic deterrent, this sort of visible, flexible military commitment would do a great deal to keep Moscow’s ambitions at bay. Long-term, of course, the U.S.’s NATO allies have to do more. But the U.S. can also send Putin a message of its own.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.