The Russians aren't coming.

Photographer: Corporal Andy Reddy RLC/MoD via Getty Images

U.S. Build-Up in Europe Serves No Purpose

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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While showing off some new UAZ Patriot pickup trucks armed with machine guns and grenade launchers to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, a general couldn't open the door of one of the trucks and, in his desperate desire to please the commander-in-chief, ripped off the door handle. "Well done," Putin said, laughing.

Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is debating how most effectively to deter Russia from invading the Baltic States. The U.S. has already proposed quadrupling the budget of the so-called European Reassurance Initiative, to $3.4 billion in 2017. A billion dollars of that sum is to add another armored brigade combat team, 4,000 to 5,000 strong, to the 35,000 U.S. troops already present in Europe. Another $1.9 billion is earmarked for additional war-fighting equipment. Still, many U.S. analysts still believe that may not be enough for deterrence.

They should watch the door handle video and ask themselves if they aren't being hoodwinked.

RAND Corporation recently held a war game to see if the Baltic states were defensible against Russia and concluded that, with the current level of protection, the Russian military could get to Tallinn and Riga in as little as 60 hours. To prevent such an outcome, Rand concluded that NATO would need seven brigades, including three with heavy armor, "adequately supported by air power, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities."

Writing for the Atlantic Council, Franklin Cramer and Bantz Craddock proposed reinforcing the Baltic nations' defenses with additional air defense and anti-armor systems and setting up new multinational battalions former from Baltic, other European and U.S. soldiers. 

On the defense analysis site War on the Rocks, Elbridge Colby and Jonathan Solomon declared the planned additional U.S. deployment insufficient, arguing that persuading the "increasingly capable Russians" to stand down would require "fielding a conventional military posture that includes substantial, potent forces permanently deployed forward in Central and Eastern Europe that can assuredly arrest any Russian military thrust into NATO member-state territory."

These experts all discuss Russia's resurgent military strength. RAND argues that forces in Russia's Western Military District are far more powerful, in terms of numerical strength and equipment, than what NATO deploys in and around the Baltics. Russia's air campaign in Syria has also impressed many.

Watching the door handle video or reading last year's reports from Debaltsevo in eastern Ukraine, where local rebels aided by Russian troops encircled and defeated the Ukrainian army after weeks of heavy fighting, should sow some doubts in the minds of military specialists as to the Russian army's readiness for a bold invasion of two or three NATO member states. 

Although Russia is undergoing extensive rearmament, a program to which Putin pays lots of attention, it's plagued by typical modern Russian problems of inefficient, overly expensive procurement and shoddy quality. Demonstrating success to Putin is more important to the generals than actually achieving it and Putin, in turn, may well be more interested in showing off to the world in Victory Day parades on Red Square, than attacking NATO. He pursues domestic goals, too, whipping up a patriotic frenzy to maintain his support. The climate in today's Russia is one in which Kalashnikov, the assault rifle manufacturer, is having difficulty turning a profit from its main product -- but is hoping to make up for that by producing a line of military style clothing for patriots. 

Russian troops can be effective against weak adversaries, such as the Ukrainian military or lightly armed Syrian rebels, but even then they do not achieve lightning-fast results. The invasion of Crimea was scary, because unbadged Russian soldiers there wore modern-looking gear and looked dangerous, but they did not meet with any resistance. As the Wilson Center's Michael Kofman argues on War on the Rocks, "the Russian army is simply not set up to occupy an invaded country, particularly one likely to resist. There are few permanent units based on NATO’s borders and no higher tier command structures to organize a fight using units pieced together from other districts."

More importantly, however, none of the alarmist proponents of an increased U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe can explain why Putin would want to invade the Baltics. Countries don't attack other countries simply because they don't like them, or because they can. There has to be some strategic benefit to the attack. In the premise for its war game, RAND takes a stab at locating one: "The strategic goal of the invasion was to demonstrate NATO’s inability to protect its most vulnerable members and divide the alliance, reducing the threat it presents from Moscow’s point of view."

It's not clear why Russia would risk an all-out war with the U.S., including the prospect of a nuclear conflict, just to prove NATO's vulnerability. The previous aggressive actions of Putin and his close circle suggest they do indeed consider NATO as a threat to Russia. But Putin backed separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and went to war for them in 2008, to make a destabilized Georgia unacceptable to NATO as a potential member. It has been feeding the unrest in eastern Ukraine with the same purpose. Both wars are used by the alarmist experts as arguments for increased deterrence, but are really arguments against it: Russia fears NATO's closeness to its borders enough to launch these adventures at considerable cost to its international status, so it's unlikely to invite a direct conflict with the alliance. And it isn't the U.S. contingent stationed in Europe that scares Putin, but the full U.S. military might, including its nuclear arsenal. 

Kofman doesn't rule out Russian military mischief in the Baltics, but he believes an all-out invasion of Riga and Tallinn would not be the most likely scenario. To test NATO's resolve in a less life-threatening way, Russia could seize a patch of disputed land. "A smarter approach for Moscow," Kofman wrote, "and one conceptually demonstrated in Crimea, is to create a crisis in which NATO’s credibility is tested on the choice of whether or not to attack Russia first."

A heightened U.S. military presence would only make that choice a tougher one for the U.S.: the safety of its personnel could become an added consideration that could give rise to rash decisions.

Increased budgets, more toys, more opportunities to hold exercises in various geographies are always attractive to generals. Strategically, however, in won't help to resolve any real-world problem. Russia has no reason to mount a massive invasion of the Baltics and Putin knows how much of the country's new might is window-dressing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net