Paul Taylor, A Co-editor at POLITICO, writes the column “Europe At Large”.
PARIS – NATO cannot afford to learn the wrong lessons from the war in Ukraine.
The Western military alliance is under unprecedented pressure from its Eastern members, who are urging it to return to a 1980s Cold War-style stance, with armored divisions deployed on its borders to deter an aggressive, unpredictable Russia from invading Ukraine to go out
That would be a mistake – and a potentially huge waste of Europe’s planned defense spending increases.
Certainly, in the 25 years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s conquest of Crimea, territorial defense was not a top priority for NATO; Its armor forces were drastically reduced and mostly left to rust. Instead, much of their political attention and military efforts have focused on so-called “out-of-area” crisis management, peacekeeping, and training operations from the Western Balkans to Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq.
But that doesn’t mean the alliance should go to the other extreme.
Ukraine’s mobile, dispersed forces — outnumbered but highly effective — and its whole-society approach to defense represent an intelligent way to stem and repel a lumbering, old-fashioned Russian offensive. Their hit-and-run tactics with man-portable American Javelin anti-tank weapons and shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles – both technologies from the 1980s and 1990s – have dulled Moscow’s armor and denied it air superiority.
When a cyberattack knocked out internet connections used by Ukraine’s military, within weeks Kyiv was able to switch to terminals supplied by Elon Musk’s Starlink, connecting its surveillance drones, command and control systems, and anti-tank artillery in real time to devastating effect.
But all that still hasn’t calmed concerned Baltic nations, who see the devastation of Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure and fear they’ll be next on Putin’s menu.
At the alliance’s emergency summit on March 24, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas led the eastern allies’ pleas for a massive, permanent NATO presence, calling for a full combat-ready division in her country — something that would require at least five times the allied forces , currently based in the Baltics, on a rotating basis.
“NATO will defend every inch of its territory. We need credible defenses on land, in the air and at sea. The current situation in our region is not sufficient for this”, said Kallas after meeting her Danish counterpart. “We have to close the gap.”
The small multinational NATO battle groups deployed to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 were intended to reassure these concerned ex-communist allies and discourage Putin from staging a territorial defense. Their function was to serve as a tripwire, signaling that US, British, German, Canadian or French soldiers would be among the first to die in a Russian attack, internationalizing the conflict from the start and mutual defense obligation under Article V of NATO.
The alliance stuck to the letter of the year 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act in which it had committed itself to refraining from “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat troops” in new eastern member states “in the current and foreseeable security environment”.
But there is now broad agreement within NATO that those promises are no longer valid, as Russia has flagrantly violated the agreement by invading a sovereign European state. And since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February, NATO has doubled the size of its so-called Improved forward presenceand announced plans to position similar combat-ready multinational units in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
NATO now has 40,000 troops under direct command on its eastern flank – ten times more than is normal in peacetime – but many eastern officials see this as just the start of a far larger tank buildup that they hope will be anchored new strategic concept to be adopted at the Madrid Summit at the end of June.
There is a lot that NATO should be doing. It needs to upgrade its air policing in the Baltic and Black Sea regions to a full-fledged integrated air defense system, with additional radars and surface-to-air missiles, and fighter jets stationed closer to Russia. It was also to conduct intensified collective defense exercises to ensure that its “rapid crisis reinforcement” strategy worked in practice and that allied forces were able to work together using standard equipment and communications.
But all of this is a far cry from the “forward-defense posture” adopted by the Alliance during the Cold War in Germany. NATO’s mission at the time was to stop Soviet tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap, a strategic valley between the East German border and the West German city of Frankfurt – a major financial center and home to a major US air base.
Today, some generals are spying on a similar strategic vulnerability in the so-called Suwalki Gap, a flat farmland on the Polish-Lithuanian border that separates Russia’s Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad from the territory of Russian ally Belarus. Their concern is that Russian troops could quickly seize and fortify the 40-mile corridor, cutting the Baltic states off from the rest of Europe.
So the desire for a stronger, permanent force to make the Moscow red line even wider is understandable. But therein lies the danger of storming down the wrong road.
In 21st century warfare, maneuverable anti-platform weapons are much more likely to defeat expensive platforms such as tanks, heavy bombers, or aircraft carriers. In addition, they are many times cheaper and faster to obtain.
“In this era of semi-autonomous anti-platform warfare, attacking to capture territory is more difficult than ever. . . until killer robots are available in sufficient numbers to do such things,” said Chris Kremidas-Courtney, a senior fellow at the Friends of Europe think tank and a former US infantry officer. “The infantry force of the future could consist of one human and nine robots, and their lethality could match that of a tank battalion by 2020.”
There’s no point preparing to fight yesterday’s wars again. NATO should think smart, not slow-witted. It must be nimble, light and quick in its territorial defense, with real-time situational awareness, and not build up noise Maginot Line on the Eastern Front.
Moshe Dayan, the legendary Israeli general and defense minister, used to joke: “When the lion goes to bed with the lamb, I want to be the lion.” But Ukraine’s prickly defense shows that maybe it’s better to be the hedgehog when the lion lies with the hedgehog.
https://www.politico.eu/article/nato-cold-war-ukraine-war-russia-east-deterrence-defense-spending-vladimir-putin/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication NATO Doesn't Have to Fight the Cold War Again - POLITICO