The latest pre-Warsaw Summit noise suggests that NATO will be deploying permanently continuously something like four or five battalions, totaling three thousand troops or so in the Baltics and Poland.
The idea is not that these troops would be enough to stop a Russian invasion, but that they would be sufficient to serve as a tripwire. That a Russian attack would mean combat with NATO forces and thus dead Americans, Brits, Germans and others. This would then tie the hands of American, British, and German leaders, making the commitment to stay in the fight and perhaps escalate more credible — more believable.
This is important since Vladimir Putin is an opportunist who likes faits accompli–moving first and then putting the onus for making major costly decisions onto the other side. This basing of troops would put the onus for risking World War III back onto Putin. He would thus be deterred.
This was the Cold War playbook, and it seems to make sense today. Some questions arise:
- Will this provoke Russia? Yes, but doing nothing is provocative in a different and scarier way.
- Is this enough? Certainly, the old stance of 20 soldiers each in six different outposts signaled something short of a significant commitment, and might not produce enough casualties in a conflict to commit the leaders of NATO countries. Is 3000? I don’t know, but it might be good enough. I would prefer 10k, as a couple of brigades are more visible than a few battalions. But I don’t get a vote on this.
- What about the rest of NATO? Each formation is likely to include forces from the rest of the alliance and the whispers thus far suggest that the fourth battalion would be led by someone that is not the US/UK/Germany.
We will be seeing more stories like this as the Warsaw Summit in July gets closer. The summit itself is not a place where big decisions are made, but announced. NATO summits serve like conferences for professors–setting artificial deadlines so that folks produce the papers they promise. So, the decisions will be made in the lead up to the summit and then announced there. So, expect more stories about the stuff that is likely to be the substance of the summit’s “decisions.”
Stephen Saideman is a Fellow and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs