Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, in the midst of a week-long trip to Europe, is reassuring nervous allies that the trans-Atlantic alliance would ride to the rescue if Russia attacked.
The three tiny Baltic nations, Russia’s neighbors and parts of the former Soviet Union before they joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004, are especially anxious.
“We have reasons to believe that Russia views the Baltic region as one of NATO’s most vulnerable areas, a place where NATO’s resolve can be tested,” said Sven Mikser, Estonia’s defense minister.
On Tuesday, Carter tried to meet the test, saying that the United States is moving about 250 tanks, howitzers and Bradley Fighting Vehicles to Estonia, population 1.3 million, and five other alliance nations as a show of force.
“While we don’t seek a cold war, let alone a hot war, with Russia, we will defend our allies,” he told reporters in Tallinn, the Estonian capital.
Still, the U.S. defense chief confronts doubts about both NATO’s capability and its willingness to act. His campaign of deterrence, while reminiscent of the Cold War, is playing out on a vastly different political, military and economic landscape.
The Cold War’s tidy us-versus-them face-off has been replaced by a web of commercial and cooperative ties among Russia, the United States and European nations. Russia provides almost a third of the European Union’s natural gas needs and is Europe’s third-largest trading partner.
Those ties have contributed to doubts about NATO’s willingness to fight for its newest members. Majorities of the public in Germany, France and Italy oppose defending NATO allies on Russia’s periphery if they come under attack, according to a June 10 Pew Research Center survey.
“Nobody’s going to war with Russia over Estonia,” said Leon Aron, a Russia specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Doubts about NATO’s will to act are matched by concerns about its ability to fight. The alliance is fielding a new rapid reaction force that’s intended to reach trouble spots within 48 hours — far faster than the minimum 30 days needed before the Ukraine crisis.
Even that quicker tempo, however, may not be fast enough. A repeat of the murky circumstances that governed the opening phase of the Ukraine crisis — operations by armed units with no insignia, coupled with stage-managed pleas for help by local ethnic Russians — could present NATO with a difficult choice.
Carter said allied officials later this week will discuss ways to ensure that the “speed of decision-making” matches military needs.
That hasn’t always been the case. In 2003, it took a month after a U.S. request to NATO for Patriot air defense missile batteries to arrive in Turkey.
“It’s pretty clear they would not be there in time,” said Terrence Kelly of the Rand Corp., a nonprofit policy research organization, who’s participated in Baltic war games. “Our research clearly indicates that Russia could get to the Baltic Sea very, very quickly.”
Some doubt that the Russian threat will materialize. Ukraine, with a special, emotional importance to Russian culture, wasn’t a member of NATO, and the deep reservoir of public support from ethnic Russians in Crimea would be difficult to replicate in Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania.
“The Russian speakers in these countries have been living in the West for a long time,” said Sean Kay, a former Defense Department consultant and director of the international studies program at Ohio Wesleyan University. “It’s not the Donbass,” he said, referring to the disputed eastern region of Ukraine. “They’re citizens of the European Union.”
U.S. officials see the Russian leader’s support for pro- Russian separatists in Ukraine as only part of a broader campaign to split the Western alliance — what Rand analysts labeled a “cool war” in a March 25 study.
“Weakening, if not destroying NATO, is one of Putin’s key national security objectives,” said Kelly, director of the strategy, doctrine and resources program for the Rand Arroyo Center, funded by the U.S. Army.
Prepositioning equipment for one armored combat brigade spread among Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland — the allies closest to Russian soil — is intended as a signal to Putin.
No one expects Russian armored formations and thousands of soldiers to pour across the borders. The fear is a repeat of the deft propaganda and irregular militias that Russia has employed to devastating effect in eastern Ukraine.
Or Russia could launch an offensive across virtual borders using cybertools that didn’t exist in the Cold War. In 2007, during a dispute between Estonia and Russia over the relocation of a Soviet war memorial from the center of Tallinn, “denial of service attacks” crashed Estonian government websites.
Carter on Tuesday toured an Estonian cybersecurity research center housed in a handsome stone building that served in the 19th century as a barracks for the Russian czar’s army.
Since Russia used such “hybrid warfare” to swallow the Crimean peninsula in March 2014, allied military forces have staged a near-continuous series of military exercises to demonstrate resolve while political leaders have vowed to counter any further Moscow moves.
“The United States and the rest of the NATO alliance are absolutely committed to defending the territorial integrity of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, just as we’re committed to defending all of our allies,” Carter said.
If today’s Russian threat differs from that of the Cold War, Europe’s military balance also has evolved. The U.S. remains in the midst of a long drawdown of its European forces despite the Ukraine crisis.
The U.S. has about 65,000 troops in Europe today compared with an early-1990s peak of more than 300,000. Repeated headquarters staff cuts have made U.S. European Command the smallest combatant command in the U.S. military.
In April, the U.S. Army announced the withdrawal of 24 Apache and 30 Blackhawk helicopters from Germany.
U.S. forces in Europe “have been sized over the last two decades for a Russia that we were looking to make a partner,” Air Force General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April.
Russia’s military, too, pales in comparison to its Soviet predecessor. From a 1986 peak of 4.3 million men under arms, the Russian military has shrunk to fewer than 1 million in uniform, according to a March 31, 2014, Congressional Research Service study.
Putin has launched a multiyear program to expand and modernize his military, but “mismanagement, changes in plans, corruption, manning issues, and economic constraints have complicated this restructuring,” the report concluded.
The military balance may not matter as much as perceptions in rival capitals, though. Putin already has misjudged the consequences of seizing Crimea, and and allied officials want to make sure he doesn’t miscalculate again.
“NATO collectively is far superior to Russia today,” said Mikser, the Estonian defense chief. “In global terms, Russia is no match literally to the U.S., to NATO. But here in this, our corner of the world, Putin believes he enjoys superiority, regional superiority. That makes us vulnerable.”
Over the past year, the U.S. has taken several steps to shore up its deterrent. Under the $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative, the Pentagon has increased the frequency of European exercises. It’s flown A-10 attack aircraft to bases in Romania and funded improvements to railheads and landing strips that would be needed in the event of trouble along NATO’s eastern or southern flanks.
The prepositioning of enough equipment for 5,000 soldiers announced Tuesday is a further warning. But it may not be enough.
“That will end up being an initial step,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander and now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. “The Baltics’ desire to have a small permanent presence of U.S. troops — companies or battalions — will continue to grow. I think we’ll end up in that position in another year or so.”