Russian Provocations Challenge NATO on Eve of Summit

Member states to cement plan for more troops in Eastern Europe, but experts warn it may fall short of deterring Putin

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NATO member states will ink a plan to send more forces to Eastern Europe at a summit in Warsaw that begins Friday, in the face of increasingly hostile behavior from Russian.

The plan to deploy four "robust" multinational battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland on a rotational basis will be solidified at a time when tensions between Russia and the United States are higher than any point since the Cold War.

Russia has been harassing American diplomats in Europe, unsafely buzzing U.S. warships and planes in the Baltics, and bombing U.S.-backed Syrian rebels attempting to thwart ISIS and the Assad regime in the war-torn Middle Eastern nation. NATO’s bolstered force has been met with threatening language from Russia, and the Kremlin’s promise to send troops westward to counter the buildup has already begun to materialize.

NATO member states have been increasingly wary of Russia since its military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea more than two years ago.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Monday that the new deployment will realize a plan laid out by the alliance two years ago at its last summit for the "biggest reinforcement of NATO’s collective defense since the Cold War." The battalions will be led by the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada, and are expected to involve 4,000 troops in total. These battalions are separate from the brigade-size force the Pentagon plans to deploy to Eastern Europe next year on a permanent basis to counter Russian aggression.

"At our Summit in Warsaw, we will agree to further enhance our military presence in the eastern part of the Alliance," Stoltenberg said. "This is a great contribution to our common security. And a clear signal that our nations will defend one another, on both sides of the Atlantic."

While experts applauded the move, they expressed doubt that the new force numbers will be enough to deter and respond to Russian aggression in the region.

"I think it’s a step in the right direction. I think it sends the right message. I don’t think its enough," Luke Coffey, the director of the director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview. He emphasized that Russia has forces in several countries encircling NATO member states, including Georgia, Belarus, and Ukraine, where he estimated 30,000 troops are currently based.

Coffey said the new NATO force in the Baltics should be bolstered by a proper air defense mission and that NATO should put force structure in place for military in neighboring states in the event of conflict.

"We also have to have large-scale defense exercises to practice how to reinforce the region," Coffey said.

He anticipated that Russia will not invade a NATO member country, but that the Kremlin will continue to "heat up" the situation in Ukraine and make other antagonistic moves. Coffey also predicted that Russia will keep bolstering its military presence.

Russia has already begun to build a new Army base near its border with Ukraine, according to a Reuters report last month, after Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the creation of three new divisions in its western and southern military districts in response to NATO’s planned deployment. Russian media outlets reported in May that the new divisions are expected to number 10,000 soldiers each, meaning that just one of the new Russian divisions would more than double the troop count of the four NATO battalions.

Russian servicemen and military equipment were also recently seen arriving in Kaliningrad, Russian territory, which is wedged between Poland and Lithuania and houses Russia’s outpost along the Baltic coast.

"They have a strategy, and we have a response," Coffey said, suggesting that NATO needs to be more proactive in preventing Russian action in the region. He rejected the idea that the NATO battalions should serve as a "tripwire" given a Russian attack. "We should be in it to win it," Coffey said.

NATO’s planned deployments have fallen short of other recommendations. Rand Corporation experts proposed NATO have a force of six or seven brigades, including three heavy-armored brigades, with proper air and land-based support to prevent rapid defeat in the face of Russian hostilities in the Baltic states.

Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow focusing on foreign policy at the American Enterprise Institute, recommended that NATO "make the deterrent as strong as possible" by increasing the number of troops in the region by at least 5,000 and moving away from a rotational system to one in which there are permanent NATO bases in Eastern Europe.

"I don’t think that President Obama is willing to make that commitment," he said.

Rohac also said that NATO should develop a strategy for an immediate response from troops given an invasion of a Baltic state. He said there are "limits" to what Russia can do militarily because it is not an "economy of the future" and has weathered cuts in defense spending as a result of sanctions and reductions in oil prices.

Rohac said Russia will likely continue to take action in the area of energy to wield influence, such as its pursuit of a new natural-gas pipeline across Europe, and to invest in propaganda.

"For the Kremlin, this is a long game which is not just about sheer military might," he said.

NATO has drawn ire from Russia this year after activating a missile defense shield in Romania aimed at thwarting nuclear threats from the Middle East, and later sending 31,000 troops to Poland to conduct land, sea, and air military exercises. Russia has described NATO troops near its border as a security threat.

While Stoltenberg noted "increased tensions" between NATO member states and Russia and recent military provocations during the media briefing earlier this week, he left the door open for dialogue at a forthcoming meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, a date for which has not yet been set.

"One of the issues I believe should be addressed there is transparency, risk reductions, predictability, because we have seen more military activities, more unsafe and unprofessional behavior and with all the flights, all the military activity in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and other places around NATO territory," the secretary-general said. "These are incidents and accidents which we should try to prevent and if they occur we should have mechanisms in place making sure that they don’t spiral out of control and create really dangerous situations."

At the Warsaw summit on July 8 and 9, NATO member countries are also expected to agree to develop a tailored presence in southeastern Europe, which will be based on a multinational brigade in Romania. Partners will also agree to provide a "comprehensive package" of aid to Ukraine that will add assistance in the areas of hybrid warfare, explosive devices, and strategic communications, Stoltenberg said Monday.

"We have strengthened our military presence as a response to Russia's behavior in Ukraine but we have also continued to strive for more dialogue, a more constructive and cooperative relationship with Russia," he said. "We don’t want a new Cold War."

Morgan Chalfant   Email Morgan | Full Bio | RSS
Morgan Chalfant is a staff writer at the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Free Beacon, Morgan worked as a staff writer at Red Alert Politics. She also served as the year-long Collegiate Network fellow on the editorial page at USA TODAY from 2013-14. Morgan graduated from Boston College in 2013 with a B.A. in English and Mathematics. Her Twitter handle is @mchalfant16.