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Trip Line or Speed Bump? NATO Adds 4,000 Troops in the Baltic States

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By Morgan Deane:

NATO has stationed several battalions in the Baltic region in response to rising tension with Russia. This is not without controversy from all the powers involved. The most pertinent questions are how effective these troops will be and their impact on the region. Will they be a trip line or a speed bump?

The troops consist of 4 battalions, of about 1,000 each, in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. These are strategically located countries in the Baltic Sea that have often been intimidated and absorbed by Russia, including all of the Cold War. Their independence is still rather new, and they don’t have the manpower or budgets of the large country to their East.  The intention of these troops is to signal strength in the region to Russia, act as a guarantee of Baltic independence and a signal of NATO resolve in the region.

These are all important factors considering recent trends. The NATO alliance has worked together in Afghanistan and most recently flying sorties in Syria and Iraq against ISIS. But bombing somebody without an air force and assisting local soldiers against deadly, but still motley collection of terrorists is different than defending the territorial integrity of Eastern European neighbors against an aggressive leader with a large and technologically advanced country like Russia.

Modernization in Russian military has resulted in new forms of warfare and rapidly changing environment, cyber, warfare, and anti-access/area-denial capabilities. Russian annexation of Crimea and the current conflict in Ukraine revealed new tactics. The Russians might also be adopting an Anti-Access Area Denial (A2 AD) strategy in Eastern Europe.  They seek to use electronic and cyber warfare to paralyze efforts combined with anti-air missiles to prevent a proper US response in case they do launch military operations.  Air Force leadership in Europe estimated that Russia has almost one-third of Poland covered with their sophisticated air defense system.  Other analysts point to Iskander missiles in the Kalingrad enclave that can reach as far as Berlin.  NATO pilots have flown over 600 sorties responding to Russian plans which are actively probing the airspace.  The Russians have a new Armata class tank which is reportedly superior to anything fielded by the West. NATO forces have good numbers of air and water assets in the region, but they face disjointed command and often inadequate training as a cohesive unit. This makes them significantly lesser than the sum of their parts. The Russian military, in contrast, has parades that feature over 100,000 soldiers. Lithuania actively supported the Ukrainian government against Russian aggression which made them particularly targets of Russian ire. This is on top of Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.  Both of these are indications of Putin’s willingness to seize territory and aggressively undermine his neighbors.

A battalion of American troops as a trip line would act as a potential catalyst for war. In the event of conflict their numbers would be too few to make a huge difference. They would bolster local forces and wait for reinforcements.  Their main use would be as a deterrent in the belief that Russia wouldn’t want to instigate a war even if they could overwhelm the small force in the Baltics. This leads to a certain irony, where the willingness to fight would have a better chance of leading to peace. If American leaders are willing to fight if their soldiers in the Baltic States are attacked it would make the consequences for tripping the line too great for Russians.  Lacking the will to fight would have a greater chance of leading to war.  Without the political will to actually impose consequences on Russian attacks, the trip line would turn into a speed bump. The 1,000 soldiers would be well trained and equipped, but are hardly designed to withstand a sustained attack from multiple Russian divisions.

American willingness to fight in the Region also strengthens the alliance. Alliances seem strong until they are tested by aggression. At that point, unless they have a trained and equipped military and the political will to use it, the alliance often fails.  It then turns into what Henry Kissinger called collective insecurity, where there are many alliances that all fail to protect the members of the alliance.  This is what happened in between the World Wars for example.  The failure of members in an alliance to take proactive steps often gives aggressive nations the initiative as they can take this territory (like Crimea) or sponsor insurrection in Ukraine without serious risk of aggression. The deployment of NATO forces acts as an important statement to the contrary.

The candidates this year spent more time talking about each other’s flaws and less time about Russian aggression, except as a scapegoat when leaked information hurt them.  Each candidate did have a great deal of flaws, and it remains to be seen how a President Trump will act compared to his campaign rhetoric.  The independent candidate Evan McMullin clearly supported the deployment of troops.  In a year when the Republican candidate attacked George Bush and the Iraq War and questioned the need for the NATO alliance, and the Democratic candidate ran away from her support of the war and a failed reset with Russia, this is a good sign that some in the Republican Party at least are serious about international threats and alliances.

Many people like slogans and ideas that attack America’s role as the policemen of the world. But the willingness to use force against dictators, particularly those like Putin, actually has a greater chance of preserving peace. It’s not easy or popular to station soldiers, a potentially harming situation with the potential to start a war.  But this is an important move to strengthen the alliance and dissuade further aggression.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

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