Now Is The Time to Strengthen NATO’s Resolve

By Michael Fenzel and Aaron Picozzi

The November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris and late October bombing of Russian Metrojet flight 9268 have not only crystallized the threat of the self-declared Islamic State to the world, but also created an unlikely opportunity to open a dialogue with Russia. However, these tragedies do not change the long-term threat Russia poses to stability in Europe. Russia’s encroachment in Eastern Europe is a threat to the security and stability of the continent and tests the resolve of NATO in an unprecedented way. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent military intervention in Syria is further evidence of his ambition to broaden Russian influence and capitalize on regional instability.

One thing appears certain: Putin will not be swayed by tough talk from our allies and friends. The failure to take bold action, even amidst a potential collaboration against ISIS, only serves as tacit acceptance of Putin’s violations of international law. Through an increased military posture, an increase of our ground forces specifically, the United States must take the lead to stem the tide of Russia’s advances with tangible efforts to protect our interests in Europe and strengthen the resolve of the NATO alliance.

Nine Eastern European members of NATO recently met in Romania to discuss the Russian threat and the challenge of refugee flows from Syria into Europe. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also used the meeting to call for increased pressure from member countries to respond to Russian aggression, particularly stressing the importance of military presence. The challenge of maintaining a heightened posture comes in the midst of the last stage of U.S. troop reductions in Europe, from a force of 40,000 in 2012 to 26,000 planned for this year. Maintaining this course runs counter to NATO requests for additional U.S. troop presence and to our national interests. Over-the-horizon deterrence will simply not work—deterrence must be real, observable, and project strength.

The commander of NATO’s Allied Land Component, U.S. Army Lieutenant General John Nicholson, reiterated the importance of maintaining U.S. troop presence, stating unambiguously, “If we get there late, then we may have to fight.” The current effort to deter Russia with U.S. presence in Europe is problematic given the number of troops available—an enduring force of two combat brigades can neither be considered an offensive force nor an effective deterrent. The roughly 30,000 American troops on the ground in Europe today are all that Lieutenant General Ben Hodges (U.S. Army Commander in Europe) has at his disposal. Yet Hodges is faced with the very same task that his forebears faced through the Cold War: deter Russian aggression and expansion. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, recognizing these challenges, has called for a “new playbook” for Russia.

The recent deployment of U.S. F-15C model aircraft to Incirlik, Turkey provide a hedge against continued Russian expansion and a bulwark to their actions in Syria. These aircraft are equipped with only air-to-air weaponry, designed to counter assets that ISIS does not possess, but they are fully capable of responding to threats from Russian fighter planes. This is one example of a number of prudent measures taken by the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, General Philip Breedlove, to address Russian attempts to distract from its actions in Ukraine. The introduction of Russian tanks into the Rostov region, along their southern border, is another echo of Cold War-era saber rattling. Carter responded to this maneuver by rotating two U.S. armored brigades to Eastern and Central Europe. Positioning additional mechanized forces in Europe is the only effective method to counter Russian posturing.

In order fortify the tenuous NATO position in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, the United States has undertaken a direct training mission in Ukraine. A primary focus for the U.S. Army in Europe is now to train Ukrainian soldiers to utilize their Soviet-era weaponry against Russian separatists. This effort puts one U.S. airborne brigade directly across from Russia’s “little green men” who are conducting operations to further Putin’s aim of consolidating gains. Our training teams in Ukraine, Latvia, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Slovakia are focusing their efforts on training these militaries to fight while staying well clear of direct combat operations.

Under the tenets of Operation Atlantic Resolve, the United States has begun a yearlong training exercise that spans six NATO countries. This mission not only continues to boost military readiness, but also serves to ease the fears of Eastern European allies. The further expansion of this set of training missions is a prudent method of assuring security and stability in a region that is fearful of what Russia will do next. By rotating U.S. Army combat brigades on a temporary but recurring basis, the United States continues to operate within the confines of the NATO Founding Act while sending a clear message to Russia—the United States will not stand by idly in the face of aggression.

Russia remains the only country on Earth that possesses the nuclear capability to destroy the United States. Russian encroachment and efforts to expand and consolidate gains at their borders is a direct threat to our vital national security interests. In order to avoid a future conflict and prevent further encroachment, the United States and NATO must increase their commitment to rolling back Russian advances. This can only be done by projecting military force in the same manner that was so effective for over fifty years through the Cold War. Preserving peace in Europe demands action now or it will lead to an even more volatile situation in the future. Even in the midst of global collaboration against ISIS, a clear message must be sent to Russia when it comes to Europe—an attack against one NATO nation is an attack against all.

Colonel Michael R. FenzelU.S. Army, most recently served as the chief of staff for the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Previously, he commanded the Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team and the 1st Armored Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team. His other assignments include commander, 1st Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade at Vicenza, Italy, and director for transnational threats with the National Security Council. Colonel Fenzel holds a BA from Johns Hopkins University and MA’s from the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard University, and a PhD from the Naval Postgraduate School. 

Aaron Picozzi is a research associate for military fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations.