By Guy Plopsky
Mr. Trump’s warnings that his administration may abandon US security commitments under Article 5 to NATO allies which do not meet defense spending obligations have drawn extensive criticism from both fellow Americans and US allies. The issue of free riding within the alliance, however, cannot be ignored, particularly if it encourages the implementation of measures which undermine regional stability.
As a general rule, NATO encourages its members to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense (a rather modest figure). Yet, out of NATO’s 26 European members, just four meet this: Greece (2.38%), UK (2.21%), Estonia (2.16%), Poland (2%). For comparison, the United States is spends 3.61% of its GDP on defense this year (which, in absolute terms, is approximately two and a half times as much as all of NATO Europe spends combined).
The fact that Greece — a state of the verge of bankruptcy — spends more than any other European member on defense (as a % of GDP), speaks plenty about the commitment of other members to the alliance. This is particularly true with regard to smaller NATO member states. Unlike their larger counterparts that, despite spending only a small percentage of their GDP on defense, are still capable of fielding substantial numbers of troops and heavy equipment, NATO’s smaller members are virtually wholly reliant on the support of others for their defense. Three of these states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — also happen to border Russian territory and have been among the most vocal about the possibility of a military confrontation with Russia.
Yet, as noted earlier, of the three Baltic states, only Estonia meets the 2% mark, and does so only barely. At the same time, Lithuania and Latvia, despite spending significantly more on defense than in the previous two years, are still struggling to reach 1.5%. Moreover, only Lithuania exceeds NATO’s guideline of spending 20% of its total defense expenditure on the procurement of new equipment. Latvia currently spends under 18%, while Estonia is struggling to reach 15%. The United States, meanwhile, is committing substantial resources to their defense and fueling tensions with Russia in the process.
Unsurprisingly then, many in Washington are questioning whether it is worthwhile committing US forces to the defense of states that, in the words of Mr. Trump, do not pay their “fair share.” This is particularly true in light of the planned deployment of four multinational battalions (comprising troops from the US and other NATO partners) to the Baltic states and Poland. The deployment, which, in the words of former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Gen. Philip Breedlove, aims to shift NATO’s doctrine from “assurance to deterrence,” comes in addition to numerous joint exercises as well as Baltic air policing missions that are undertaken primarily by the US and Western European air forces as part of NATO’s Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) force.
While wholly abandoning America’s commitment to NATO allies which do not pay their fair share is not an option given that it would undermine the integrity of the alliance as a whole, Washington must realize that deploying 4,200 heavily armed troops near Russian borders is an equally flawed approach. Russia holds both a geographic and numerical advantage in this region. Four reinforced NATO multinational battalions — as elite as they may be — are unlikely to hold up against vastly numerically superior Russian troops and artillery. Even if these troops were to halt a hypothetical Russian assault, US casualties would be unjustifiably high. Moreover, the move risks prompting further deployments of Russian military assets to the region and, as a result, further escalating tensions. Indeed, Russia’s envoy to NATO, Alexander Grushko, for example, has already stated that Russia would certainly compensate militarily for NATO’s “absolutely unjustified military presence.”
The prospect of escalation as a result of this move directly contradicts Mr. Trump’s promises to normalize relations with Russia. The Trump administration must therefore avoid stationing large numbers of NATO troops in the Baltics and seek an alternative deterrence posture. It must also pressure the Baltic states into continuing to more actively enhance their self-defense capabilities and assume a greater role in the defense of their own borders. In order to successfully do so, the United States and the Baltic states (as well as other NATO members) must reach an understanding on the following three closely related points:
1) NATO states that want to be under Washington’s protective umbrella need to demonstrate their commitment to the alliance by meeting NATO’s guidlines. At the same time, Washington must understand the limitations of its allies. In other words, America cannot expect Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to field dozens of warships, hundreds of aircraft and thousands of armored vehicles, but that should not exempt the latter three from enhancing their capability to defend themselves. It must be noted that the need to enhance self-defense is well understood by Baltic officials, and, as a result, progress is being made. All three Baltic states, have, for example, committed to the procurement of a total of 255 armored vehicles which will greatly enlarge their very limited inventories of heavy equipment. That said, progress remains slow and will require further US pressure.
2) The alliance must understand that, for numerous political and economic reasons, the concept of a “European Army” is a pipe dream. This means Washington should encourage NATO’s European members to focus on the standardization of equipment and training, but not push its members to give up traditional military means in favor of focusing on certain niche capabilities. The exception to this point is closer military integration of smaller NATO member states that do not have military capabilities to give up in the first place.
Since neither of the three Baltic states can afford large navies, for example, focusing on niche capabilities such as mine-sweeping and mine laying is a good way to demonstrate contribution and commitment. Furthermore, since all three states share similar security concerns, joint acquisition of military systems becomes more practical than for larger European members. In other words, resources can be pooled to acquire greater capabilities. These two points have also been recognized by Baltic officials, and progress is being made as evident by Estonia’s ongoing modernization of its mine sweeping capabilities as well as ongoing discussions on the possibility of establishing a joint Baltic medium-range air defense system.
3) For the above discussed reasons, rather than proceeding with the deployment of troops to the Baltics, the United States and NATO should opt for a smarter, more practical approach to deterring Russia. As a number of analysts have suggested, this approach should take advantage of US and NATO qualitative superiority in air and naval power to realize deterrence by punishment. Deterrence by punishment will signal Moscow that any Russian forces which may protrude into the Baltics will be subjected to heavy air and naval bombardments. At the same time, US (and other NATO) ground forces deployed in Poland (but no further east) will serve to contain Russia, but also leave Moscow with some “breathing space” given that there will be no substantial NATO forces within the three Baltic states to provoke Russia into further escalating tensions.
As unsatisfactory as this approach may be for the three Baltic states, Baltic officials must come to the realization that deterrence by punishment is the only realistic way for NATO to deter Russia from invading their territory. At the same time, the Baltics themselves would need to focus on deterrence by denial. This means enhancing the capabilities of their armed forces with the purpose of signaling Moscow that they would be capable of inflicting significant casualties on Russian troops should hostilities commence. As CNA analyst Michael Kofman notes, the Baltic states must turn “themselves into porcupines.” Doing so would also demonstrate their commitment to NATO and reinforce NATO’s ability to deter Russia. Furthermore, with US and NATO forces largely absent from Baltic territory, the Trump administration will be at greater liberty to pursue the normalization of relations with Moscow by demonstrating to the Russian leadership that the United States does not intend to surround Russia. This, in turn, would undoubtedly benefit the Baltics as well, given that Russia will not view them as a launch pad for NATO forces.
In short, the Trump administration must make it clear to Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius that achieving more favorable regional stability requires not only limiting the extent of free riding, but also accepting that basing large numbers of NATO troops within their borders is counterproductive. Deploying NATO forces to the Baltics would merely constitute a false sense of reassurance. Recognizing the above discussed points, on the other hand, increases the prospects of effective deterrence.
*Guy Plopsky holds an MA in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from Tamkang University, Taiwan. He specializes in air power, Russian military affairs, and Asia-Pacific security. You can follow him on Twitter.
This article was originally published on the author’s Medium page.