U.S. Strategy for Maintaining a Europe Whole and Free

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By FPI Board Member Eric Edelman and Whitney Morgan McNamara

From the mid-1930s through the Cold War, Europe was critical to U.S. strategic thinking, which developed around the assumption that foreign domination of Europe was inimical to U.S. national security. With the end of the Cold War, the United States sought to forge a Europe that was “whole and free,” and four successive U.S. administrations diligently pursued a more cooperative relationship with Russia. And yet, while U.S. officials and leaders of NATO member states have consistently premised their European security policies on including Russia, Moscow has persistently described the United States and NATO as the “main enemy” in its military doctrine since 1992.

The increasingly sour tone of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public comments, coupled with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s call for a new European security architecture, suggest that Russia seeks to revise the European security order. Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine and Syria all but eliminate the possibility that the United States can return to its earlier strategy of attempting to incorporate Russia into European economic and security structures.

The persistent Russian effort to challenge both the security order in Europe and the stability of the NATO alliance requires a coherent strategic response. Defending Europe will henceforth demand greater attention from U.S. senior leadership and an increase in dedicated defense resources from the United States and its allies.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has been a perennial challenge to incorporate into the international order. Putin’s personalized leadership, complemented by a small circle of advisors and few restraints on his power, provides historical continuity with the patrimonialism of both Romanov and Soviet rule. His approach resembles the “Official Nationality” of Tsar Nicholas I more than the Brezhnev-era policies of the Soviet Union, although he also frequently uses proven Soviet methods such as wedge-driving, nuclear saber-rattling, and overt and covert propaganda. He sees world affairs as a zero-sum game, and he places great importance on controlling the countries on Russia’s periphery. Putin’s emphasis on maintaining a physical buffer zone, bolstering the integrity of the state, spreading fear and paranoia about outsiders, and controlling the population mirror the historical preoccupations of Russia’s ruling class. Although vulnerable to criticism and protests by disaffected elements of the population, this system could well survive Putin’s departure from office, and U.S. policymakers could well face Putinism without Putin.

The energy windfall between 2003 and 2014 allowed Moscow to upgrade its conventional and nuclear forces, acquire and improve new techniques of information warfare, develop novel doctrines of cross-domain coercion, and cultivate new tools to exploit Western vulnerability to sub-conventional or “gray zone” warfare. Russia’s military has invested in key capabilities that allow it to conduct decisive operations in regional conflicts and dominate escalation at the local level. These reforms, Russia’s development of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities covering territory over most of NATO’s eastern frontline states, and the lack of U.S. and NATO forward presence represent a potentially formidable strategic challenge to NATO.

While the United States has reduced its deployed strategic launchers, has lowered its warhead count, and maintains only a small numbers of theater weapons deployed, Russia has prioritized the modernization of its nuclear forces and holds a formidable advantage in its stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW). The calculated ambiguity of Russian doctrine over its nuclear policy and the nuclear saber-rattling that Putin has engaged in over Ukraine has further complicated NATO’s strategic planning.

Hybrid warfare provides Moscow with an additional means to achieve its political objectives. Russia’s concept of information warfare equips Moscow with an extremely flexible toolkit to deploy against adversaries: one that attempts to calculate strategic moves that fall below the threshold likely to elicit a U.S. or NATO military response. Moscow’s escalatory ladder has many rungs, and it is able to ratchet up its actions to achieve its policy objectives.

As Russia continues to invest aggressively in modernizing its military, many NATO countries continue to pursue policies of disarmament, divest themselves of key capabilities, and struggle to meet NATO’s 2 percent of GDP defense spending requirement. Europe’s political disunity, lack of leadership, and absence of appetite for confrontation with Russia, as well as the weakest United States military presence in Europe since World War II, allow the Kremlin to exploit its growing military capabilities along its periphery. The dwindling presence of NATO forces is now running the risk of failing to deter Russian aggression; it may have already fallen below this threshold with regard to the Baltics. Ultimately, maintaining forward presence and readiness to wage sustained joint and combined operations may be the greatest challenge for NATO’s forces.

The added force structure from the recently augmented European Reassurance Initiative constitutes the most significant reinforcement of NATO’s force posture since the Cold War ended. A single armored brigade combat team, however, even supported by NATO air and sea power, simply does not yield a significant shift in the Eastern Europe military balance. Ultimately, Russia appears to enjoy advantages that practically guarantee its ability to defeat NATO forces in the event of a local conflict with a NATO member state along Russia’s periphery. Mustering a credible deterrent based on an effective NATO forward defense will require a significantly strengthened force posture, increased prepositioning of equipment, and a counterweight to the presence of integrated Russian A2/AD capabilities.

The United States and NATO have spent much of the past decade fighting low-end adversaries, against which they enjoyed a substantial qualitative advantage. Russia, for its part, has invested in key capabilities designed to erode NATO’s military edge. As a result, the United States and its NATO allies need to focus on developing capabilities that will offset the operational challenges of Russia’s maturing A2/AD capability. Specifically, the alliance will need to recapitalize its forces with an emphasis on long-range rocket artillery with area effects, anti-armor munitions, heavy armor, tactical drones, electronic warfare (EW) systems, and SEAD forces (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense).

Although Russian aggression currently focuses on the vulnerable Baltic States, Russia may shift its attention to other geographic areas as it continues to probe for weaknesses in Europe’s security architecture. Therefore, U.S. policymakers will once again have to think about European defense in more traditional terms: a northern or Nordic-Baltic flank; a central front in Poland or Belarus; the special role of Kaliningrad; and a southern flank in Romania, Turkey, or the Black Sea. The United States should also exploit its emerging energy self-sufficiency to keep oil prices low, thus limiting Russia’s discretionary income for continued military modernization.

The United States must take great care in strengthening its extended nuclear deterrence. As Russia modernizes its nuclear forces and repeatedly threatens nuclear use in a crisis, confidence in the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence in Europe—tenuous even at the height of the Cold War—continues to erode. Restoring that confidence will be a crucial part of any strategy to deter conflict and defend Europe from Russian irredentism

- Download the full report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

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