The Positive Impact of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence

In 2017, NATO deployed four multi-national battlegroups to the Baltic States as part of a wider program to deter Russian aggression. The Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups have multiple strategic objectives from reassuring countries on NATO’s eastern flank, demonstrating alliance resolve, and providing a hard measure of deterrence. There is prevailing opinion that Russia’s threat is greater than the capacity of NATO’s forward deployment to deter. Many would cite the RAND Corporation conclusions that Russia could capture the Baltic states within 60 hours as proof the deployment is simply not sufficient. Others have argued the battlegroups are necessary but not sufficient given the wider security challenges posed by Russia. This strain of analysis has a bias towards a realist Cold War vision of global strategy and less in common with the more modern realities of deterrence. As old and new deterrence theories merge, both sides of the discussion fail to see the merits in the other.

This article puts forward an alternative argument: the Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups have had a disproportionately positive impact on the security situation. It provides a well optimised force for both traditional deterrence and for more modern theories of national resilience. With an outlay of just four battlegroups, NATO has demonstrated political resolve, military capability, and limited Russia’s freedom of action in Eastern Europe. There have been two principle impacts. Firstly, the hard reaffirmation of Article 5 collective defence has raised the stakes for any Russian invasion or hybrid attack against the Baltic States. The battlegroups present a direct challenge to their risk calculus when considering any attack against NATO’s eastern flank. Secondly, it has driven the alliance to focus on everyday security issues, increasing cooperation.

Forces involved in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence as of April 2019 (NATO)

Context of Deployment: Russia is Unchallenged

To fully understand the improvement to the security situation the context of deployment must be contrasted with the current situation. Before the deployment of the Enhanced Forward Presence forces, Russia began its campaign to destabilise Ukraine and pushed for a security buffer within Eastern Europe. At the political level, NATO’s Secretary General described the environment in 2015 as “changed” and pointed out a disturbing pattern of Russian behaviour threatening the post-Cold War security environment. A 2016 report by a former U.S. intelligence officer concluded Russia was beginning to gain confidence in an array of tools ranging from nuclear sabre rattling to intimidation. The West’s muted response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea coupled with a limited appetite for engagement in Eastern Europe compounded to give Russia freedom of action across the region. There is clear evidence that Eastern Europe, as a whole, was becoming an increasingly important target for Moscow. This created a climate of fear in the Baltic States. A 2016 Estonian intelligence report questioned the Kremlin’s “hidden agenda” with many Estonians asking if Narva was next.

The Focus is Conventional: A Bias Towards Cold War thinking

Deterrence works by making the costs of any action too high or limiting the potential gains a challenger can achieve. It is certainly a big step to suggest Russia would have conventionally invaded a NATO country. Despite this, in 2016 the RAND Corporation released their now infamous report about a Russian invasion of the Baltic States. Their conclusion, that Russia could capture the Baltic States in less than 60 hours, has shaped the contemporary debate beyond the validity of its scenario. Despite this being the least likely outcome, because of the potential costs to Russia, it has become the major point of debate. The study concluded NATO needed about seven brigades supported by air and maritime power ready at the outset of hostilities to effectively deter Russia. RAND maintained a bias towards traditional deterrence theory in its further analysis. Another RAND study in 2017 concluded “the most significant threat from Russia to the Baltics lies in Russia’s conventional forces, not its capacity for irregular warfare or political subversion.” The real threat of undermining domestic politics and alliance commitment by other means, whilst not overlooked, did not play a major part in their analysis.

German soldiers as part of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force during Trident Juncture 2018 (Bundeswehr)

The impact of the RAND 60-hour report has been more significant than its conclusions. There is no suggestion within NATO that the battlegroups alone are sufficient to defend NATO’s flank. There is some discussion about the wider utility of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and the ability of tactical forces inside a more strategic deterrence environment. Most NATO commentators concede it is “obvious” the battlegroups could not defend their host countries. RAND’s conclusions are fixed in the idea that Russia, at some point, will be pressured into a full-scale invasion. This highlights a reliance on a traditional Westphalian view of geopolitics and a bias towards Cold War thinking; a mentality which has little in common with the predominant reality of Russia’s hybrid threat.

Needed But Not Sufficient?

There is certainly an argument that NATO needs to do more to deter Russia. For example, John Deni argues the deployment is “not sufficient” since any crises will fall below the threshold of Article 5 and unattributable cyberattacks or ethno-political discord present greater risks. For example, wider cyber and disinformation attacks risk undermining domestic politics and are the threat which NATO should be focussing on. This argument does not fully consider the softer, less measurable improvements that result from the Enhanced Forward Presence deployment. The deployment was a significant political statement that posed a challenge to Russia’s freedom of action in the region. The 2016 Warsaw communique, announcing the deployment, made the purpose of strategic deterrence clear and the NATO allies agreed to a renewed focused on deterrence.

Military integration goes hand in hand with political integration. That NATO’s forward presence has had a significant impact on political cohesion is not in doubt, but it has taken some time for the benefits to materialise. The mission marked the start of a growing determination to counter the type of aggression highlighted by Deni. The battlegroups, and the associated political deployments, are a driving force binding together political interests and are having a disproportionate impact for the small outlay.

The role of Canada is one example of this. Despite having a strong tradition of involvement in Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe missions, Canada is not routinely considered a country with enough strategic interest in Eastern Europe to deploy combat forces. By becoming the framework country for Latvia they have restated their determination to both deter Russia and uphold their treaty commitments. Most NATO countries have increased their involvement from purely civil and political engagement to the deployment of ground combat forces. This was a major change in both military and political posture, a move towards active deterrence made possible by the Enhanced Forward Presence deployment.

Risk Reward Balance

The Enhanced Forward Presence deployment is not without risk. NATO faces a constant balance to ensure all allies remain committed. The mission’s concept is bound by trust amongst the alliance and a belief that its purpose is legitimate and worth fighting for. Within the bounds of conventional attacks, the threat of violence may be sufficient to undermine political and military determination. In one scenario, Professor Hugh White questions NATO’s resolve when faced with a limited incursion and the potential for economic and military loss. White questions, “When a single battalion faces multiple divisions,” would NATO governments stand and fight? White’s conclusions rest on the logic that “it will be necessary to explain why other NATO members” security depends on recovering Latvia, rather than stopping Russia from advancing further West and South. This is a traditional view of deterrence that rests on defending borders and not ideologies.

White is not the only writer to envisage this scenario. One former British general officer went further and predicted a whole scale invasion of Europe. Both theories are as unrealistic as they are difficult support with evidence. White’s bias towards a Cold War mentality has been left behind by a modern world which is focused on greater, non-conventional threats and responses. For White, the threat of overwhelming force would be sufficient to undermine NATO’s presence and force a return to traditional realpolitik.

Russia’s Response has Become Stale and Ineffective

Russia’s confidence and assertiveness in Eastern Europe steadily increased before the deployment. Russia was already conducting hybrid war in the Baltic States and has continued to target the legitimacy of the allied deployment. For example, Russia highlighted that NATO is potentially in breach of the 1997 Founding Act, which limits NATO’s ability to permanently station combat forces on Russia’s border. Russia’s initial response to the deployment, which to many suggested a return to the Cold War, was to threaten a conventional military build-up to counter NATO’s “aggression.” Despite a growth in military exercises, this has not happened.

The Baltic States were actively targeted by Russia prior to the start of the mission. One Polish report “indicate[s] that Russian intelligence activities in this region are of a larger scale and more aggressive than observed in other European countries.” With the deployment of Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups to the Baltic States, NATO has been keen to ensure the Russian threat is not underestimated or forgotten. There is little doubt that Russia has maintained threatening, if not wholly capturing, the Baltic States as a strategic objective. The debate around this often focuses on NATO deterring Russia with little consideration for potential costs that Russia could face for aggressive action against NATO. The deployment raised the potential costs for Russia and limited their political manoeuvre space.

Members of the Royal Welsh Regiment as part of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (NATO)

Within the information sphere the forward presence has had a highly positive impact. One writer concluded the Baltic States were “especially vulnerable” to Russian disinformation because of the split loyalty many Russian speakers may have. Russia’s initial response was largely in the information space with false reports planted through local media and attempts to manipulate Russian speaking populations into opposition. In one example, British soldiers in Estonia were filmed fighting outside a fast food outlet in an attempt to discredit the mission. Russia’s aim was to destabilise domestic politics and undermine national resilience. This was a poor attempt because it quickly revealed that the attack was provoked by Russian agents and widely discredited undermining Russia’s cause. Russia’s ultimate objective is to undermine an opponent’s desire to fight thereby generating greater domestic and political leverage. In the case of the Baltic States, however, the deployment of NATO land forces has enhanced a national sense of self-determination in a strong show of modern deterrence. Deterrence is a competition of political ideology as much as it is a battle for traditional borders.

International involvement, through the Enhanced Forward Presence, has seen a rise in national self-confidence on NATO’s eastern flank and a subsequent reduction in the fear of Russian aggression. Numerous high profile events demonstrate this dynamic. This, coupled with a rising level of support for NATO, binds the Baltic States to the West politically and socially. If Russia continued to have a distinct information effect within the Baltic States, it would be reasonable to expect rising levels of partisan violence and separatism. The absence of such activity, in contrast to the prevailing mood before 2017, is often ignored. The higher living standards and political freedoms of the West as compared to those in Russia seem to be the driving factor in this debate. In a 2016 interview the Director of Narva College was asked what would happen if Narva was to hold a new referendum on remaining in Estonia. The Director responded, “Anyone with any common sense...would want to live in Estonia.” The role of NATO’s forward presence in maintaining and improving this sense of national identity and security should not be underestimated.

In Conclusion

To draw some concluding thoughts, the debate around NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence is shaped by two schools of thought. On one hand, traditional thinkers are fixated with defending national borders. On the other, more modern thinking views deterrence as a battle for popular support in defence of an ideology. The deployment of the battlegroups has impacted both sides of the debate. The mission had driven political and military integration and grown trust disproportionately to the cost of the deployment.

Most who think that NATO’s presence is not an effective tool for strategic deterrence only think in terms of conventional warfare. In a time of crisis, a hard demonstration of international support would likely reduce the effectiveness of any Russian hybrid activity against domestic populations. This in turn, increases the deterrence effect by binding the population more closely to legitimate, NATO focused, governments.

That is not to say such deployments are without risks. There are numerous scenarios which could challenge alliance cohesion. Despite this, the mission needs to be seen as a process. Trust between nations, much like trust between people, takes time to develop. The other factor to consider is Russia’s response. Prior to the deployment of the battlegroups, there was genuine concern amongst the Baltic States. Intelligence estimates from 2016 showed that Russia was actively challenging the status quo. In contrast, their response to NATO’s deployment has been stale and largely ineffective. The early evidence from the deployment shows the battlegroups resulted in a disproportionately positive impact on the security situation.

Steve Maguire is a British Army Officer specialising in researching ground manoeuvre, force structures, and disruptive thinking in restrictive organisations. He is also an Associate Editor at The Wavell Room. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent an official UK position.

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Header Image: NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (NATO)