After the occupation of Crimea in February 2014, NATO rapidly ramped up its military presence in new member states, including Estonia. The first announced deployments were temporary measures, mainly intended to reassure the local population and show Moscow that the alliance looks out for its members. The objective was not so much to increase deterrence in the countries bordering on Russia – the forces deployed were too small in number to do that.
The recently stated intention to stockpile a brigade’s worth of equipment in six Central and Eastern European countries is undoubtedly a positive step toward increasing NATO’s credibility. One particular aspect to be welcomed is America’s incremental return to its onetime leader position. Having pulled its last tanks from Europe just two years ago, the US is now showing the way for the other NATO members.
In principle, prepositioning a company’s worth of materiel in each Baltic state is not the move that will succeed in cooling Russia’s aggressive behaviour. Each country already had a company-sized American unit in place, in addition to units from other countries sent to take part in exercises. One or two companies in every country along the eastern flank will not hold off a military invasion. For Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and other NATO members, deterrence is based on their own independent defensive capabilities and on the obligation of collective defence enshrined in the Washington Treaty. Unfortunately, we know all too well how Russian President Putin treats promises and treaties, even the ones he himself makes. For Russia, only real action matters, not promises.
Prepositioned materiel presumes that military personnel can arrive in rapid succession to access the stores and achieve combat readiness. Yet Russia has enough military capabilities in the Baltic Sea region to pose a serious impediment to NATO’s ease of movement and even block access to the Baltic states. For that reason, any solutions that require NATO troops to be deployed to the Baltics after a conflict starts are risky.
The best defence against a possible surprise attack by Russia would be NATO units already based in country on a scale and structure sufficient to prevent Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from being rapidly overrun. Whether their presence is termed permanent or temporary is of considerably less consequence. It is safe to say that all of Russia’s neighbours hope that the country will one day have political leaders who do not have a proclivity to attack them. In that light, an optimist would call the presence of allied units “temporary”; an inveterate pessimist, “permanent”.
Overall, while the fact that materiel sufficient to supply a brigade is about to be pre-positioned in NATO’s newer member states represents a positive step, such stockpiles by themselves cannot do much good unless combined with personnel based in-country. Comparing the prepositioned stocks to the brigade-size combat unit based in West Berlin during the Cold War, as some have done, is also a bit fallacious. There were actually two brigades in Berlin – one American and the other British – and a number of French armed forces regiments served alongside them. Berlin had NATO units in a high state of readiness, prepared to immediately snap into fighting mode, as they were fully equipped and manned. Yet at the end of the day, the Berlin brigade was viewed as a tripwire, whose own prospects would be exceedingly dim if a shooting war started. For that reason, it is clear that the prepositioning of stocks in the Baltics should be seen as merely an intermediate step until the political leaders in NATO countries are prepared to make the decision to deploy significant numbers of troops in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.