The West’s Failure of Nerve

Poland and the Baltic states intend to ask NATO to station a battalion or even larger units on their territory. The Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—want a brigade so that each country can host a battalion or permanent rotational forces. Poland’s Foreign Minister, Grzegorz Schetyna, indicated that his government would request the permanent stationing of two heavy brigades, a formation that normally numbers up to 5,000 troops, on Polish soil. Poland is also seeking military bases with heavy equipment in preparation for the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw.

These requests reflect two critical trends that have emerged in the wake of Russia’s unchecked aggression in Ukraine. First, these four governments’ anxiety for the future is mounting. Russia’s increased activity in their airspace, naval probes in the Baltic Sea and the English Channel, nuclear threats, intensified exercises and exercise tempos, unrelenting information warfare, political subversion, espionage at Cold War-levels, and constant energy threats since 2014 have confirmed their assessment that Russia will use military force to overthrow the Cold War settlement and deprive them of their security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. They, like NATO’s military and political leadership and the leadership of many European states, view Moscow’s continuing violation of the Minsk II agreement and ongoing aggression as proof of Russia’s malignant intentions. As a result, they have begun to raise defense spending, help Ukraine and advocate for others to do so as well, and increase their own capabilities. They are not alone. There are new signs of Nordic military cooperation and increased defense spending in Finland, Norway, and Sweden.

The second trend is no less important and demands critical attention. If we are honest with ourselves, the Polish-Baltic demand for permanent forces reflects an open indictment of failed US and NATO policy and a vote of no confidence in the current allied policy. There are major tendencies, even in key European powers such as Germany and France, to force Ukraine to appease Russian demands that amount to the evisceration of Ukraine as an independent state. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Sochi, where he did not publicly mention Crimea, denotes a continuing Western and US failure of nerve. Kerry’s trip came right after Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the Nazi-Soviet pact in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel after she forthrightly and accurately denounced Russia’s aggression as criminal.

Under the circumstances, it is no surprise that the governments in Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius, and Warsaw lack confidence in Western resolve. They have seen far too little of it since February 2014 when Moscow invaded and then annexed Crimea and tore up the treaties it had signed with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine as well as with the governments of other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) affirming the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. Moreover, they have long been warning about Russia’s revisionist and aggressive proclivities.

In 1982, the British military historian Sir Michael Howard memorably wrote that the purpose of US forces in Europe was to…

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