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A nation must think before it acts.
The US, with NATO, routinely conducts military exercises all over Europe, especially since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 — exercises Russia inevitably condemns as destabilizing. The Defender Europe-20 exercise had just begun garnering increased attention in Western media when many of its activities were cancelled or rolled back due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A whole suite of linked exercises have also been scrubbed along with Defender Europe-20, including Dynamic Front, Saber Strike, and Swift Response. Although the exercise as planned will not occur, what we do know about it can already tell us much about the US commitment to Baltic defense, as well as the defense policy dilemma which continues to afflict NATO in the Baltic Sea region.
Early details of the exercise itself reveal that Defender Europe-20 would have been directed by the Department of the Army and led by US Army Europe (USAREUR). Its purpose was both to practice and demonstrate the US Army’s ability rapidly to deploy an entire division — not just from the continental United States to Europe through Dutch ports, but also further across Europe to Poland and the Baltic countries. Although USAREUR had been practicing and demonstrating the ability to deploy and rotate brigades on a continental scale over the past few years, relocating an entire division involves a substantially higher level of difficulty and marks a major distinction from US military operations in Iraq, which have been only brigade size.
The US Army has not operated or practiced operations on a divisional scale in Europe for 25 years, but is now actively considering and planning a return to this enhanced level of operations as a response to Russia. The United States had even planned to practice “forcible entry” air assault exercises with the 82nd Airborne division as part of Defender Europe-20. This indicates that US Army thinking now encompasses the hypothetical prospect of fighting return into the Baltic countries.
The context which lends significance to the exercise is, inevitably, US President Donald Trump’s variably questionable statements regarding both NATO and Russia. Much has already been written about Trump’s policies — or at least his political statements — which have preoccupied NATO’s European constituents for the past three years. They have also affected Department of Defense presidential reporting activities, particularly cyber activities directed at Russia — mostly by encouraging the Department of Defense to minimize disclosure of operational details. The December 2018 resignation of Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis, often characterized as the only adult in the room, has also increased concern about potential future Trump defense policies.
Despite uncertainty about Trump’s policy toward both NATO and Russia, military exercises are a vital means to gauge the extent of any defense commitment, such as that of the US to NATO’s self-defense clause, Article 5. Exercises are among the most important indicators of military seriousness, as even minor details of military operations are vital to their success, including logistical details. Military operations rely not just on local infrastructure, but also on an understanding of local infrastructure. Exercises help develop this understanding. What is the capacity of the road and rail infrastructure? How much weight can vital bridges carry, are they strong enough to support a heavily armored brigade crossing from the opposite side of the river? If it cannot cross easily, that affects the conduct of subsequent operations.
Exercises also ensure that the Army has in place the appropriate personnel and institutional logistical knowledge to effect and sustain a substantial military deployment. NATO conducted Exercise Campaign Reforger (Return of Forces to Germany) annually between 1967 and 1993 for constant and consistent practice, which ensured that the US Army understood how to deploy reinforcements smoothly from the continental United States to Europe in case of a Soviet invasion. All necessary institutional knowledge and expertise was already in place — how units would reach the eastern seaports of the US, through which ones they would cross the Atlantic, at which ports they would disembark, how they would move from those ports deeper into Europe, etc. If any serious misstep occurs along the way, the frontline inevitably suffers.
Since the 1993 demise of Reforger, NATO generally and the US Army Europe more specifically have gradually lost not just that institutional knowledge, but in some cases even the logistical capability actually to make similar deployments. Defender Europe-20, as the largest deployment exercise of US forces to Europe since Reforger, would have represented a major attempt to regain the institutional knowledge of how to conduct such deployments in Europe, as well as to test the local infrastructure. This logistical aspect of Defender Europe-20 would have been vital. It has been suggested that logistics are the ultimate conventional deterrent. If the logistical capacity to deploy and employ force is nonexistent, the threat to employ that force cannot, by definition, be credible, and no adversary would need to allow itself to be deterred.
Besides merely surveying and testing local infrastructure, Defender Europe-20 had fortuitously also spurred further development of that infrastructure in anticipation of the exercise. Lithuania had begun building a new railway track from Vilnius to the Pabrade training area in eastern Lithuania, a spur of the existing railway line from Vilnius to Latvia, with the intention of completing it in time for the exercises. Poland has also actively and ambitiously developed its infrastructure to accommodate an increased US military presence such as Defender Europe-20 and further similar exercises.
Although now largely scaled back, Defender Europe-20 convincingly indicates that the US Army is actively thinking about defense of the Baltic states, is actively preparing for that contingency, and intends to be actually and substantively ready to react to that contingency, if necessary. Despite roll backs, it remains a major practical signal of US commitment to Baltic defense, regardless of what may emerge from Trump’s Twitter account. It was — and should continue to be — an incentive for the Baltic states, as well as Poland, to spend more on infrastructure to be able to accommodate and move effectively the exercising US Army and NATO forces — and thereby also the comparable forces which would arrive during any unwanted contingency.
The flipside of these preparations is the defense policy dilemma that has continued to confront NATO since at least 2014. The basis of this dilemma is that deterrence is non-linear and that the would-be deterree — Russia — must first recognize that what NATO is doing is actually deterrence. However, there is no outward indication that Russia realizes this, but instead apparently sees all of NATO’s actions as inherently destabilizing — if not outright aggressive — against Russia. The dilemma is: to act to reinforce or be able to reinforce the Baltic in case of war and thus provoke some unwanted Russian reaction that falls beyond the scope of what NATO expects in a deterrence relationship, or not to do so, and gamble, entirely on Russia’s forbearance in the Baltic Sea region, the credibility of NATO as a fully defensive military alliance.
Although NATO seems to have definitively and rightly decided in favor of the former horn of the dilemma over the latter, Russia has already begun to respond to Defender Europe-20. Citing NATO’s concentration of military power in the region, in 2020 it plans to deploy an entire motorized infantry division to its Kaliningrad exclave, even though NATO’s military strength in the region remains inferior to that of Russia. It remains unclear at the moment whether the scale-back of the exercises and COVID-19 may affect this deployment. Prior to this, in Kaliningrad, Russia had previously only deployed three maneuver brigades with a number of artillery brigades in support, commanded by a corps headquarters. The addition of an entire division to the forces already there would significantly increase Russian military capabilities in the exclave and would give Russian forces in the exclave the possibility of conducting independent military operations without requiring further reinforcements from Russia.
The good news for the Baltic countries — and indeed for NATO’s credibility as an alliance — is that the US Army, at the very least, is taking its commitment to Baltic defense seriously and is actively thinking through the problems it would face operating in the Baltic theater. Once the current pandemic has been overcome, both the Baltic states and US Army Europe should work on restaging Exercise Defender Europe-20 and all exercises linked to it. The commitment may exist, but as of yet the institutional knowledge does not. However, Russia’s response demonstrates that NATO’s defense policy dilemma in the Baltic remains alive and well. Even while pursuing the goal of strengthening alliance credibility toward collective defense in practical ways, NATO should not lull itself into believing that a deterrence relationship exists with Russia, as Russia does not appear to believe (or appear to acknowledge to believe) that NATO is practicing deterrence at all. The policy is right, but the policy environment is not permissive and benign, instead depending entirely on how an inherently suspicious Russia reacts.
Clarification: This article was updated on April 30, 2020. An earlier version of this article, published on March 30, 2020, noted that Defender Europe 2020 was cancelled. Many of the planned activities and troop activities were halted, though some exercises were modified in size and scope.