After years of crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, NATO nations are rebuilding their military capabilities, preparing for worst-case scenarios, and posturing the alliance for deterrence. Exercise Defender Europe 20, which gets underway in the coming days, is just the latest evidence that NATO is returning to its core mission of deterrence.
Defender Europe 20—NATO’s largest exercise in a quarter-century—enfolds 20,000 US troops, 17,000 troops from other NATO and partner nations, 20,000 pieces of equipment from the US, and military units from 18 nations. Led by the US Army, the exercise will see units land at 14 airbases and seaports, move along 12 convoy routes, and operate across 10 countries. The exercise involves parachute assaults, large-unit water crossings, and live-fire war games. Defender Europe 20 aims to test and demonstrate the ability to move heavy assets from US bases to ports and bases in Europe. That’s where the US Navy comes into play. For the first time since 1986, the Navy will test its ability to conduct “a contested cross-Atlantic convoy operation,” according to the US Naval Institute.
In short, Defender Europe 20 is “a very big deal,” in the words of Lt. Gen. Chris Cavoli, commander of US Army-Europe.
While NATO increased the number of military exercises in recent years, the alliance’s exercises are smaller in number and scale than Russia’s, as the Atlantic Council details. A 2018 Russian exercise, for example, involved 300,000 personnel. A 2019 Russian exercise featured 130,000 troops, 20,000 vehicles, and 600 aircraft.
That brings us to the reason for Defender Europe 20 specifically—and NATO’s renewed commitment to deterrence generally.
Before its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin’s Russia grew more aggressive even as NATO grew less concerned about deterrence. Recall that before the Ukraine crisis, the alliance carved out a special Russian place within NATO headquarters, slashed defense spending, and pulled back deterrent assets across Europe. In 2013, for instance, the Obama administration withdrew every American main battle tank from Europe—so for the first time since 1944, Europe was left unprotected by American armor. That same year, Britain announced it would close its garrison in Germany, pulling thousands of combat troops out of mainland Europe. All the while, Germany busily beat its swords into plowshares: during the Cold War, West Germany deployed 2,125 tanks; by 2014, the country had fewer than 300.
Yet even as NATO turned the page on Cold War hostility, Putin waged a crippling cyberwar against NATO member Estonia; invaded and dismembered NATO aspirants Georgia and Ukraine; violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; reactivated the First Guards Tank Army, a 500-tank force based in western Russia; conducted scores of provocative “snap” military exercises near NATO territory; hacked the US political system; mused about using nuclear weapons to somehow de-escalate a conventional war; unveiled a military doctrine pledging to use Russia’s military “to ensure the protection of its citizens outside the Russian Federation”; increased military outlays by 125 percent; shipped arms to the Taliban; and engaged in “a massive military buildup from the Arctic to the Mediterranean,” as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg explains.
Russia’s air force has revived the dangerous Cold War-era practice of buzzing NATO warships. Russia’s army is menacing the Baltics and Poland. Russia’s navy has annexed the Sea of Azov, gained a strategic foothold in the Mediterranean (courtesy of Syria), slipped warships into the English Channel for provocative sail-throughs, and returned to the Atlantic with gusto. Pentagon officials say Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic is “more than we’ve seen in 25 years.”
To be sure, Putin’s military is a shell of the Red Army. But it pays to recall that his military buildup and outright aggression occurred as NATO members slashed military spending, deemphasized their all-for-one collective defense commitments, and “hugged the bear,” in the words of former NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove.
Putin, like history’s other revisionist autocrats, tries to justify his actions by contriving external causes and claiming the high road of self-defense. He cites NATO’s eastward expansion to explain Russia’s bellicose turn. The problem with Putin’s version of history is that it doesn’t correspond with reality. As the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer details, Mikhail Gorbachev “made clear there was no promise regarding broader enlargement” as the Cold War thawed. Gorbachev himself conceded, “The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all.”
The alliance didn’t double-cross its way to the Russian border. Instead, NATO grew through a transparent process that allowed East European nations to pursue membership on their own volition—and encouraged the sort of political reforms that actually diminished tensions with post-Soviet, post-authoritarian Russia. But Putin won’t be confused by the facts—and Putin’s Russia has reverted to authoritarianism.
Reawakened to the dangers on its eastern flank, NATO members are revitalizing the alliance.
For years, both the Trump and Obama administrations pleaded with NATO allies to invest more in defense. The message is finally getting through. By 2024, two-thirds of the alliance will invest 2 percent of GDP on defense, as NATO has called for since 2006. Last year marked the fifth consecutive year of increased defense spending in Europe and Canada. The alliance’s European members have added 109,000 troops to their ranks since 2015. By the end of 2020, Stoltenberg reports, NATO’s European and Canadian members “will add $100 billion extra toward defense.”
NATO members have tripled the size of their rapid-response force (to 40,000 troops); approved a US proposal to develop capabilities to deploy 30 troop battalions, 30 squadrons of aircraft, and 30 warships to any European crisis zone within 30 days of a go order; and launched a new Rapid Air Mobility program, which grants NATO aircraft priority to move across European airspace.
Britain is standing up a Littoral Strike Group based in the Mediterranean-Atlantic.
Germany, Britain, and Canada are spearheading NATO’s forward-deployed battlegroups in the Baltics.
Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia are establishing a Regional Special Operations Component Command to coordinate, train, and jointly deploy commando units—and posture the alliance to detect and defend against Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics.
Germany recently signed an agreement with the US that will lead to “an unprecedented level of interoperability,” according to DefenseNews, with German brigades deploying under operational control of the US Army.
Troops from Canada, Denmark, Great Britain, Lithuania, and Poland have joined US troops in Ukraine for a long-term mission aimed at rebuilding Ukraine’s army.
Poland, which already hosts US troops on a rotating basis, has pledged $2 billion to build a permanent US base on Polish soil.
That brings us to the United States, the political-military lynchpin of the alliance.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Barack Obama quadrupled funding for the defense of NATO’s East European members.
Trump tripled Obama’s funding levels for what’s now known as the European Deterrence Initiative; reactivated the Navy’s Second Fleet (which was deactivated in 2011, after defending the Atlantic and supporting NATO throughout the Cold War); re-established the Army’s Germany-based V Corps (which was deactivated in 2012, after decades defending Europe); authorized construction of or upgrades to bases in Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Latvia, and Estonia; shipped weapons to Ukraine; and expanded NATO (Montenegro and soon Republic of North Macedonia).
These initiatives—on both sides of the Atlantic—raise the costs of Putin’s hybrid war. Doubtless, Putin privately realizes his assault on Ukraine triggered a response that made the US and its NATO allies more engaged, more alert to his malign actions, and more prepared to detect and reverse any attempt to repeat his Ukraine gambit elsewhere.
An Imperfect Peace
Discussing deterrence and defense budgets in a publication devoted to Christianity may seem incongruent to some readers. But it’s not incongruent if we understand deterrence as a way to prevent the kind of war that kills by the millions, that erases nations, that humanity has not endured for 75 years.
We will not know the biblical notion of peace—of shalom, peace with harmony and justice—until Christ returns to make all things new. In the interim, in a broken world full of broken men, there are no viable alternatives to military preparedness, deterrence, and alliances like NATO—which was created not to wage war, but to prevent it. As NATO’s first secretary-general, Lord Hastings Ismay, explained, “The paramount, the permanent, the all-absorbing business of NATO is to avoid war.” The way NATO does that is by investing in the common defense and conducting exercises like Defender Europe 20.
“For the first time in history, there exists in peace an integrated international force whose object is to maintain peace through strength,” President Harry Truman observed when NATO was new. “We devoutly pray that our present course of action will succeed and maintain peace without war.”
NATO has done exactly that; as such, it is an answer to prayer.