Despite what will transpire in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the largest war in Europe since World War II has permanently impacted the region’s defense climate. As a result, we can expect a significant change in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) approach to deterrence.

In a piece published by the Brookings Institution, Director of Research in Foreign Policy Michael E. O’Hanlon argued for the abandonment of NATO’s tripwire approach and to replace it with a more permanent defensive posture in eastern Europe.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin must know of NATO’s unambiguous commitment to defend alliance territory and feel no doubt that the United States and its allies would do whatever it took to prevail in a war that he might initiate against one or more of the alliance’s members,” O’Hanlon wrote.

In response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the members of the Alliance agreed to bolster NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the east. In 2017, the first four multinational battalion-size battle groups were established in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland as part of the Alliance’s enhanced forward presence.

These combat-ready detachments are led by the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The battalions represent the strength of the Alliance and its commitment to the treaty’s Article No. 5 Collective Defense, which stipulates that an attack against one ally is considered an attack against all allies.

U.S. Army Paratroopers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division walk to their aircraft at Pope Army Airfield, N.C. Feb. 14, 2022. The 82nd Airborne Division is being deployed to reassure our NATO allies, deter any potential aggression against NATO’s eastern flank, train with host-nation forces, and contribute to a wide range of contingencies. (U.S. Army photo Sgt. Hunter Garcia).
U.S. Army Paratroopers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division walk to their aircraft at Pope Army Airfield, N.C. February 14, 2022. (U.S. Army photo Sgt. Hunter Garcia).

Following Moscow’s invasion of Kyiv on February 24, NATO members have agreed to expand its Forward Presence by establishing four battle groups strategically placed in Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Romania. This extends the presence of NATO forces along its eastern flank from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.

“I expect leaders will agree to strengthen NATO’s posture in all domains, with major increases of forces in the eastern part of the Alliance, on land, in the air, and at sea. The first step is the deployment of four new NATO battle groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last March during the NATO meeting in Brussels.

“Between now and the NATO summit in June, we will develop plans for additional forces and capabilities to strengthen NATO’s defenses,” President Biden said. “We will adopt an updated Strategic Concept to ensure NATO is ready to meet any challenge in the new and more dangerous security environment.”

However, questions remain concerning whether these detachments would suffice given Russia’s aggression. Moreover, despite their coverage, these forces are only intended to serve as a tripwire or a signal for the deployment of a much larger force.

O’Hanlon argues that the Alliance should adopt a more permanent and proactive approach. Currently, the deployment of American forces in these facilities is rotational, meaning personnel stationed on these bases are deployed for a given period before replacing them with another.

Stoltenberg also called for these permanent military forces last April when he stated that there was a need to station these forces in Estonia and Latvia if Russia decides to attack these countries, effectively invoking Article 5.

Stronger Alliance with the US

O’Hanlon recommends a permanent American fixture that will include an army brigade, a combat aviation brigade, and several tactical aircraft squadrons from the Air Force. O’Hanlon estimates these changes will increase the deployment of American forces by around 10 to 15 thousand personnel. He further recommended that other NATO states should contribute significant numbers of military capabilities to lessen the burden on the United States.

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Similar sentiments have sprouted among NATO members. In March, the permanent secretary of the Estonian foreign ministry Jonatan Vseviov also emphasized the need to transition out of a tripwire strategy.

“The tripwire-based approach is dependent upon an assumption that the one that is being deterred understands the link between the tripwire and reinforcing forces,” Vseviov said.

“We need to be less reliant on reinforcements, and we need to have more of the defensive forces in the frontline states on day one,” Vseviov said. “I think there will be wide political consensus in NATO on the need to move that way, and the exact details are being worked out.”

Europe Before China

One argument against increasing deployment, particularly of U.S. forces, in Europe is that it will take attention and resources away from responding to China. Yet, according to the 2022 National Defense Strategy released by the Pentagon, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remains the country’s “most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge.”

More than 150 U.S. Marines with Black Sea Rotational Force await the closing remarks for Exercise Summer Shield at Adazi Military Base, Latvia, March 31. The U.S. Marines with Black Sea Rotational Force brought the largest amount of Marines to the annual exercise since Summer Shield began in 2004. The Marines conducted small-unit training and combined-arms live-fire exercises with their Allies from Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Canada, and Germany (DVIDS).
More than 150 U.S. Marines with Black Sea Rotational Force await the closing remarks for Exercise Summer Shield at Adazi Military Base, Latvia, on March 31. (DVIDS).

However, O’Hanlon argues that abandoning American responsibility in Europe is a mistake and a missed opportunity to establish long-term global stability. He claims that whatever transpires with Europe and Russia will also have long-term consequences that will likely reach Asia.

O’Hanlon also noted that most of the U.S.’s militarily capable democratic allies are housed in Europe. These countries, which align ideologically with the U.S., are equipped with capable militaries whose strategic significance should not be underestimated.

Lastly, O’Hanlon mentioned that the more threat of China grows, the more European order should be stabilized as soon as possible. The U.S. alone does not have the economic, military, and political bandwidth to simultaneously cover rising tensions in Europe and Asia. Finishing the job in Europe will not only tick one box of the U.S.’s list of concerns but will also enable capable allies against China.

It is also worth pointing out that a conflict with China is more likely to involve a large-scale naval conflict first to assure sea dominance before any large-scale invasions of any territory could occur.  In that future conflict, China is likely to begin it by attacking or invading a neighbor from the sea, like Taiwan. The US response being to degrade the Chinese Navy’s capability to sustain an expeditionary army with supplies and reinforcements until US troops can be landed to fight them on the ground.