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Deterrence or Détente

How Can NATO Best Address the Russian Threat?

With fears growing over potential Russian aggression in Europe, NATO is once again promoting a strategy of deterrence. But is higher military spending in response to the world's crises the right answer?

Joerg Gläscher/ DER SPIEGEL

German Bundeswehr soldiers in Münster

Wednesday, 5/24/2017   02:29 PM

The official has no name, no face, no nationality. Rank, soldier or civilian status, language spoken and even gender: All of it must remain concealed. Those are the rules.

Large signs with red text in the hallways of NATO headquarters in Brussels issue a stern warning: Classified activities may no longer be discussed beyond this point. On this particular Friday afternoon, though, there isn't much of a risk. With the weekend rapidly approaching, hardly anyone is still at work.

The NATO official stands up and points to the large map on the office wall. To the left is Western Europe, divided up into small, colorful patches, and to the right, the colossus that is Russia.

During the Cold War, the situation was such that NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations, both armed to the teeth, stood face-to-face on the border between West Germany and East Germany/Czechoslovakia. It was a relatively short line. It took just a few hours to dispatch troops from Hannover to West Germany's eastern border.


The situation today is altogether different. The NATO staffer points to northern Norway at the top of the map and then moves to the right, across the Baltic Sea to the Baltic states, Poland and, finally, down to Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. It is an enormously long line stretching from the Arctic Circle to the eastern reaches of the Black Sea. Such is the external borders of the NATO alliance today - and it is a difficult one to defend.

The alliance has prepared several deployment plans. There is one for the Baltic region, in the event that Russia attempts to replicate its operation in Ukraine there. There is also one for Romania and Bulgaria, in case the onslaught comes across the Black Sea. Plans are still being developed for Turkey and northern Norway.

Norway? Really? Yes, the NATO official confirms. The Norwegian government is keeping a close eye on the Russian military, the official says -- the exercises, troop movements, the submarines, the ships, the aircraft. In Germany, few are paying attention.

That, broadly speaking, is the situation as seen by staff at NATO headquarters. The good news, the NATO staffer says, is that North Atlantic Treaty Organization members all agree that more money needs to be spent to address the new threat situation. In practice, however, only five of the 28 NATO member states have held to their pledge of allocating 2 percent of their gross domestic products to defense spending.

As such, money will be a primary focus of Thursday's informal NATO summit in Brussels. And this is largely because of one man, who will be participating in such a meeting for the first time: Donald Trump.

The new U.S. president has been more vocal and insistent than any of his predecessors when it comes to NATO states taking on a bigger burden and finally making good on their 2-percent pledge. "It's not fair that we're paying close to 4 percent and other countries that are more directly affected are paying 1 percent when they're supposed to be paying 2 percent," Trump told AP in an interview last month. "And I'm very strong on it and I'm going to be very strong on it when I go there in a month."

At the moment, Germany is catching the most flak. Last year, Europe's strongest economy had a multi-billion euro budget surplus following a significant increase in tax revenues. But defense spending has nevertheless remained at 1.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Berlin currently faces a dilemma. Germany has pledged to its allies to considerably increase its defense spending, but at the same time, many are questioning whether tanks and howitzers are the correct response to crises around the world. Would it not be better to invest the money in development aid, child care and universities?

Many Germans are also conflicted by another question: Is Vladimir Putin truly the geopolitical bogeyman he is made out to be by NATO? Why should people fear Russia's military when European NATO member states alone spend almost four times as much on defense as Moscow?

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has spoken of a "rearmament spiral," and Germany's top diplomat, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), has likewise warned of the threat of a "military behemoth" in the heart of Europe. The dispute over higher defense spending, it seems certain, will be one of the issues in the campaign ahead of German elections in September.

How Real Is the Russian Threat?

In the past three years, the Rand Corporation has simulated more than 20 scenarios for a possible Russian attack on the Baltic states. At the beginning of March, experts with the California-based think tank presented their findings to U.S. Congress.

In none of the scenarios was it possible to defend Tallinn and Riga, the capitals of Estonia and Latvia respectively, for longer than 60 hours. "In some cases, NATO's defeat has been written into history in a day and a half," Rand researcher David Shlapak said in testimony before the House of Representatives.

The West would be the loser, he says. Russia would once again have established itself as the dominant strategic player in Central Europe, NATO would collapse and trans-Atlantic security structures would lie in ruins, Shlapak said. He adds that the point of the exercise was not to win a war. But, he argues, the West needs to ensure that such conflicts can be prevented through a combination of strength and balance.

The Rand simulation isn't as absurd as it might first appear. The researchers in California weren't trying to determine whether Russia would invade the Baltic states -- they simply wanted to see what would actually happen if it did. That's the decisive difference.

When all participants know that an invasion would be successful, it changes the political calculations. If a country can credibly demonstrate that it is capable of successfully invading another country, then it is already in a position of strength. It gives it leverage to demand concessions.

Years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Since then, he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is prepared to exploit the weakness of others. Because of their geographical location, the three Baltic countries are NATO's Achilles' heel, the site where the alliance's resolve can best be tested.

And even if some of the fundamental assumptions used in the Rand wargames are controversial, most Western defense experts now believe that Putin is militarily capable of invading.

During the Cold War, the Western alliance managed to balance out the quantitative superiority of the Warsaw Pact states through better weapons systems. But those times have passed. Russia appears to have succeeded in recent years in reducing the quality gap with the West, even if Moscow is now numerically inferior to NATO in most areas. The West is clearly ahead when it comes to the number of soldiers, tanks, combat helicopters, warships and submarines it has at its disposal.

Moscow Modernizes while Europe Remains a Hodgepodge

But the numbers are deceptive. The lion's share of the alliance's weapons systems come from the Americans, whose military operates primarily outside of Europe. The Europeans, for their part, maintain a hodgepodge collection of different systems, some of which, in eastern member states, are leftovers from the Soviet era.

Seventeen different combat tank models are currently in use by European armies, 13 varieties of air-to-air missiles and 29 frigate models. More importantly, however, NATO is comprised of 28 armies whose structures and equipment are not always compatible. When it comes to the military, diversity can often be a curse.

The budget figures are also misleading. NATO's European member states spend $241 billion on defense annually compared to Russia's $66 billion. Even if you factor in Russia's numerous shadow budgets, the gap is enormous.

Yet Moscow gets disproportionately more "bang for the buck," as the Americans say. A Russian tank battalion costs only a fraction of what a German one does because the equipment and, particularly, the personnel is so much cheaper. A Russian lieutenant colonel earns only a small fraction of what his German counterpart makes.

Furthermore, Russia is a militarized society and Moscow oversees a military-industrial complex that is run according to Putin's orders rather than economic criteria.

The Kremlin has invested huge amounts of money modernizing its army since its near debacle during the war in Georgia in 2008. Should a crisis develop, Russia's highly sophisticated air defense systems and cruise missiles on warships could severely limit NATO's freedom of movement in its own territory and in the Baltic Sea. Most importantly, however, Russian army leadership regularly conducts extensive military exercises involving as many as 70,000 soldiers to test the readiness and integration of its diverse weapons systems. In one of those exercises, an invasion of the Baltics was simulated.

There is, of course, plenty to suggest that the Russian government and military leadership are exaggerating their own success to play to the domestic audience. In June, for example, several high-ranking officers commanding the Baltic Fleet were fired for exaggerating the readiness of their troops.

It's also possible that the results of military inspections are systematically enhanced and defense industry production figures overstated. It has been alleged that purportedly new and premium-quality Russian weapons systems are often just older systems that have been overhauled.

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