Home » Western Europe Is Still Falling Short in NATO’s East
Defence Diplomacy Economy Europe Featured Global News National Security News

Western Europe Is Still Falling Short in NATO’s East

Western Europe Is Still Falling Short in NATO’s East

More than a year into the largest land war since 1945, Europe has yet to get serious about defending its eastern frontier. Western European allies still aren’t doing enough to protect the eastern territories that came into NATO nearly two decades ago.

At first, this might sound like a surprising claim. For months, there has been a steady stream of reports about how Europe is finally waking up to the threat from Russia. At its summit in Madrid last summer, NATO unveiled plans to strengthen its eastern defenses, including by expanding NATO’s high-readiness forces nearly tenfold and expanding multinational battle groups deployed in Poland and the Baltic states into brigade-sized formations (an increase from about 1,500 to 5,000 troops in each location).

But a year later, those promises remain largely unfulfilled. Since the start of the Ukraine war, Germany’s troop presence in NATO’s east has increased from 653 troops to 2,225; France’s from 300 to 969; and the Netherlands’ from 270 to 595. (Italy’s, meanwhile, has gone from 350 to 385.) These may sound like impressive numbers overall—until one considers that in the same period, the United States has increased its troop presence in eastern Europe from 5,000 to about 24,000, NATO’s eastern members have undertaken historic buildups that will see Poland soon possess more tanks than all of western Europe combined, and Ukraine currently has virtually every able-bodied man—and many women—under arms.

The disparity of effort is partly the byproduct of well-documented inadequacies in western European capabilities. But its roots go deeper, to a mixture of painful history, differing threat perceptions, and old taboos against antagonizing Russia in its former sphere of influence. From the outset, western Europe has been halfhearted about defending the territory of Europe’s eastern members with the same level of commitment with which they defended West Germany during the Cold War. The upshot is that NATO’s eastern allies have been denied the full benefits of membership, in the form of substantial conventional deployments, permanent basing, and participation in NATO’s nuclear-sharing program, that were granted to earlier members.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine should have changed that. Yet although the war has done a lot to get western Europe serious about defense, NATO remains bound by many of the same old self-created constraints. Rethinking these taboos is now more urgent than ever, as Russian ambitions are laid bare and new members—today Finland, tomorrow Sweden, and perhaps eventually Ukraine—are added to the fold. Ensuring the security of this enlarged eastern shoulder depends on Europe’s largest states accepting responsibilities outside their comfort zone. If the allies can get the formula right this time around, it will have benefits not just for deterrence in Europe but also in the Indo-Pacific.

The Roots of Reticence

Western Europe’s qualms about NATO’s east have deep roots. Immediately after the Cold War, there was a concern in western European capitals that moving too boldly in the territories of the former Warsaw Pact would provoke Russian hostility. France in particular had cold feet about enlargement, and Germany favored adding the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland (Slovakia came later) but shared the desire to avoid antagonizing Russia.

In 1997, largely as a result of these concerns, the alliance negotiated the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Contrary to Russian claims, this document did not amount to an eschewal of NATO’s expansion. What it did do, however, was pledge to tread lightly in the east. The alliance promised that “in the current and foreseeable security environment,” NATO would focus on the “capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.” And it agreed to the so-called three no’s—“no intentions, no plans, and no reason” to place nuclear weapons in eastern territory.

It is not hard to understand what policymakers were thinking at the time: they wanted to create space for engagement with Russia even as NATO moved eastward. But even though the security environment has changed in dramatic ways, NATO has continued to operate according to the old formula. The first major jolt came when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. Afterward, NATO responded by forming the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP)—four multinational battle groups spread across Poland and the Baltic states—and a new high-readiness force. But even then, there was hesitation about breaching the Founding Act. The total numbers involved (initially, about 3,000) remained symbolic. And even as the occupation of Crimea showed how suddenly Russia could strike, NATO’s emphasis remained on the “capability for reinforcement” after a crisis broke out.

Paper Promises

A similar process has played out since the start of the war in Ukraine. NATO has stepped up in a number of beneficial ways: it set in motion the incorporation of Finland and Sweden as future members, expanded the eFP in total numbers and geographic coverage, and pledged to revamp and expand high-readiness forces from 40,000 to 300,000, accompanied by a new force model and new regional defense responsibilities. But most of this remains a paper exercise. A year and a half after the start of the war, the facts on the ground in NATO’s eastern flank aren’t dramatically different than they were before. Where there has been change, it has been driven by the United States, which has expanded its in-place combat-ready forces in eastern Europe and taken the lead in upgrading its eFP battle group in Poland.

The response from other Western allies has been much slower. Take Germany. Ahead of the Madrid summit, the Lithuanian president and the German chancellor released a joint communiqué attesting to German plans to place a brigade in Lithuania. But then Berlin seemed to walk back the promise. The German defense minister at one point suggested that the timing and extent of any increase in its military presence was “up to NATO” and that Germany planned to “remain flexible on the matter,” prompting consternation from Vilnius. To its credit, Berlin recently reaffirmed its intention to follow through on the promise, but the timetable remains unclear.

Or take France. In the months after Madrid, France sent a battalion of its best tanks and an air defense system to Romania, bringing its total presence in the country to around 750 troops. But within days of doing so, reports began to surface that inadequate Romanian infrastructure was hindering the deployment. As with the German situation in Lithuania, there is no indication of when France plans to do more.

Western Europeans still do not feel a high degree of danger emanating from Russia.

In both cases, the immediate obstacle is infrastructure, which is less developed on the eastern flank than in western Europe. The capabilities of the allies in question are also lacking in a number of well-documented respects; recent reports indicate that the German military in particular is in no position to deploy substantial forces anywhere, even next door.

But the deeper problem remains political will. To be sure, western European allies pay lip service to the goal of stronger eastern defenses. The recently unveiled German National Security Strategy, for example, declares that Germany will “make targeted efforts to expand our military presence in Allied territory and place it on a more permanent basis.” In a similar vein, the French government recently fought, successfully, for large defense spending increases premised on the need to do more to defend Europe.

Yet behind the scenes, large western capitals have pushed for new eastern commitments to be kept within manageable bounds. The precise reasons vary. In Germany’s case, for example, there are understandable cultural aversions, rooted in twentieth-century history, to deploying military power in eastern Europe, as well as constitutional constraints that complicate bilateral arrangements of the kind that the United States has used in Poland.

Eastern Delusions

The underlying issue, however, remains a divergence of threat perceptions. Western Europeans still do not feel a high degree of danger emanating from Russia. In Germany, mobilizing public support for increased defense spending on a sustained basis and convincing young people to sign up for duty in the Baltic is a tough sell politically. And although there are not analogous military sensitivities in France, the most important perceived threat there continues to come from the Sahel rather than from the Suwalki Gap (the land corridor that connects the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to Russia proper, separating the Baltic states from Poland).

The notion of an eventual return to political dialogue with Russia also retains a greater appeal in western Europe than it does in countries closer to the conflict. Paradoxically, Russian military defeats in Ukraine have reinforced this line of thinking: why go to the trouble and expense of beefing up NATO’s defenses in the east, the reasoning goes, when the Ukrainians have taken care of the job and Russia will remain weak for the foreseeable future?

None of this is to gainsay the help that western European allies have provided to Ukraine or to minimize the constraints that hamper them from doing more. The point, rather, is that beneath the headlines of stepped-up budgets and new paper brigades remains the stark reality of an essentially two-tier alliance in which the United States and eastern members bear the brunt of the risk without the latter enjoying the same privilege of a presumption of the ability to host a large-scale, permanent troop presence that was extended to every member who joined NATO before 1997.

That is a big problem for two reasons. First, Ukraine’s experience suggests that a future war with Russia may not play to the strengths of NATO’s current defense-in-depth posture, which relies on the combination of a moderate forward presence and the promise of reinforcements. Once taken, territory may be difficult to take back. Recognizing this fact, NATO has embraced a deterrence-by-denial strategy aimed at impeding aggression where it occurs—or as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it, defending “every square inch” of NATO territory. Yet such a strategy works only if NATO has a substantial forward presence to contest conquest from the outset. Second, a future crisis on Europe’s eastern flank could occur at a moment when the United States is tied down in Asia. Recent estimates suggest that Russia may be able to recoup its losses from the war and rebuild its military in as little as two years. In a two-front scenario, NATO will still be able to count on U.S. forces, but it will inevitably have to rely more on European conventional forces than it does at present.

Wake Up

The war in Ukraine presents a rare and perishable window for addressing the geographic imbalance of risk in NATO. Washington and like-minded allies should use this moment to maximum effect, to make the case for NATO to undo the self-imposed restraints that accompanied the post–Cold War enlargements. 

First, it is high time to rescind the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Although it is obviously a dead letter, the act continues to cast a pall over negotiations inside NATO to beef up the eastern flank. A good starting point would be to push for a declaration at next week’s summit in Vilnius that the alliance considers the “current and foreseeable” conditions of 1997 to be gone. NATO should also work to win consensus over revoking the self-binding pledge, agreed in the lead-up to the Founding Act, that capped eastern deployments to rotations at the brigade level. The whole point of that pledge had been to pave the way for legally binding caps in the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces Treaty in Europe, which never materialized. Removing those restrictions will pave the way for NATO to be able to move toward bigger, standing deployments in future years.

In addition, the United States should encourage the European Union to devote more resources to improving eastern European infrastructure. Last year, Brussels gutted the proposed budget for such projects. Building on its successful “Ramstein East” infrastructure partnership with Poland, Washington should look for ways to pair U.S. and EU projects—by providing matching funds on key projects, for example, and embedding liaisons from western European allies in its Polish operations. The Biden administration should also lift its objection to Poland’s incorporation in NATO’s nuclear-sharing program. The three no’s date from a time of concern over the Kremlin overreacting to a unilateral nuclearization. With Russia’s deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus and threats to use them in Ukraine, selectively expanding NATO’s nuclear-sharing program would send an overdue message that NATO will not abide by self-imposed restraints if Russia does not.

Privately, Washington should push western European allies to commit to strengthen their bilateral and multilateral deployments on the eastern flank, facilitating NATO’s policy of deterrence by denial. The message should be that the location of allied troops—not just the percentage of spending on defense—is a vital metric. And the United States should make clear inside NATO that U.S. support for Ukraine joining the alliance will increase in proportion to its allies’ willingness to jettison the old formula of self-imposed restrictions on the previous rounds of new entrants. Forming a strong glacis in Europe’s east will require the United States to incorporate Ukraine into the U.S.-led defensive perimeter. If Ukraine is going to someday be a member of NATO, the rest of the alliance’s eastern shoulder has to be rendered defensible, including through substantial local and allied forces and permanent bases with not just U.S. forces but also those of other allies.

Well before the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, NATO’s eastern allies and some people in Washington had begun pointing out that Europe’s east was underdefended, inviting Russian predation. That was not a popular message at the time. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should finally shatter the fiction that keeping substantial NATO forces west of Germany will lead to anything other than military opportunism from Russia. Meanwhile, the United States’ ability to deal with the Indo-Pacific depends on strong defenses in eastern Europe. Unless Europe’s wealthiest and most populous states are doing everything to help the United States make NATO territory defensible in places that lie outside their normal comfort zones, they are underperforming their duty in ways that could come back to haunt the entire alliance long after the war in Ukraine is over.

Source: Foreign Affairs