Russia’s recent behaviour, including its actions in Crimea in 2014 and its hybrid approach in the Donbas region, has caused NATO to think more about the necessity to protect Alliance territory. It has led to the creation of additional tools for tackling this matter. The first of these tools, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), was established during the 2014 Wales Summit and can help provide thousands of soldiers ready to deploy within several days. NATO’s new initiatives bolstered NATO’s Response Force (NRF) to 40,000 soldiers, practically tripling its strength.
In light of Russia’s renewed aggression, one of the most vulnerable territories within NATO in which the NRF can be deployed is the Baltic States. The situation in this region is unstable due to Russia’s intentions to achieve local predominance. However, despite the overwhelming prevalence of Russian forces near this region, the presence of multinational battle groups reminds the Kremlin that any provocative action in this region will activate a reinforcement strategy against Russian aggression.
Nevertheless, the implementation of NATO’s strategy of deterrence requires increased military mobility in Europe. To this end, “Defender-2020” should be used as an opportunity to test NATO’s capability to defend its European members: the dimensions of the enlarged NRF and the expected number of soldiers taking part in these exercises correspond to one another. Therefore, “Defender-2020” can be utilized as a test run for NATO structures and a great tool to increase the level of regional security.
By Mikhail Zakharov
Russia’s recent behaviour, including its actions in Crimea in 2014 and its hybrid approach in the Donbas region, has caused NATO to think more about the necessity to protect Alliance territory. It has led to the creation of additional tools for tackling this matter. Furthermore, the post-Crimean political order has predetermined the new tools of deterrence to be used for the highest state of readiness. It has become obvious that the West, having an unpredictable and threatening neighbour, had to quickly recognize Russia as a source of regional instability without leaving any period for reflection.
In response to Russia’s actions in Crimea, firstly, NATO decided to enlarge NATO’s Response Force (NRF) to 40,000 soldiers. NRF, created in 2002, was developed in order to provide collective defence and a rapid military response to an emerging crisis using a technologically advanced force made up of land, air, and maritime components as well as Special Operations Forces.[i] Theoretically, the post-Crimean enlargement of the NRF could triple the NRF’s strength—but, unfortunately, most of this expansion was done on paper and not put into practice. To this end, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) as a spearhead force within NRF was established during the 2014 Wales Summit. The VJTF provides thousands of soldiers ready to deploy within several days. Although these soldiers remain in their native units, they are able to transfer within two or three days to any location that is crucial in case any region within NATO territory bursts into flames.
One of the most vulnerable territories within the VJTF’s area of deployment is the Baltic Sea region. For the past twenty years the Alliance has grown by integrating former members of the Warsaw Pact, which aroused Russia’s concerns about NATO enlargement. Today, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are at the core of Russian interests, since they, being Alliance member states, are close to the Kaliningrad region. Warsaw, Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius skate on thin ice, because if Belarus became fully involved in Russia’s influence game, the Baltic States could become more vulnerable. The Suwalki Gap, the corridor between Poland and Lithuania, would be placed in jeopardy if Moscow, together with Belarus, decided to redraw the map of Eastern Europe. In case of conflict this stretch of land between the Kaliningrad region and Belarus could be easily occupied by Russian troops, and the Baltic States would be cut off from the rest of NATO’s members.
The situation in the Baltic States is unstable first and foremost due to Russia’s intentions to achieve local predominance. Tensions continue to mount today, and multiple military exercises and the deployment of new weapons near NATO’s borders make the situation in this region highly flammable. At a minimum, the Baltic States consider Russia to be a menace to the status quo. However, despite the overwhelming prevalence of Russian forces there, the presence of multinational battle groups reminds the Kremlin that any provocative action will activate a reinforcement strategy against its aggression.
What are these battle groups that reinforce NATO’s Eastern Flank and can fortify NATO’s weakest link in Suwalki? They are NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), which consists of four battalion-sized battlegroups deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Due to the local imbalance between the Alliance’s and Russia’s forces and the peculiarities of the geography of the region, eFP itself is not a fighting force but an early warning platform. If conflict is initiated, the first to arrive to help eFP would be NATO’s VJTF. Today, however, the VTJF cannot stop such a full-scale intervention. Rather, it indicates that NATO Allies are ready to fulfil the obligation of Article 5 and could blunt the attack before the majority of NATO’s troops—and NRF—come to the rescue. Like NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “the VJTF, our picket, is a significant contribution to our mutual defense and a strong presentation of Poland’s capabilities. These forces can be immediately deployed to defend any allied country from any kind of threat.”[ii]
In 2020, Warsaw took over leadership of the NATO VJTF, an important step since Poland plays a critical role in supporting regional security.[iii] Together with units from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Turkey, and the UK, Polish troops contribute to the collective defence of this vulnerable region. Nevertheless, the implementation of this strategy of deterrence requires increasing military mobility in Europe: Poland, even in command of these troops, will certainly not be able to oppose and reinforce personnel and military equipment by itself.
As VJTF remains to be fully tested, the largest military exercise since the 1980s, “Defender Europe-2020”, a US Army-led exercise in which many NATO member states take part, is a good opportunity to test NATO’s capability to deploy troops in Europe. However, it must be borne in mind that VJTF, the “picket”, is not comparable to the amount of Russian troops in the region—and even this force also requires refuelling, provisioning, and accommodation. When it comes to providing greater structure, like NRF, NATO has to ensure the highest level of logistical support, which can only be tested with military exercises like “Defender Europe-2020”. NATO’s possible involvement in conflict with Russia in the Baltic region requires pre-prepared military crisis planning—otherwise, it would confront a number of logistical and bureaucratic challenges that would devalue the purpose and role of the rapid military response of the NRF.
Here, the Russian side claims that “Defender Europe-2020” is part of some stakeholders’ preparations for war, although NATO assures that the exercise is not directed against Russia. While criticizing the Alliance for large-scale exercises, however, Moscow makes an effort to present a show of force—not only with its massive “Vostok” exercises but also with a concentration of forces near the Baltic region. Russian military capabilities both in Kaliningrad region and near its Western borders are increasing, including a plan to deploy a motorised division in Kaliningrad.[iv] While Russia seeks to give the impression that Allies’ forces are laughable due to their low numbers vis-à-vis Russian troops, groups like NRF cannot be neglected even by Russia because of their size. NRF is ready to come in fast enough to fight against the aggressor and able to deter it before the entire Alliance is able to react with its global superiority in conventional forces. As expert on international security Andrzej Talyaga underlines, “During the exercise, NATO states need to work out a realistic scenario for helping one of the members of the Alliance in our part of Europe in case of aggression from outside.”[v]
“Defender-Europe 2020” must give NATO’s battle groups the chance to perfect their ability to deploy. Additionally, the dimensions of an enlarged NRF and the expected number of soldiers taking part in the exercises correspond to one another. Assembling, moving, and deploying those forces would take time, and “Defender-Europe 2020” becomes a great tool to test it and to diminish the Alliance’s potential flaws regarding logistical obstacles, assignment of responsibilities, and deployment timelines. Today, the Alliance has combat-ready troops deployed in Eastern Europe, but they need to be able to be quickly reinforced. The redeployment of multiple forces as part of NATO’s Eastern Flank during “Defender Europe-2020” could help to check and improve administrative procedures that the Alliance will not have time to tackle in case of conflict. This sends a signal to the Baltic States that the military capacity in the region will be enhanced and maintained over an extended period of time, reducing the imbalance and employing Allies’ considerable military might.
In this sense, bolstering NATO’s Response Force can be a great tool to increase the level of regional security in the Baltic States and to increase the resilience of all member states. The efforts of Allies to rearm and to boost their logistical infrastructure should be praised—the time has come for a test run of NATO structures. NATO is taking its commitment to Baltic defence seriously, and NRF enlargement is a rapid response to the strategic deterioration in the region. This does not mean that the Alliance wants to achieve regional military superiority; but, any aggression will lead to a reaction from the entire Alliance, and NRF will be the first one to deter any adversary. NATO’s readiness has become crucial in light of large Russian military preparations and deployments in the Western Military District, which makes the three Baltic countries even more vulnerable to conventional military attacks. Therefore, the role of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and NATO’s Response Force is crucial if a provocation occurs—and they should be deployed promptly.
About the Author
Mikhail Zakharov is a Russian journalist and a writer in the think tank “Institute for a Greater Europe”. His writing focuses on the Baltic region. In his articles and interviews, he analyzes issues concerning regional and European security in light of the growing tensions in the region and the work of international organizations both in terms of ensuring the stability of the Baltic States and in terms of their interaction with Russia. Mikhail hopes to continue to focus on the area of analytical studies related to the Baltic States, NATO, and NATO-Russia relations in the future.
[i] “NATO Response Force,” NATO, last updated 17 March 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_49755.htm.
[ii] Niezalezna/PAP, “Poland leads high readiness force in 2020 as tensions rise with Russia,” Remix, 3 January 2020, https://rmx.news/article/article/poland-leads-nato-picket-in-2020.
[iii] “Poland takes charge of NATO high readiness force,” NATO, last updated 30 December 2019, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_172334.htm.
[iv] LRT.lt, “Russia to deploy motorised division across from Lithuania,” LRT English, 12 May 2019, https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1122407/russia-to-deploy-motori....
[v] Boyko Nikolov, “NATO will work out the scenario for Article 5 of the Washington Treaty,” Bulgarianmilitary.com, 3 March 2020, https://bulgarianmilitary.com/2020/03/03/nato-will-work-out-the-scenario....
Image Source: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_49755.htm