NATO doesn’t need to resume Cold War – POLITICO

Paul Taylor, a POLITICO editor-in-chief writes the “Europe At Large” column.

PARIS — NATO cannot afford to draw the wrong lesson from the war in Ukraine.

The Western military alliance is facing unprecedented pressure from its Eastern members, who are demanding it return to an 1980s-style Cold War posture, with tank divisions stationed on its borders to deter an aggressive and unpredictable Russia from go beyond Ukraine.

That would be a mistake – and a potentially huge waste of Europe’s planned defense spending increases.

Admittedly, territorial defense was not a top priority for NATO during the 25 years that elapsed between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the capture of Crimea by Russian President Vladimir Putin; his armored forces were greatly reduced and mostly left to rust. Instead, much of its political attention and military efforts have focused on so-called “out of area” crisis management, peacekeeping and training operations, from the Western Balkans to Afghanistan. , Libya and Iraq.

But that doesn’t mean the alliance should swing to the opposite extreme.

Ukraine’s mobile and dispersed forces – outnumbered but highly effective – and its society-wide approach to defense offer a clever way to stop and repel a heavy, old-fashioned Russian offensive. Their hit-and-run tactics, using American Javelin man-portable anti-tank weapons and shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles – two technologies from the 1980s and 1990s – blunted Moscow’s armor and denied it air superiority.

Similarly, when a cyberattack disrupted internet connections used by Ukraine’s military, kyiv was able to switch to Elon Musk’s Starlink-shipped terminals within weeks, connecting its surveillance drones, command and control, and anti-tank artillery. in real time. with devastating effect.

Yet all this has still not reassured worried Baltic nations, who see the devastation of Ukrainian cities and infrastructure and fear they may be next on Putin’s menu.

At the alliance’s emergency summit on March 24, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas led calls from eastern allies for a massive and permanent NATO presence, calling for a combat-ready division in her country – something that would require at least five times the number of allied forces currently deployed in the Baltic state on a rotational basis.

“NATO will defend every inch of its territory. We need a credible defense on land, in the air and at sea. The current situation in our region is not sufficient in this regard,” kalas said after a meeting with his Danish counterpart. “We have to close the gap.”

The small multinational NATO battlegroups sent to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 were designed to reassure these anxious former communist allies and to deter Putin – not to carry out territorial defence. Their function was to act as a tripwire, signaling that American, British, German, Canadian or French soldiers would be among the first to die in any Russian attack, internationalizing the conflict from the outset and triggering the mutual defense commitment of the Article V of NATO.

In doing so, the alliance held to the letter of the 1997 convention NATO-Russia Founding Act in which he pledged to renounce the “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in the new eastern member states “in the current and foreseeable security environment”.

But there is now a broad consensus within NATO that those promises no longer apply, given Russia’s flagrant violation of the agreement by invading a sovereign European state. And since Russian tanks entered Ukraine in February, NATO has doubled the size of its so-called Enhanced Forward Presenceand announced plans to position similar combat-ready multinational units in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

NATO now has 40,000 troops on the eastern flank under direct command – 10 times more than the peacetime norm – but many eastern officials see this as the start of a much larger armored buildup, which , they hope, will be enshrined in the new strategic concept should be adopted at the Madrid summit at the end of June.

There are many things NATO should do. It needs to upgrade its air policing in the Baltic and Black Sea regions to full-fledged integrated air defense, with additional radars and surface-to-air missiles, as well as combat aircraft deployed closer to home. Russia. It should also conduct enhanced collective defense exercises to ensure that its “rapid reinforcement in a crisis” strategy works in practice and that allied forces are able to operate with standard equipment and communications.

But all of this is still a far cry from the “forward defense” posture that the alliance maintained in Germany throughout the Cold War. NATO’s mission then was to prevent Soviet tanks from crossing Fulda Gap, a strategic valley between the East German border and the West German city of Frankfurt – a major financial center and home to a large US air base.

Today, some generals are spying on a similar strategic vulnerability in the so-called Suwalki Gap, a flat area of ​​farmland on the Polish-Lithuanian border separating the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad from the territory of Russian ally Belarus. Their concern is that Russian troops could quickly capture and fortify the 65 kilometer corridor, cutting off the Baltic states from the rest of Europe.

Therefore, the desire for a heavier permanent force to make the red line for Moscow even wider is understandable. But therein lies the danger of going the wrong way.

In 21st century warfare, maneuverable anti-platform weapons are much more likely to outcompete expensive platforms, such as tanks, heavy bombers, or aircraft carriers. They are also several times cheaper and faster to obtain.

“In this age of semi-autonomous anti-platform warfare, attacking to take over territory is more difficult than ever . . . until killer robots are available in sufficient quantities to do such things,” said Chris Kremidas-Courtney, a senior fellow at the Friends of Europe think tank and a former US infantry officer. “The infantry squad of the future could be one human and nine robots, and their lethality could be comparable to that of a 2020 tank battalion.”

There is no point in preparing to resume the wars of yesterday. NATO should think smart, not ponderously. He must be agile, light and fast in his territorial defense, with real-time situational awareness, and not build a static Maginot Line on the Eastern Front.

Moshe Dayan, the legendary Israeli general and Minister of Defense, joked that “when the lion lies down with the lamb, I want to be the lion”. But Ukraine’s stinging defense shows that when the lion sleeps with the hedgehog, maybe it’s better to be the hedgehog.

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