Why Does America Need More Troops in Europe When It Deters Russia From Afar?
America's top military commander in Europe wants more forces to deter Russia, but how much is enough?
The head of the United States European Command and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, General Curtis Scaparrotti, suggested additional resources might be needed to protect allies from Russia. Since the Cold War, America’s nuclear capabilities have been enough to deter Russia, so what has changed?
Deterrence maintains peace because our nuclear weapons make an escalating war suicidal. As Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara laid out in his 1967 speech, deterrence is the “highly reliable ability to inflict unacceptable damage upon any single aggressor... even after absorbing a surprise first strike.”
The assertion that more military units are needed in Europe implies that America’s nuclear deterrence is insufficient to do the job on its own. There are only two reasons why this might be the case. The first is that America has incorrectly signaled to Russia that nuclear weapons will not defend the Baltics. The second, is that President Trump’s transactional mindset and past musings on not upholding mutual defense obligations are serious and have signaled to Russia Trump’s ambivalence towards NATO.
Russia is modernizing its military and is capable of overrunning the Baltics in 24 to 60 hours. One of the reasons for the Scaparrotti’s concern is the geographical fact that the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are on Russia’s border. Yet America’s nuclear umbrella over Europe has held for almost 70 years. In fact, when asked whether Russia could overwhelm NATO, Scaparrotti said, “I don’t agree with that.” He worries about Russia’s advantage in regional forces, but he also thinks that NATO is stronger.
Indeed, NATO already committed more troops to defend the Baltics and Poland in 2016. Their press release stated there would be “four multinational battalion-size battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, on a rotational basis.” Those battalions are led by America, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany with contributions from other European allies.
However, if American and European defenses ever did uncouple, Europe would be in danger because they still possess no real collective defense and no combined nuclear deterrence. Their militaries are atrophied with France quickly running out of ammunition against Muammar Gaddafi’s third-rate Libyan forces in 2011. Moreover, Germany, once the home of Prussian martial prowess, now has no functioning submarines, few working aircraft or tanks, and guns that don’t shoot straight. If Europeans expect to be able to have a greater say and to avoid Trump questioning the alliance, Europe needs to at least meet their NATO spending obligations.
Eight European allies plan to meet their NATO defense spending guidelines by the end of 2018, up from three who currently meet it. Given the upcoming NATO summit in July, more European allies may yet meet that threshold. While there is a growing divide between Europe and America, Washington has still maintained its signal of deterrence (Trump committed to NATO in mid-2017). As long as Russia believes American nuclear weapons will defend NATO territory, Moscow will not touch an inch of it.
Finally, recent studies carried out by RAND Corporation’s Andrew Radin have found that attacking the Baltics not only falls outside of Moscow’s core interests but that such an attack would likely be out of defense. Radin wrote in The National Interest, “[T]he main way that Russia would develop an interest in attacking the Baltics is if it perceives NATO building up sufficient forces to pose a threat.” Given America’s history with the Monroe Doctrine, the Zimmermann Telegram, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, it should come as no surprise that countries react forcefully to other’s forces on their doorsteps.
Therefore, America should focus on signaling deterrence without putting Russia in a corner. The idea that more boots are somehow necessary on top of 1,350 deployed nuclear warheads aimed at Russia’s cities is absurd. If over a thousand nuclear missiles cannot signal to Russia that an incursion into NATO territory is a bad idea, then any additional soldiers never will.
John Dale Grover is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a writer with Young Voices. He is also an Assistant Managing Editor at The National Interest and a graduate student at George Mason University in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. His articles have appeared in Forbes, Real Clear Defense, Fox News, and other outlets.