America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan sent an unfortunate signal to our friends and foes alike that U.S. leadership is receding on the world stage. From the Taiwan Strait to the Persian Gulf to Central and Eastern Europe, America’s friends watch our actions with growing concern and our adversaries seek advantage.
In the midst of the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, President Vladimir Putin put on a significant show of force with the “Zapad-2021” military exercise with Belarus. The U.S. and its NATO allies must watch their eastern flank. As the exercise demonstrated, Russia has steadily modernized and increased its capabilities over the past decade. While it is unlikely that Putin would risk invading a European neighbor at this time, it cannot be ruled out given the debacle he witnessed in Afghanistan.
Annexing the Crimean Peninsula and supporting separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine has allowed Moscow to field-test new artillery, communications, and hybrid warfare techniques that pose a unique challenge to NATO, an alliance that was designed to counter a massive conventional threat rather than a gray zone conflict. These newer tactics and weapons systems now exist side by side with Russia’s traditional conventional forces. Russian air and naval units regularly harass NATO ships in the Black Sea. And, earlier this year, Russia massed substantial mechanized forces along its border with Ukraine, which units it has largely kept in place.
Since coming to power in 1999, Putin has sought to restore Russian hegemony in Ukraine, Georgia, Chechnya, the Baltics, and Central Asia, with varying degrees of success. His regime laid the ideological predicates for an expansive policy in former Soviet satellites by claiming the “near abroad” was a Russian sphere of influence. In Ukraine’s Donbas region, the Baltics, and elsewhere, Moscow utilizes the presence of ethnic Russians to justify interference in the domestic affairs of these Russian neighbors. Russia touts the supposed vulnerability of its Kaliningrad enclave to justify its heavy troop presence on Poland’s border. Belarus is increasingly subordinate to Moscow and hosts an increasing number of Russian troops as its embattled leader, Alexander Lukashenko, clings to power.
In light of such malign conduct on the borders of NATO, U.S. forces, working in concert with its allies, must ensure effective deterrence to convince Russia not to test the alliance. American forces based at static facilities in Germany or in the Continental U.S., however, do little to deter the Russians. Any action by such forces in response to a Russian provocation will almost certainly be too little and too late, given their distance from NATO’s Eastern frontier.
NATO forces based in Poland, including the Multinational Corps and Division Northeast Headquarters; the Force Integration Unit; and the U.S. Army’s V Corps Headquarters, are, indeed, a credible deterrent to Putin’s adventurism and revanchist inclinations. Further, Poland’s rapid modernization of its military with the acquisition of the F-35, modern air defenses, and soon, the Abrams Main Battle Tank bolster the message sent by NATO's forward deployments.
The U.S. should continue to encourage Poland’s investment in its own defense and expedite pending arms sales. The Biden Administration could make its own show of solidarity with Poland and the Baltics by announcing an increased U.S. presence in the region. Stationing an armored combat brigade in Poland would ideally complement the existing alliance forces in country. Such efforts, especially if made soon after Zapad-2021, would send an unmistakable message to Russia that notwithstanding the chaos in Kabul, America still leads, and NATO is not to be underestimated.
Robert C. O’Brien served as the 28th U.S. National Security Advisor from 2019-2021.