A Security Dilemma in Northeastern Europe?

At NATO’s summit in Warsaw this week, the Alliance is expected to approve a plan to rotationally deploy as many as four battalions—roughly 4,000 troops—on the territory of the Baltic States and Poland in what it calls a new “persistent presence.” This represents a significant qualitative improvement in the reassurance and deterrence steps that the Alliance has taken since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March of 2014 and its invasion of the Donbas, but it risks spurring a burgeoning security dilemma in northeastern Europe. Indeed, within days of the Alliance’s acknowledgement that it would build this persistent presence, Moscow announced that it would stand up three new divisions—approximately 30,000 troops. Some have pointed to this as evidence of a security dilemma in Eastern Europe, one which NATO should never have triggered or engaged in. 

In fact, the decision to develop three new divisions in western and southern Russia is nothing particularly new—reports indicate it was made at least months ago, possibly longer. For this reason, it has only a tenuous, mostly rhetorical relationship to NATO’s Warsaw Summit decision on persistent presence.  More importantly though, if basing a mere 4,000 troops in the Baltic States and Poland causes Russia to over-invest in its military, perhaps this is a security dilemma worth investing in.

Security dilemmas—and the spiraling arms races they engender—have a poor reputation. In the modern era, security dilemmas have been blamed at least in part for causing, among others, World War I, the Cold War, and the unfolding arms race in the Asia-Pacific. Political scientists have spent decades refining their understanding of when and how a security dilemma unfolds, but the basic outline is fairly simple. A security dilemma begins when one state takes some action to augment its security that a second state perceives as threatening. The second state then reciprocates with some action to build its security, which prompts the first state to take further action, and so forth, resulting in a potentially destabilizing arms race and increasing the risk of unintended conflict.

That sounds like precisely what is happening in northeastern Europe today. However, there are at least three reasons why a security dilemma is highly unlikely in that part of Europe.

First, Washington remains very concerned about the costs of forward presence, and this is despite the immense price the United States has had to pay to reassure allies over the past two years through temporary, rotational deployments.

Second, there are limited barracks facilities and training areas in the relatively small Baltic States. Although officials from Poland and the Baltic States may like the idea of NATO—or at least the United States—stationing far more than just 4,000 troops on their territory, this is simply not practical. It is possible that NATO could get drawn into a security dilemma through means other than increasing ground forces presence, but political constraints are likely to severely limit how far the Alliance is willing to go in responding to Russian moves or countermoves.

Third, there are perceptions among other allies that NATO must also address security concerns elsewhere, especially to the south and southeast. The threat of terrorists hiding among migrant flows or of the Syrian civil war spilling into Turkey are far more salient to allies like Spain, Italy, and even France. 

Even if a security dilemma is underway, this may ultimately benefit the West. Creating roughly 30,000 new troops in response to the rotational deployment of 4,000 is not simply a disproportionate overreaction on the part of Moscow. It also creates a massive budgetary liability, especially as Russia continues to shift from conscripts to professional forces. In order to fund this and other means of defending against a prospective NATO attack conjured up by the Kremlin, Russia will need to shift resources from domestic programs, dip into its dwindling sovereign wealth funds, or raise taxes. Moscow can ill afford any of these options, as both cheap oil and targeted Western sanctions have brought about a shrinking Russian economy, a weaker ruble, and a drop in the Russian standard of living. Ultimately, Russia’s ability to intimidate its neighbors, coerce Europe, and threaten vital US interests hinges on its economic strength. As unsettling as an additional 30,000 Russian troops may appear in the short run, an economically weaker Russia is likely to mean a reduced ability to trample international norms and violate the sovereignty of its neighbors in the long run.

Geography dictates that NATO is unlikely to completely deter Russia through denial in northeastern Europe—that is, by building the modern equivalent of a Maginot Line along the Baltic States’ eastern borders. Similarly, the Alliance is unlikely to overcome the twin hurdles of time and distance inherent in trying to rapidly respond to Russian aggression. Therefore, the best the Alliance can hope for is to keep Poland and the Baltic States in particular from being left out in the cold. A modestly sized, multinational, consistent presence of ground forces is a good way of doing so in a way that appears unlikely to result in a security dilemma.

In May, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg argued, “It is in everyone’s interest to avoid a new arms race.” This is only partially true. It’s certainly in the West’s interests to avoid getting drawn into an arms race, but it may indeed be in the West’s strategic interests for Russia to continue excessive, wasteful spending in response to relatively small but appropriate adjustments by NATO. 

John R. Deni is a research professor of joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US government, the Department of Defense, or the US Army.

Image: Poland’s 6th Airborne Brigade soldiers (right) walk with US 82nd Airborne Division soldiers during the NATO allies’ Anakonda-16 exercise near Torun, Poland, on June 7. (Reuters/Kacper Pempel)