Conventional forces called critical component of NATO’s toolkit

Though the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign poses a significant threat to Western security, NATO allies working to counter Russian aggression must remember the importance of bolstering conventional forces, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

“Conventional forces are back,” said Ian Brzezinski, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, he described how “yes, there was hybrid warfare, but there were also 30,000 Russian special forces that were sent into Crimea.”

Russia’s military is “a much more capable force than they were ten years ago,” according to Brzezinski, whereas NATO troops are now stretched thin.  

Brzezinski spoke on July 7 on a panel at the Atlantic Council’s Global Forum in Warsaw, hosted in partnership with the Polish Institute of International Affairs. Later that day, US President Donald J. Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany. The meeting took place in the shadow of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, its military intervention in Syria, and its meddling in the US and French presidential elections.

“Russia, against the willful thinking of others, is showing clearly that its role is purely destructive,” Poland’s Minister of National Defense Antoni Macierewicz said in prepared remarks, delivered by his adviser, Dominik Smrygala. He described how the Kremlin is ratcheting up its confrontation with the West, an aggressive stance which will only become more apparent with its military exercise, Zapad 2017, scheduled to take place in September.

On a solution to addressing the threat posed by Russia, Macierewicz said: “The only answer is transatlantic unity.” He added that “a good example of transatlantic unity is the stronger presence of NATO on the eastern flank of the Alliance.”

Since May, NATO has worked to build up its Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) in Eastern Europe. The eFP now has four multinational battlegroups led by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada; the groups are stationed in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, respectively.

However, Brzezinski cautioned: “I recognize eFP is an important step forward in NATO’s shift in mindset from a defense and deterrence mindset… to a warfighting mindset, but we have a way to go.” NATO needs to do more in terms of providing eFP battlegroups with equipment, capabilities, and authority “so that this mission really has the deterrence effect that we’re seeking,” he said.

Brzezinski joined Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Bergmanis; Gen. Salvatore Farina, commander of NATO Joint Force Command Brunssum; and Tomasz Szatkowski, undersecretary of state at Poland’s Ministry of National Defense, to discuss the ways in which NATO must adapt to meet twenty-first century threats—both conventional and unconventional—particularly those posed by Russia. Anna Wieslander, director of Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council, moderated the discussion.

In introductory remarks, Szatkowski described the way in which Poland is working to meet these challenges, outlined in the country’s new defense concept. With a focus on building up defensive capabilities, “we are going to realize the potential for Poland as a linchpin and a hub… for NATO movement,” said Szatkowski, noting that US troops are already stationed in Poland, and will remain there, on rotation, through 2020. He emphasized Poland’s commitment to military missions not only in its own neighborhood, but also out-of-area missions with international partners.

Szatkowski set forth Poland’s plan to exceed its defense spending beyond the agreed-upon commitment of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—a benchmark which only five NATO members currently meet—to 2.5 percent by 2030. According to Brzezinski, Poland’s new defense concept is “a statement of principle… backed by resources.”

The “balance between natural and required focus on defense of territory, [and] good language about the need to stand up and be ready for out-of-area operations” addresses NATO’s current shortcomings and “provides good opportunities for deeper US-Polish defense collaboration,” said Brzezinski. “A stronger ally makes for a strong alliance,” he added. 

Ultimately, “readiness is key for modern warfare,” said Wieslander, a feature of NATO’s defense posture exemplified by the eFP. “It is, for me, a fundamental pillar of the building up of deterrence because they are not ready tomorrow, they are ready yesterday,” said Farina.

Though there are still improvements to be made, “the mission of deterrence is just starting on the first of July, officially,” said Farina. He described how the multinational battle groups provide a highly capable joint force ready to be deployed when needed, which is “important to express the unity, solidarity of NATO.”

“What we will do from now on, we will continue to train and to be ready, but we are starting to integrate this into the overall bigger deterrence umbrella,” said Farina.

According to Farina, the battle groups, “which are and will be the first answer in case of a negative evolution of the crisis,” should have greater freedom of movement throughout Europe in order to effectively execute their mission. “Today, NATO commanders can’t move,” said Brzezinski. He added that, without going through a convoluted process to acquire the proper authority to take action, eFP forces “are statues in a dynamic situation.”

To address this issue, Farina proposed the creation of a military Schengen area, allowing battle groups to move freely within NATO territory, as people are permitted to move freely throughout the European Union (EU) Schengen Area.

“If we compare today to a couple of years ago, a lot of steps have been made,” Farina said, adding: “We have to continue to do so.”

While NATO allies must bolster conventional forces, due attention must also be paid to the threat of hybrid warfare, particularly Russia’s disinformation campaign, said Bergmanis. “Threat perception doesn’t change quickly and doesn’t change established eFP,” he said.

“What changes is ability to react and to act quickly,” he added.

Noting the strategic similarities in the weaponization of information used by both Russia and the former Soviet Union, Bergmanis emphasized the need for NATO allies to collaborate in their fight against disinformation. “It’s lies everywhere and every day,” he said. “We have to be aware about that and find a way to counter this kind of soft power,” said Farina.

“NATO and the EU both have renewed focus on strategic communication,” according to Bergmanis. He said: “What really matters is advance thinking and planning, not advance worrying.”

“We have written a lot of strategy, but which strategy works?” he questioned. However, he added, “we are prepared” to deal with any further attacks from Moscow.

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.