Alliance’s Commander Says New Force Will Include US Troops

NATO has begun shaping the strengthened presence in Eastern Europe that the Alliance’s leaders approved ten days ago at their summit conference in Wales, its military commander, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said. US troops will be part of the new rapid-response force to be formed with a continuous presence in NATO’s east, alongside soldiers from “several other very, very capable nations” that have volunteered forces, said Breedlove in a speech at the Atlantic Council.

Also, NATO defense chiefs will meet in Vilnius next week, Breedlove said, to plan a forward deployment of supplies and military equipment, and to establish the infrastructure to host those rapid-response troops and others who might be sent east in the event of a crisis. These steps are part of what he said is an essential, three-legged response to “a revanchist Russia” following its invasions of Ukraine this year, Breedlove told policy specialists and journalists.

But NATO and its member governments still must shape their overall response to Russia’s new threats of subversion, “hybrid war,” and invasion posed by its effort to re-assert dominance over its neighbors, said Breedlove, who is the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Russia is applying some of its tactics from its Ukraine war to Moldova, he said, where Russia sponsors an independent enclave, Transnistria.

Breedlove called on policymakers in the US and the transatlantic community to decide their governments’ basic approach to the status of nations—including Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia—that are outside the NATO alliance but vulnerable to Russia’s re-assertion of a sphere of influence. “How does the Western world approach those nations,” and which international norms does it aim to defend in that region? Breedlove asked. “Right now there is no NATO policy on what to do in those nations.”

Breedlove described three initiatives that NATO must take to respond to Russia’s evolution from a former partner to a threat. Breedlove outlined the initiatives in an address to the Atlantic Council’s Future Leaders Summit held earlier this month alongside the NATO Summit conference in Wales. He compared them to the three legs of a stool, saying that the absence of any one of them would undermine NATO’s overall response. These initiatives are:

1)    A rapid-response force within NATO’s existing plans for dealing with a crisis. “Some portion of the NRF” (NATO Response Force, which comprises about 25,000 troops) will be made ready for rapid mobilization within a window between forty-eight hours and five days. Given that maintaining forces in a high state of readiness is costly, NATO must shape this quick-response capacity in a way that is “affordable and sustainable,” Breedlove said. “We can’t afford something that looks good for six months and then falls apart.”

2)    Forward positioning of troops, equipment and supplies. A NATO “forward presence” would prepare “a backbone for military operations” on the territory of NATO’s eastern member states (four of which border on Russia), to include the rapid-response force. In peacetime, it would train with troops of its host nations, and in case of conflict would command incoming rapid-response forces.

3)    A NATO headquarters to monitor threats to member states that may require the Alliance’s collective defense. Because NATO doctrine for years has treated Russia as a partner, rather than a threat, “on a day-to-day basis, we don’t have any … operational or tactical-level headquarters in NATO that is thinking about Article V, thinking about collective defense” of any member state that might come under attack. “We need a headquarters element … that will be focused every day, 365 days out of the year, 24 hours a day, on collective defense, Article V responsibilities for the alliance,” he said. Article V of the NATO Charter is the provision for all allies to come the aid of any member that comes under external attack.

Breedlove’s remarks at the Atlantic Council included these:

  • ON RUSSIA’S TACTICS OF ‘HYBRID WARFARE.’ Russia’s attacks on Ukraine combine tactics—including subversion, covert invasions by unmarked, unacknowledged forces, and conventional military invasion—“that we all have started terming as ‘hybrid warfare.’”   In Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region, “the Russian forces went from a hybrid warfare of ‘little green men’ [unidentified and unacknowledged Russian troops] to an overt action by three armored Russian columns along an LOC [line of communication] into Donetsk, an LOC into Luhansk and an LOC along the coast toward Mariupol.”  Those more conventional Russian invasions reversed the gains made in the summer by Ukraine’s forces and “reestablished wide-open support lanes” for Russian supply and reinforcement of its proxy forces. “The lines of support are now wide open into Donetsk and Luhansk [provinces] and … will run at full tilt.” 

  • ON THE THREAT OF RUSSIAN ‘HYBRID WAR’ OR OTHER ATTACK ON NEARBY NATIONS. “We have clearly now seen the script play out in Crimea, we’ve seen the script play out in eastern Ukraine, we’re beginning to see some of the script in Moldova and Transnistria, and so we’re beginning to understand this whole track of how this ‘hybrid war’ will be brought to bear.”  We now must “look at those forces in our border nations, where there are substantial Russian populations, and how do we better prepare those nations to survive the initial onslaught of this hybrid war? … If it kicks off and it is unattributable, this is not a NATO issue. It is an internal-to-that-nation issue, it’s an MOI [Ministry of Interior, or police] problem in most nations. How do we better prepare our allies to characterize, understand and survive the initial onslaught of the little green men scenario?” NATO agreed at Wales that ”If you attribute this little green men issue to an aggressor nation, it is an article five issue and all of the assets of NATO come to bear.”

  • ON THE WEST’S NEED FOR A POLICY TOWARD THE NATIONS OUTSIDE NATO BUT SUBJECT TO RUSSIAN AGGRESSION. “There are these nations outside of NATO. … How does the Western world approach those nations, and … what are accepted international norms” to which the transatlantic community wishes to hold Russia? “I think this is first principled conversation.”   Then NATO can begin to look at what actions or assurances it may offer those countries, and how they will be offered.  “Is it NATO, is it a coalition, is it bilateral? … Right now there is no NATO policy on what to do in those nations.”

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