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Europe’s eastern flank still needs America to lead on its security

AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk
U.S. second gentleman Douglas Emhoff speaks to the press as he visits to the Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory Museum in Krakow, Poland, on Jan. 28, 2023. The Polish military is set to become the strongest in Europe.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is only the latest twist in centuries of imperial European conflict over the rule of Europe’s eastern flank. Since the rise of the Muscovy state in the 1400s, the Russian empire — whether led by tsars, general secretaries or presidents — has sought to subjugate or rule the many nations of the region, and these nations have sought to defend their independence or to rid themselves of a Russian yoke. Ukrainians have astonished the world with how fiercely they are fighting a devastating invasion, but they have had to struggle with Vladimir Putin’s determination to incorporate them into his empire for two decades. Other countries in the region have their own memories of the consequences of Russian aggression and domination.

Some analysts have argued that the eastern flank of Europe should be a neutral buffer zone that accommodates legitimate Russian security needs. Nothing in the long sweep of European history suggests that this would lead to a stable political outcome, however. A neutral buffer zone would serve as an even more tempting target for Russia’s imperial ambitions. Stability can result only from independent nation-states being secure in their freedom and Russia’s acceptance of this as the status quo.

Why should Americans care? This is, after all, a European affair and Europe should have both the will and the means to look after its own security. The American public may be growing uneasy about supporting a country that is thousands of miles away and seemingly peripheral to core U.S. security interests. Unfortunately, the past century shows that when major European conflicts break out, the United States inevitably is drawn into their resolution. Much more expensive and potentially bloody American involvement could result if Ukraine loses its fight with Russia. 

Since Putin came to power, his words and actions repeatedly have made clear that he intends to rebuild a Russian empire and would not spare Europe’s eastern flank. Will American leaders be willing to stand aside if NATO members are attacked? Every effort must be made to avoid having to find out.

Ukraine fortunately has demonstrated how Russia can be deterred at a lower cost to the American taxpayer. American military assistance to Ukraine so far has totaled around $27 billion since the invasion began last February — a small sum compared to the cost of large-scale military engagements requiring American troop involvement, such as a Russian attack on eastern flank countries. Abrams tanks originally were built to deter Soviet aggression in central Europe; out of an inventory of thousands, the U.S. has pledged to send only 31 to Ukraine. Ukrainians are willing to fight their battles but need the weapons and training that they cannot supply themselves. 

This is true of other countries on the eastern flank. Poland, in particular, is becoming a focal point for the deterrence of Russia. The Polish military is on track to become the strongest in Europe and Poles are willing to pay for it. Other countries, such as Finland, possess serious military capabilities given their size. These countries are willing to shoulder some of the burden needed to deter Russia and they must be strongly supported by their partners in the West.

The United States will be able to safely downsize its contributions once European countries start to upsize theirs. But this strategy will take time to accomplish — and a serious pivot of Germany, away from its policies of the past to prioritizing the security of its eastern neighbors, is crucial for success. Many Germans believe that Germany’s policy of “peace through trade,” which began in the 1970s and ultimately resulted in European dependence on Russian natural gas, won the Cold War. In the 1990s, Germany added the strategy of “peace through no strength” and reduced its military to a skeleton outfit. 

German leaders seemed incapable of imagining that the policies that had brought peace to western Europe might not work with Russia. Even after Russia’s brutal invasion, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been reluctant to change course; every gesture of support for Ukraine has come only after intense prodding. Yes, Germany has released Leopards — but only after caging them up for many months. A credible German pivot that demonstrates unambiguous commitment to the security of Europe’s eastern flank has yet to take place.

Until it does, American policy should focus on supporting countries of the eastern flank to deepen their military capabilities. The U.S. military for years has prepared new infrastructure in Poland to support long-term “rotational” deployments; instead, the U.S. should formally establish permanent military bases in Poland and relocate some personnel from Germany and other countries to them. Military experts need to collaborate to define what is necessary to deter Russia and identify capability gaps. If European countries are not able to produce and provide what is needed to fill these gaps, then Europe should help fund the U.S. ability to do so. 

American and European political leaders must work together to end the decades-long “free-riding” on American capabilities, which President Trump so pugnaciously addressed in public and other presidents have acknowledged in private. The Biden administration must be able to show the American public that Europe is willing to invest in its own security. Ukraine is buying Europe some time, but the clock is ticking.

Bryan Roberts is a research fellow at the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Threats and Emergencies, based at the University of Southern California. An economist, he has led research projects for the U.S. government, think tanks, and private foundations on analysis of issues related to immigration, border security and border management. Prior to his career in the U.S. government, he worked as a resident economic adviser in several countries in the Balkans and former Soviet Union, advising their governments on economic issues. The views expressed here are his alone.

Tags eastern flank Europe NATO Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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