NATO and Biden must now act on their promises

This week’s NATO Madrid Conference was one of the organization’s most consequential in decades. After Turkey at last lifted its veto on Swedish entry to NATO, the alliance formally invited both Sweden and Finland to join its ranks. Member states agreed to increase the NATO Rapid Response force roughly eightfold, from 40,000 land, air and sea personnel to some 300,000. Finally, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that the alliance will increase to as much as brigade levels some portion of the forces stationed in its eastern members. 

These steps are, of course, a reaction to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the threat that Moscow poses to what is best described as NATO’s eastern front.

The increase in the size of the Rapid Response Force is surely to be welcomed. Yet it reflects only commitments by member states. How long they will take to realize those commitments is an entirely different matter. Unfortunately, NATO has a sorry record when it comes to getting member states to act on their promises. As early as 1952, during the height of the Cold War, member states agreed in Lisbon to increase their forces significantly; this never happened. Indeed, far too many NATO members have yet to meet their nearly decade-old commitment to increase their defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product.

Moreover, the expanded force is only a response force. Until this week’s NATO decision, of the 40,000 troops in the force, only half comprised what the organization terms the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). Moreover, according to NATO, an even smaller force would be “ready to move within two to three days.” It is not at all clear whether, and to what extent, NATO as an organization and its individual member states will commit units and personnel to increase this vanguard to the brigade levels that Stoltenberg described.

Sweden and Finland’s entry to NATO, by virtue of their geographic proximity to Russia and to the vulnerable Baltic states, naturally will constitute a de facto increase in forces that can respond immediately to a Russian threat. Indeed, both countries already contribute to NATO’s Response Force. Nevertheless, their actual membership in the alliance can take place only when the parliaments of all member states ratify the decisions of their respective governments.

Hopefully, the United Senate will do so in July. But not all of its sister parliaments are likely to move as quickly. In particular, the Turkish parliament still might pose a problem. It is worth recalling that in 2003, the Bush administration requested that Turkey permit the 4th Infantry Division to transit through its territory to attack Iraq from the north. The parliament refused to authorize that movement and none took place. Until ratification of Swedish and Finnish membership is complete, the words attributed to New York Yankees catcher (and sometime philosopher) Yogi Berra will apply: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

In the meantime — and even when Sweden and Finland do join NATO, as no doubt they ultimately will — the alliance in general and Washington in particular must ensure that the deterrent on the eastern flank is truly credible. To that end, President Biden announced on Wednesday that the United States would establish a permanent headquarters for the Army’s V Corps in Poznan, Poland, together with a field support battalion. This move would represent the first permanent U.S. military presence on NATO’s eastern front. 

Biden also promised that Washington would deploy more forces to the Baltic states, although he offered no details. At a minimum, the United States should take steps immediately to permanently station an armored battalion in each of the three Baltic states. It could do so even before the Army’s V Corps expanded headquarters is established. V Corps already has a rotational forward headquarters unit in Poznan that could coordinate the activities of the battalions in the Baltic states.

Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that NATO withdraw all forces that it deployed to the territories of its member states after 1997. With his forces having broken all norms of peaceful behavior and committed what clearly are an ongoing series of war crimes, Putin has no standing to demand where and in what ways NATO should deploy forces on the territories of its members. 

NATO has promised the right things this week, as has President Biden. Both should act quickly to convert their commitments into reality.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987. 

Tags Baltic states Biden Jens Stoltenberg NATO Russian invasion of Ukraine U.S. Forces

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