NATO After Crimea

How the Alliance Can Still Deter Russia

A Romanian special forces member disembarks from a helicopter.
A Romanian special forces member disembarks from a helicopter to the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Truxtun during a NATO military drill in the Black Sea, March 19, 2014. (Stoyan Nenov / Courtesy Reuters)

On April 16, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that NATO would be stepping up its air patrols near the Baltic States and conducting some additional ship maneuvers and deployments of military trainers in the area. The decision to do so was wise; the increased NATO presence will aid in reconnaissance and help reassure frontline NATO states, which undoubtedly feel threatened by Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent adventures in Ukraine. The deployments are also a reasonable and proportionate response to Russia's own recent buzzing of a U.S. ship in the Black Sea.

NATO’s moves in the Baltics, however, do not solve the problem of how the organization should respond if Russia does, indeed, move into eastern Ukraine. Although that might once have been unthinkable, Putin has done many unthinkable things in recent months. So it is worth planning for it now.

Should Russia march into eastern Ukraine, the best way to respond would be to set up a permanent brigade of American light forces in the most acutely exposed NATO member countries, namely, the Baltics: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Such a brigade, plus support, could include anywhere between 3,000 and 7,000 troops, a large enough number to guarantee that the force would have significant forward capabilities. Roughly one battalion of soldiers, or some 1,000 G.I.s, would be stationed in each of two Baltic States. The remainder of the brigade -- and the brigade headquarters -- would settle in the third.

Together, these troops would conduct routine and ongoing training of Baltic militaries and also help patrol NATO’s eastern frontier, creating a trip wire along the border with Russia. The patrols would also allow Washington and Brussels to confirm to Moscow and the world that any Russian minorities in the region are being protected and accorded their full rights as citizens, lest the Kremlin try to argue otherwise as a pretext for further aggression.

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