In March, a U.S. Army convoy rolled 1,100 miles across six countries in Europe. The convoy, which included over 500 U.S. military personnel and 120 vehicles making their way through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and the Czech Republic and back to their base in Germany, was the longest that Europe had seen since the Battle of the Bulge, in 1944.
This operation, Dragoon Ride, was a compelling bit of showmanship for a world rocked by the crisis in Ukraine. But the operation also demonstrates the strengths and pitfalls of American commitments to European security, and offers a glimpse into how the conflict in Ukraine has forced NATO to reexamine its purpose and future.
Before the crisis erupted in Ukraine, most transatlantic policymakers would have scoffed at the idea of a conventional war on the European continent. The image of Russia’s tanks rolling over its neighbors’ borders were a relic of Cold War history, despite NATO’s perpetually tense relations with its former adversary.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, of course, dramatically altered that perception. A safe and secure Europe, the linchpin of U.S. engagement in the world, seems a thing of the past. And NATO, initially created to prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening, was caught off guard.
At the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, alliance leaders unveiled the Readiness Action Plan, aimed at reassuring nervous allies who were kept awake at night questioning Putin’s next move. The plan called for reviving NATO’s atrophied deterrent capabilities, including increasing Baltic air policing missions, deploying ground troops in eastern areas, expanding military training and exercise missions, and expanding patrols in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean. NATO’s plan was ambitious, especially given the alliance’s internal divides, shrinking defense budgets across member countries, and war weariness from an exhausting decade in Afghanistan. But it was also inadequate.
NATO’s military exercises serve the dual purpose of enhancing military interoperability and signaling Russia about its capabilities. But NATO spends months planning them, never truly testing their rapid reaction capacity to crises that could develop within days or even hours and few number over 6,000 troops. In contrast, Russian snap exercises in the Western Oblast, which can come together within 24 hours' notice, run anywhere from 65,000 to 155,000 troops.
Dragoon Ride served the purpose of highlighting the American presence in Europe for each community it passed through. At Wales, NATO members signed a historic pledge to reverse the alliance-wide decline in defense spending. But currently, only four of 28 members meet their two percent of GDP defense spending requirement, and few have indicated that they will change that. Furthermore, the plan to put forth a spearhead force of 5,000 troops ready to deploy within a few days’ notice, one of the cornerstones of NATO’s Wales Summit commitments, faced commitment, funding, and capabilities problems from the outset.
In response, the United States rolled out its own program, the European Reassurance Initiative, to complement NATO’s Readiness Action Plan with over $1.6 billion to fund efforts to bolster European security between 2015 and 2016. However, the initiative is a temporary patch; rather than expanding military exercises and activities in Europe, it merely sustains existing ones at current levels (the programs were initially set to wind down over the coming years). After a two-year stopgap, if the current bureaucratic inertia continues, the United States will resume slowly dismantling its force posture in Europe.
Enter Operation Dragoon Ride, a convoy aimed at combating that bleak picture. At the tactical level, the operation had military training and logistics value. NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, said the convoy tested many things NATO hadn’t done in years, such as introducing its troops to long-haul capabilities and coordinating “multiple border crossings and which bridges are capable of handling the vehicles.” The troops became familiar with the functional and logistical details policymakers tend to overlook, but prove vital in military operations. It was also a way to get equipment back to Germany from maneuvers in the Baltic States.
The convoy also showcased U.S. European Command and NATO’s recognition that public relations and strategic communications are an integral component of advancing the alliance’s interests. In that sense, Dragoon Ride served the purpose of highlighting the American presence in Europe for each community it passed through.
Since the onset of the Ukraine crisis, Russia’s state-controlled media has been dancing rhetorical circles around NATO’s strategic communications. As a result, most Russians believed that the proverbial West started the war, and only three percent believe that pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in July 2014. NATO’s public-relations efforts have historically been outdated, clumsy, and ineffective. But the Ukraine conflict has prompted NATO to up its game in the media and begin attacking Russian myths surrounding the Ukraine conflict directly.
The difference between “reassurance” and “deterrence” is not merely rhetorical. Although Dragoon Ride’s primary audience wasn’t Russia, it did exhibit that military commanders in Europe are thinking about how to incorporate public relations and communications into their planning and the value they are placing on European citizens’ views of the alliance. The results of this particular campaign are somewhat surprising. The convoy went through the Czech Republic, a country with solid anti-American (and by extension, anti-NATO) constituencies and a president with uncomfortably close relations to Russia. But large and cheering crowds greeted the convoy, and one survey found that 82 percent of Czechs approved of the convoy’s travel through their country, defying predictions to the contrary.
Although it elicited public support for NATO, Operation Dragoon Ride also illustrates the pitfalls of the United States’ reaction to the crisis in Ukraine and a revanchist Russia. The crux of the issue lies in “reassurance,” the word du jour for U.S. and NATO leadership in the current security climate (as exemplified in the U.S. European Reassurance Initiative and NATO’s Readiness Action Plan). Breedlove, staying on message, lauded Operation Dragoon Ride as a strong “message of reassurance.” But the word that transatlantic leaders should be using, in Operation Dragoon Ride and other military activities like it, is “deterrence.” “Deterrence” may be uncomfortably reminiscent of the dark days of the Cold War. But despite today’s nadir in Western-Russian relations, this is not a return to the Cold War.
The difference between “reassurance” and “deterrence” is not merely rhetorical—it carries significant political clout for both NATO member governments and potential adversaries (namely, Russia). Despite the Ukraine crisis, advocates of a stronger U.S. force posture in Europe face an uphill battle. There is a prevailing notion that Europe won’t foot the bill for its own defense, and measures labeled as “reassurance” serve no strategic purpose other than placating nervous allies and showcasing token forces in their countries to help them sleep better at night. This is not what initiatives like Dragoon Ride are about. They are first and foremost demonstrations to Russia that the alliance takes its security guarantees seriously, but these need to be catered to Russia first, and to allies second. It makes no difference if countries such as Poland or Estonia think the reassurance initiatives go far enough; if Putin thinks they don’t, then he will respond accordingly. In other words, he must be deterred. He must be reminded of the enduring sanctity of NATO’s Article 5 collective defense commitment. If not, he could dangerously miscalculate where NATO’s red line truly lies and prompt NATO to consider a full military confrontation if he crosses it.
Images from Operation Dragoon Ride are reminiscent of the days of World War II; cheering crowds lining the streets in Europe to meet U.S. armored columns in Europe. The stark historical parallels convey the sense that Europe is once again in danger, and that U.S. security commitments and military presence remain the linchpin of Europe’s security architecture. Dragoon Ride illustrated the United States and NATO’s new emphasis on military exercises along its eastern periphery, the growing importance of strategic communications for NATO, and the shortcomings of both U.S. commitments to Europe and how it frames those commitments. Dragoon Ride is a model operation that should be emulated, but whether operations such as this goes far enough in bolstering European security remains doubtful.