U.S. Army Europe Operation Dragoon Ride, day one, March 21, 2015.

Operation Dragoon Ride

The Promise—And Pitfalls—of the U.S. Strategy in the Baltics

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.

A serviceman carries a air-to-ground missile next to Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters during a drill at the Russian southern Stavropol region, March 12, 2015.

A serviceman carries a air-to-ground missile next to Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters during a drill at the Russian southern Stavropol region, March 12, 2015.

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 65,000 to 155,000 troops.

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