In a pre-retirement interview on May 1, NATO’s top military officer, General Philip Breedlove, warned that the Russian military might not be ten feet tall but was “certainly close to seven.” NATO’s war planners are right to worry about the Russian military threat to its eastern flank. Fortunately, the alliance may be in a stronger position than it thinks—and although its leaders may not realize it, what is important is that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals almost certainly do.
NATO’s efforts to build a stronger deterrent and defense posture in the east are necessary and long overdue. But they may not be enough to de-escalate the alliance’s confrontation with Russia and reduce the risk of a direct conflict. Two years after NATO launched plans to beef up defenses on its eastern front, a midcourse correction is needed to reduce the risk of a collision with Russia.
NATO’s perception of the Russian threat has changed dramatically since Moscow gobbled up Crimea. Once thought to be outmanned and outgunned by NATO, Russia is now seen by many observers as a superior military force, poised to overrun an alliance that is “outnumbered, outranged, and outgunned” on its eastern flank. From the West’s perspective, Russia is a revisionist, neoimperialist, and expansionist power determined to overturn the post–Cold War European security order, destroy NATO’s cohesion, and restore its sphere of influence throughout the former Soviet Union. As a military alliance with a collective security commitment at its core, NATO should be reinforcing its exposed eastern flank with a more persistent presence of heavier forces to reassure these countries of NATO’s resolve and capacity to make good on its Article 5 commitment. Military organizations are prone to plan conservatively, and NATO is basing its plans on a worst-case scenario.
From where Putin sits, however, “the correlation of forces,” to use an old Soviet phrase, probably looks quite different. From the Kremlin’s perspective, in its decision to
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