NATO Becomes Complacent at Its Own Peril

By: Brian Hayes, Columnist

Photo Credit: Defence Procurement International

Zapad, a joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise, concluded without incident on September 20th.[i] The worst fears of NATO national security professionals—that Russia would deploy as many as 100,000 troops or leave behind a permanent garrison in Belarus—did not materialize.[ii] However, in light of past Russian behavior and the current strategic context, NATO was right to be concerned. Before invading Georgia (in 2008) and Ukraine (in 2014), Russia used military exercises to mask preparations for war.[iii] Moreover, the fictional countries serving as Russia’s enemies in Zapad 2017 bore a troubling resemblance to NATO members Poland and Lithuania—countries that would bear the brunt of Russian attacks in case of an actual land war between Russia and NATO.[iv]

War with Russia remains unlikely, but NATO should stay vigilant. Countries within the alliance that border Russia, particularly the Baltics, lack meaningful capability to resist a Russian attack, and could fall within days.[v] With a deployed nuclear arsenal of more than 1,700 nuclear warheads, coupled with hundreds of ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable cruise missiles, Russia is capable of effectively destroying the United States and its allies in a matter of hours.[vi] It has deployed new nuclear-capable missiles to its western province of Kaliningrad, from which Russia can reach Poland and parts of Germany.[vii] These deployments are even more disturbing in light of recent Russian nuclear doctrine, which appears to normalize the use of nuclear weapons early in a crisis.[viii]

Beyond its military capabilities, Russia has demonstrated a willingness to defy international norms and use violence against its neighbors. Ukraine blames Russia for a series of assassinations of journalists, anti-Russia activists, and Ukrainian military officials.[ix] NATO member Estonia claims Russia’s Federal Security Service abducted an Estonian intelligence officer during a 2014 raid into Estonian territory.[x] The latter incident should be particularly troubling to NATO and the United States. Even a limited Russian incursion into NATO territory could cause a member country to invoke Article 5, the collective defense provision of the NATO treaty. A local crisis could thus rapidly escalate into a broader conflict, obligating the United States and other NATO countries to prepare to fight on Russia’s borders.

Finally, the NATO alliance is under strain. President Trump’s critique of European “free riders” has attracted the most attention in the US press, but attitudes in Europe are even more troubling. Polls show that only about half of the citizens of NATO member countries believe their nation should defend an ally from Russia; more than half of Germans are opposed.[xi] German ports, airfields, and bases would be critical for moving US reinforcements into theater, and Germany’s wavering commitment to the alliance could be a critical vulnerability.

Because of Russian malfeasance—whether meddling in Western elections,[xii] harassing US diplomats,[xiii] or violating the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty[xiv]—it is likely that tensions between Russia and the West (that is, the United States and NATO) will continue. Strategists and statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic must tackle tough questions about whether and how NATO members would respond to a Russian attack on the Baltics or Poland—to include the possibility that Russia would threaten to use nuclear weapons early in the crisis to consolidate gains and divide the alliance. Would Germany allow US access to its territory in the face of a Russian threat to strike Hamburg or Stuttgart? Is US nuclear deterrence credible on Russia’s borders?[xv] If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” is the NATO alliance still viable? There are no easy answers.

[i] John Vandiver, “After All the Anxiety, Russia’s Zapad Exercise Ends Without Provocation,” Stars and Stripes, September 20, 2017,

[ii] Andrew Higgins, “Russia’s War Games with Fake Enemies Cause Real Alarm,” New York Times, September 13, 2017,

[iii] Tomasz Kowalik and Dominik Jankowski, “The Dangerous Tool of Russian Military Exercises,” Center for European Policy Analysis, May 9, 2017,

[iv] Kavitha Suana, “Russia is Going to War With a Fake ‘Country,’” Foreign Policy, July 31, 2017,

[v] David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank (RAND Corporation, 2016),

[vi] Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia Military Power Report, 2017, Power Publications/Russia Military Power Report 2017.pdf.

[vii] David Filipov, “These Maps Show How Russia Has Europe Spooked,” Washington Post, November 23, 2016,

[viii] Mark B. Schneider, “Escalate to De-escalate,” Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2017,

[ix] Dan Peleschuk, “In Kiev, Assassinations are Becoming Commonplace,” Public Radio International, June 30, 2017.

[x] “Officials: Estonian Counterintelligence Officer Abducted to Russia at Gunpoint From Estonian Soil,” Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR.EE), September 5, 2014.

[xi] Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes, and Jacob Poushter. “NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid,” Pew Research Center,

[xii] Nicholas Fandos, “Senate Intelligence Heads Warn that Russian Election Meddling Continues,” New York Times, October 4, 2017,

[xiii] Josh Rogin, “FSB Guard Attacks US Diplomat Outside Moscow Embassy,” Washington Post, June 29, 2016,

[xiv] Michael Gordon, “Russia Deploys Missile, Violating Treaty and Challenging Trump,” New York Times, February 14, 2017,

[xv] Charles Krauthammer, “To Die for Estonia?,” Washington Post, June 1, 2017,

One thought on “NATO Becomes Complacent at Its Own Peril

  1. I fail to see how this article does anything to justify its assertion that the Zapad exercises should provoke NATO fears of invasion. The entire point of Zapad (an quadrennial operation announced years ago) was to test Russia’s conventional deterrence abilities in the context of a US led invasion of Belarus. Russian general staff doctrine is fundamentally defensive in such a conflict, recognizing NATO superiority in the air and missile realms. Russia has proven it has little ability to take and occupy land, as shown even in the Donbas as its proxies failed to create a land bridge to Crimea

    With this in mind, the author’s conjuring of the bogeyman of Russian tanks storming through the Fulda Gap, or missile strikes on Hamburg, is laughable at best and irresponsible at worst. To go further and say that Germany would then not allow US troops in those cases seems to stretch the imagination.

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