Deterrence or Détente How Can NATO Best Address the Russian Threat?

With fears growing over potential Russian aggression in Europe, NATO is once again promoting a strategy of deterrence. But is higher military spending in response to the world's crises the right answer?
German Bundeswehr soldiers in Münster

German Bundeswehr soldiers in Münster

Foto: Joerg Gläscher/ DER SPIEGEL

The official has no name, no face, no nationality. Rank, soldier or civilian status, language spoken and even gender: All of it must remain concealed. Those are the rules.

Large signs with red text in the hallways of NATO headquarters in Brussels issue a stern warning: Classified activities may no longer be discussed beyond this point. On this particular Friday afternoon, though, there isn't much of a risk. With the weekend rapidly approaching, hardly anyone is still at work.

The NATO official stands up and points to the large map on the office wall. To the left is Western Europe, divided up into small, colorful patches, and to the right, the colossus that is Russia.

During the Cold War, the situation was such that NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations, both armed to the teeth, stood face-to-face on the border between West Germany and East Germany/Czechoslovakia. It was a relatively short line. It took just a few hours to dispatch troops from Hannover to West Germany's eastern border.

The situation today is altogether different. The NATO staffer points to northern Norway at the top of the map and then moves to the right, across the Baltic Sea to the Baltic states, Poland and, finally, down to Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. It is an enormously long line stretching from the Arctic Circle to the eastern reaches of the Black Sea. Such is the external borders of the NATO alliance today - and it is a difficult one to defend.

The alliance has prepared several deployment plans. There is one for the Baltic region, in the event that Russia attempts to replicate its operation in Ukraine there. There is also one for Romania and Bulgaria, in case the onslaught comes across the Black Sea. Plans are still being developed for Turkey and northern Norway.

Norway? Really? Yes, the NATO official confirms. The Norwegian government is keeping a close eye on the Russian military, the official says -- the exercises, troop movements, the submarines, the ships, the aircraft. In Germany, few are paying attention.

That, broadly speaking, is the situation as seen by staff at NATO headquarters. The good news, the NATO staffer says, is that North Atlantic Treaty Organization members all agree that more money needs to be spent to address the new threat situation. In practice, however, only five of the 28 NATO member states have held to their pledge of allocating 2 percent of their gross domestic products to defense spending.

As such, money will be a primary focus of Thursday's informal NATO summit in Brussels. And this is largely because of one man, who will be participating in such a meeting for the first time: Donald Trump.

The new U.S. president has been more vocal and insistent than any of his predecessors when it comes to NATO states taking on a bigger burden and finally making good on their 2-percent pledge. "It's not fair that we're paying close to 4 percent and other countries that are more directly affected are paying 1 percent when they're supposed to be paying 2 percent," Trump told AP in an interview last month. "And I'm very strong on it and I'm going to be very strong on it when I go there in a month."

At the moment, Germany is catching the most flak. Last year, Europe's strongest economy had a multi-billion euro budget surplus following a significant increase in tax revenues. But defense spending has nevertheless remained at 1.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Berlin currently faces a dilemma. Germany has pledged to its allies to considerably increase its defense spending, but at the same time, many are questioning whether tanks and howitzers are the correct response to crises around the world. Would it not be better to invest the money in development aid, child care and universities?

Many Germans are also conflicted by another question: Is Vladimir Putin truly the geopolitical bogeyman he is made out to be by NATO? Why should people fear Russia's military when European NATO member states alone spend almost four times as much on defense as Moscow?

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has spoken of a "rearmament spiral ," and Germany's top diplomat, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), has likewise warned of the threat of a "military behemoth" in the heart of Europe. The dispute over higher defense spending, it seems certain, will be one of the issues in the campaign ahead of German elections in September.

How Real Is the Russian Threat?

In the past three years, the Rand Corporation has simulated more than 20 scenarios  for a possible Russian attack on the Baltic states. At the beginning of March, experts with the California-based think tank presented their findings to U.S. Congress.

In none of the scenarios was it possible to defend Tallinn and Riga, the capitals of Estonia and Latvia respectively, for longer than 60 hours. "In some cases, NATO's defeat has been written into history in a day and a half," Rand researcher David Shlapak said in testimony before the House of Representatives.

The West would be the loser, he says. Russia would once again have established itself as the dominant strategic player in Central Europe, NATO would collapse and trans-Atlantic security structures would lie in ruins, Shlapak said. He adds that the point of the exercise was not to win a war. But, he argues, the West needs to ensure that such conflicts can be prevented through a combination of strength and balance.

The Rand simulation isn't as absurd as it might first appear. The researchers in California weren't trying to determine whether Russia would invade the Baltic states -- they simply wanted to see what would actually happen if it did. That's the decisive difference.

When all participants know that an invasion would be successful, it changes the political calculations. If a country can credibly demonstrate that it is capable of successfully invading another country, then it is already in a position of strength. It gives it leverage to demand concessions.

Years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Since then, he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is prepared to exploit the weakness of others. Because of their geographical location, the three Baltic countries are NATO's Achilles' heel, the site where the alliance's resolve can best be tested.

And even if some of the fundamental assumptions used in the Rand wargames are controversial, most Western defense experts now believe that Putin is militarily capable of invading.

During the Cold War, the Western alliance managed to balance out the quantitative superiority of the Warsaw Pact states through better weapons systems. But those times have passed. Russia appears to have succeeded in recent years in reducing the quality gap with the West, even if Moscow is now numerically inferior to NATO in most areas. The West is clearly ahead when it comes to the number of soldiers, tanks, combat helicopters, warships and submarines it has at its disposal.

Moscow Modernizes while Europe Remains a Hodgepodge

But the numbers are deceptive. The lion's share of the alliance's weapons systems come from the Americans, whose military operates primarily outside of Europe. The Europeans, for their part, maintain a hodgepodge collection of different systems, some of which, in eastern member states, are leftovers from the Soviet era.

Seventeen different combat tank models are currently in use by European armies, 13 varieties of air-to-air missiles and 29 frigate models. More importantly, however, NATO is comprised of 28 armies whose structures and equipment are not always compatible. When it comes to the military, diversity can often be a curse.

The budget figures are also misleading. NATO's European member states spend $241 billion on defense annually compared to Russia's $66 billion. Even if you factor in Russia's numerous shadow budgets, the gap is enormous.

Yet Moscow gets disproportionately more "bang for the buck," as the Americans say. A Russian tank battalion costs only a fraction of what a German one does because the equipment and, particularly, the personnel is so much cheaper. A Russian lieutenant colonel earns only a small fraction of what his German counterpart makes.

Furthermore, Russia is a militarized society and Moscow oversees a military-industrial complex that is run according to Putin's orders rather than economic criteria.

The Kremlin has invested huge amounts of money modernizing its army since its near debacle during the war in Georgia in 2008. Should a crisis develop, Russia's highly sophisticated air defense systems and cruise missiles on warships could severely limit NATO's freedom of movement in its own territory and in the Baltic Sea. Most importantly, however, Russian army leadership regularly conducts extensive military exercises involving as many as 70,000 soldiers to test the readiness and integration of its diverse weapons systems. In one of those exercises, an invasion of the Baltics was simulated.

There is, of course, plenty to suggest that the Russian government and military leadership are exaggerating their own success to play to the domestic audience. In June, for example, several high-ranking officers commanding the Baltic Fleet were fired for exaggerating the readiness of their troops.

It's also possible that the results of military inspections are systematically enhanced and defense industry production figures overstated. It has been alleged that purportedly new and premium-quality Russian weapons systems are often just older systems that have been overhauled.

Could NATO Counter a Russian Invasion?

Nevertheless, a recent study released by Carnegie Foundation Russia holds that Russia still has the upper hand. Although Moscow may not be capable of carrying out large-scale military operations outside the immediate post-Soviet region, in a "Baltic-Eastern European scenario," the Kremlin could deploy troops that are among the most sophisticated and best trained in the country, equipped with state-of-the-art weapons. NATO would have little to counter such an onslaught. Many of NATO's reinforcement troops come from smaller member states and are inferior to the better organized, better trained and better equipped Russians.

But is there a real threat of a Russian attack? Few really believe that to be the case. If it came to a conflict, Russia would be going up against three NATO nuclear powers and the risks would be incalculable. In Syria, Moscow and Washington have shown that they will do everything they can to steer clear of each other.

Yet even during the Cold War, NATO didn't just rely on its nuclear warheads -- deterrence also relied on the ability to ward off a conventional attack using conventional means. At the moment, Putin's strength lies in his capacity to credibly threaten a successful attack of that nature.

Negative Peace Dividends

At the Clausewitz Barracks in the town of Burg, located in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt, the consequences of the so-called peace dividend, which Germany and other NATO member states afforded themselves after the end of the Cold War, can plainly be seen. In two-and-a-half decades, Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, shrank from more than a half-million soldiers down to 177,000 and from 2,000 Leopard 2 combat tanks down to 225, as of 2011.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the classic notions of national and alliance defense were no longer primary. The focus shifted to foreign deployments to places like Kosovo and Afghanistan -- and that had consequences for the way member state militaries were equipped.

One critical juncture came during a conference of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet in 2010, after which then-Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg excitedly claimed that the government's requirement to cut 8.3 billion euros from the military budget was a "unique opportunity." The German military still hasn't recovered from his "restructuring."

Michael Labsch, the man responsible for implementing this calamity has taken shelter in an open container unit. From there, he has a view of an old military crane, from which an olive-colored container is swaying. In the pouring rain, three soldiers grapple with long cables as they laboriously maneuver the metal crate onto a truck. It takes half an eternity until it finally lands with a resounding thud into its moorings.

Labsch is pleased. Now comes part II of his show. The Orion V rolls up, the pride of Logistics Battalion 171 -- a modern, all-terrain container stacker of the kind that can be found in the port of Hamburg. But whereas hundreds such vehicles operate in the port, Labsch only has one -- and it is often out of commission.

Logistics officer Michael Labsch of the Bundeswehr

Logistics officer Michael Labsch of the Bundeswehr

Foto: Jörg Gläscher/ DER SPIEGEL

The lieutenant has diligently listed all his battalion's hardships on a colorful piece of paper. Targeted inventory of five-ton trucks: 22. Actual number available: 5. Number that are operational: 4. Targeted inventory of 15-ton trucks: 50. Actual number available: 20. Number that are operational: 14. And the list goes on.

Of the 117 night-vision goggles the unit is supposed to have, only 17 exist. The battalion doesn't even have its own command post and has to make do with borrowed desks, chairs and tents. It has no mobile accommodations. When it conducts exercises, the unit is forced to scrounge from five similar battalions spread out across the country.

The Cold War isn't returning. The time in which massive armies faced off against each other, bristling with weapons, has passed, and thinking in the old categories is outdated. No country is going to attack another with vast tank armies along a broad front. That much is certain. But that's also where the certainty ends. "Symmetrical opponents still present a potential threat to national territory," states a recently produced, classified "collection of thoughts" from the German Defense Ministry on the "character" of national and alliance defense. "But it is no longer possible for a symmetrical threat to be maintained along the entire eastern border of the NATO treaty region."

As such, operations of opponent's conventional armed forces could be "embedded within a highly agile, hybrid overall strategy." In layman's terms, that means that a limited, armed attack would be combined with cyberattacks and a massive disinformation campaign. What can the West do to defend itself against such an offensive?

This new complexity requires new capabilities. Armies must have sufficient agility to enable rapid deployment, they must be flexible, strong and be able to deal with all levels of military escalation. When it comes to the question as to whether tanks or cyberweapons will be decisive in future conflicts, the answer is both.

Better Cooperation Needed in Europe

Germany will play a decisive role in NATO's realignment. As a large country at the center of the Continent, Germany is to become a logistical hub, upon which the credibility of the deterrence ultimately hinges.

At the same time, Germany will also be one of the primary providers of troops. Berlin has promised NATO that Germany will establish three deployable army divisions, each with eight brigades, in three stages by 2032 -- a significant strengthening of the country's armed forces. Some of the associated structures are already in place today, but they are largely hollow.

The Bundeswehr already offers other European armies opportunities for linking up. The Czech Republic, for example, has embedded one of its brigades within the Bundeswehr's 10th Armored Division in Veitshöchheim near Würzburg. And the Romanian army is cooperating with the German army's Rapid Forces Division in Stadtallendorf. Meanwhile, in Münster, the Ninth Armored Demonstration Brigade is preparing to assume command of NATO's Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, or "spearhead force," in 2019, which must be capable of deployment within a matter of days in an emergency. Five other nations are also participating.

It would make sense to continue developing a more effective division of labor between Europe's armies. Why, for example, does Slovenia maintain its own air force, made up of nine aircraft, when the country is forced to mothball its expensive armored howitzers because it lacks the personnel to operate them?

Why does the Czech Republic spend such a large share of its military budget on leasing payments for Swedish Gripen fighter jets when NATO would be just fine without them? Why don't Slovenia and the Czech Republic instead concentrate on military capabilities that might actually be useful to the alliance? Germany could assume responsibility for monitoring the airspace of both countries -- it wouldn't be a problem. But it is unlikely that such a thing will happen anytime soon.

Relinquishing elements of one's own military is also an issue of national prestige and sovereignty which is, of course, a struggle for all European countries, including Germany. It would make sense for Germany, for example, to eliminate its mountain infantry and instead rely on Austria or Slovenia, which are equally capable in this area.

The spirit of community, however, doesn't extend that far, not even in Berlin. In the case of mountain infantry, Horst Seehofer, the powerful governor of Bavaria, which is home to the largest stretch of the German Alps, stands in the way. And although it does make sense to have deeper political and military integration, that doesn't mean savings. For Germany, things would most likely get more expensive because, as the leading nation, it would have to provide a large share of the infrastructure that would then be shared with its NATO partners.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen wants to invest 130 billion euros over the next 13 years just to provide the Bundeswehr with the material and equipment it currently needs. The pledge to NATO to set up three deployable divisions by 2032 will cost even more.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 21/2017 (May 20, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

Right now, no one is saying how great the expense might be. Sources in the Defense Ministry point out that the planning period is too long to provide reliable estimates and that it isn't possible to predict technological developments. It is possible, however, that Germany will indeed ultimately spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) for these troops.

Is that price too high? It would certainly be cheaper to find a political agreement with Russia. That, though, can only happen if both Putin and NATO are serious about it. And the idea that strength and an easing of tensions are not mutually exclusive is no novelty to the alliance.

In 1967, then-Belgian Foreign Minister Pierre Harmel drafted a paper for NATO in which he implored all member states to improve their relations with Moscow. But he also noted that this could only work if the alliance was able to simultaneously demonstrate its military strength. Today, the paper is seen as a model for the kind of détente that is currently necessary between the East and the West.

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