Boundary of Brotherhood: NATO’s Commitment to Eastern Stability Amidst War

NATO’s primary objective as a defence alliance is to protect the security of its member states from external enemies. Therefore, defending NATO’s borders has always been one of the important objectives of the North Atlantic Alliance. NATO armies have, however, in recent years, been preparing for a more counterinsurgency style of warfare, precisely because of the frequency of terrorist attacks and the quite large number of radical movements around the world. However, on February 24, 2022, the army of the Russian Federation launched an invasion of Ukraine. This event shocked most of Europe drastically, showing the need to increase the defence of the eastern border of the North Atlantic Alliance against a possible aggressor that was now located, so close to their border. As a result, NATO had to make the biggest changes to its defence plans since the Cold War.

The eastern border is becoming a priority for most member states, and many European states are changing their defence and security strategies. The re-strengthening of NATO’s defence capabilities has shown that most member states have severely underfunded their militaries in recent years, leading to an overall weakening of collective defence capabilities. However, underfunding of the military was not the only problem that NATO member states faced in their defence, for example, there was also an overdependence on Russian oil or gas. Fortunately, member states have responded relatively quickly to the emerging threats, increasing their military and defence budgets, and dealing with other problems as well. So, the strengthening of NATO’s eastern border is still underway. However, how has the strengthening of the border developed so far and what is still planned?

Development of border defence

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, fears have begun to emerge that the Russian Federation could quite easily also seize the Baltic States before NATO could respond effectively. This fear was only fuelled by the relatively narrow strip connecting Poland with Lithuania, and therefore Estonia and Latvia. These three Baltic states could therefore be cut off from their allies relatively easily in the event of an invasion. That is why in 2016, at the Warsaw Summit, the eastern NATO member states called for a reinforcement of the eastern border because of the great instability. NATO heeded this request and since 2017, 4 NATO international bases have been established in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and the United States have supported the bases with their presence. This has provided an initial boost to allied presence and defence.

In addition to the construction of the base itself, large-scale military exercises were planned, ensuring sufficient equipment for the initial defence of the region.  Some states went even further, such as Poland, which immediately increased its military budget. (Demonstrating their drive to become the strongest army in Europe, which they continue to do to this day.) Some states, on the other hand, did not share these concerns about a possible attack even after 2014 but rather continued to focus their priorities on counterterrorism or migration-related issues. Thus, it was only in 2022 that the need to strengthen the defence of the eastern border became fully apparent.

Simultaneous strengthening

By 2022, it was immediately clear to all NATO member states what needed to be done. Strengthening the eastern border became a clear primary objective and plans were set in motion. In addition to the four existing defence bases, four more were immediately established in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia. In addition to the additional bases, the existing bases were also expanded. The NATO summit in Madrid in 2022 decided that the bases would be increased from battalion to brigade size. This doubled the number of troops ready for immediate defence. The number of immediately ready troops need not be huge, but it must be large enough to be able to defend itself before reinforcements arrive from the west. There should be about 200,000 soldiers in the first ready line. In the first days, therefore, troops from the Baltic States Poland and Norway are mainly envisaged. In the second line, troops from countries like Germany or the Czech Republic would arrive to help. The final number of troops estimated for the defence in the first stages of the attack is around 300,000.

The bases would be rotated with troops from neighbouring countries and other countries on a voluntary system. This system is based on a sustainable and regular rotation of troops. The groups would cooperate fully with the armies in the host countries, with the understanding that they must be combat-ready at all times. Even though the troop rotation system at the bases is the same, the bases are not and will not be identical. Bases must continue to evolve according to their geographic location and the threats that come to them. The size of the bases and the equipment that will be on them are determined on that basis. However, the reinforcement of the eastern border is not only on the shoulders of these bases; along with the bases, NATO’s naval presence in the region has also increased, especially thanks to the UK, the US and even Turkey.

These bases and the overall increase in NATO activity must demonstrate a readiness to defend member states, deter a potential aggressor, and show that attacking the region is not worthwhile. Rather than completely deterring an attack, the role of the bases is merely to delay the attack until the main NATO force is in place. Yet these bases must be able to defend themselves against a possible attack for something between 10 and one month more or less on their own. For the Baltic states, the threat comes directly from Russia and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Another problem is Belarus, which Russia could also easily use for a possible attack. These forward bases need to be equipped with the most advanced technology that will be able to counterbalance the smaller number of defending soldiers against a possible outnumbered attacker. It is because of modern technology that these bases will be able to independently defend for so long. This is one of the reasons why the Baltic States in particular are trying to push for an increase in defence budgets among the Member States, even to 3% of GDP.

Strategic Implications

NATO has just over 3 million troops and 2 million of them are on the European continent. Most of these troops are, of course, in their home countries. Europe is, however, a relatively small continent and, in the event of an attack, mobilisation across the continent could take place relatively quickly. In this context, joint exercises by NATO countries on their collective defence, preparedness and coordination capabilities have become even more widespread. One of the major coordination exercises was Loyal Leda 2024, organised by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Land Forces Command (LANDCOM). This exercise involved, particularly Central European NATO members and helped to gain new experience and test new regional defence plans of the Alliance.

Many people speculate that Russia would eventually invade the Baltic states, or possibly other countries, after the war in Ukraine is over and then further prepare the military for another invasion. So, in that regard, there is speculation about the estimated years 2035 to 2040 and perhaps longer if the NATO states could be in direct danger. However, the attack on Ukraine in 2022 alone has shown a certain unpredictability in Russian behaviour that is likely to continue. It is because of this fact that the entire security of the eastern border needs to be completed as quickly as possible and further developed.

Overall, however, it can be said that the war in Ukraine has helped to some extent to find unity and some clear common goals for the future. More or less all NATO states have agreed on the need to strengthen the eastern border, and it has brought some states closer together. For example, the relationship between Lithuania and Germany has become strong, thanks to the Lithuanian base as well. It is also the sending of German troops to these eastern bases that is the first long-term deployment of the German army since World War II. Also not to be forgotten is the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO, which also need protection from Russian influence.

As far as the Baltic States are concerned, Estonia and Latvia, where there is a large number of Russians, are in the greatest danger. This, in my opinion, could be used by Russia for a possible attack. They would argue about why they invaded the country in the first place. The argument would become something like the right to defend the Russians. But the large Russian population could also to some internal attempts to destabilize the states before the invasion, and thus achieve their weakening.

Possible views

At the moment NATO is solving the problem of whether it is smarter to build more bases close to the borders of the Russian Federation or to build more bases further away. The advantage of more distant bases would be the ability to prepare more troops at once in the event of an attack and have more time to react. On the other hand, bases right on the border could immediately confront the enemy and delay his advance more. This problem is also compounded by the fact that if it were decided to build more bases in countries like Poland or the Czech Republic, there would have to be sufficient support from the citizens of that country. Which in the Czech Republic, for example, could forestall a potential problem in the future. However, the building of additional bases is currently only a concept and NATO’s focus at the moment is on the complete building of the eight bases.

In addition to strengthening the eastern border, NATO should also turn at least some of its attention to the northern border. With the addition of Sweden and Finland, NATO has expanded again, and a possible attack from the north may not be entirely impossible either. But the fact is that both Sweden and Finland are countries with advanced militaries that were able to defend their borders before joining the North Atlantic Alliance. It is the addition of these Nordic states to NATO that will also help the Baltic region more in its security.

Future development

At present, the main purpose of the bases on the eastern border is to demonstrate the determination of Member States to honour their commitments and defend all Member States. Rather, the bases serve to show the Russian Federation that NATO is serious about its defence. In practice, bases on the border would only slow down the enemy rather than completely halt or suppress its advance. Slowing them down, however, is what is expected of these bases, and it is enough because they must buy time to mobilize the main forces of the North Atlantic Alliance as quickly as possible. Simply put, the primary goal of the bases is more likely to be preemption, with direct defence as a secondary goal. Nevertheless, NATO should continue to make progress in securing the eastern border, which currently appears to be most under threat. Nevertheless, the strengthening of the eastern border should not be at the expense of the defence of other parts of NATO as well, as these are currently tense times globally and it is therefore necessary for NATO to be prepared from all directions.

If we address the question of building more bases here and where I think they should be built both right on the border and in more remote environments. I believe that more international bases built in this way will help both to show a determination to defend all member states and a certain readiness against any attack, and it will also help to bring the various armies together into a functional unit. However, certain questions arise here. What about political will? How will the citizens of each country feel about this? How would these bases be financed? In my view, we need to start addressing these issues upfront. Most of the member states have increased their military spending, so some well-designed budgets could raise funds for more joint bases. As far as the will of the citizens to support this is concerned, there is a need to arouse and foster some feelings of patriotism in the people and to constantly show how NATO membership and the building of more bases will help their security.

The current state of strengthening the importance of the North Atlantic Alliance and the eastern borders needs to be further developed. At present, NATO is the most united in recent times, although there are some exceptions, such as the attitude of Hungary or even Turkey towards the Russian Federation. However, it is necessary to continue to maintain unity. Nevertheless, in my opinion, this maintenance will not be easy for NATO in the future, because everything can be changed by the upcoming elections in the various NATO countries, and therefore we could see rapid reversals in politics in the future, as was the case, for example, with Slovakia. However, that is why it is necessary at the present time to show the citizens of the member countries the security benefits that NATO brings to the countries.



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Written by Jan Šenfeld