A Show of Resolve In Eastern Europe

The Pentagon is reportedly on the brink of sending heavy military equipment to several Baltic and Eastern European countries, the first such pre-positioning of ground forces since the end of the Cold War.

Polish and Lithuanian officials have confirmed that they are in talks with Washington about the permanent stationing of U.S. battle tanks and other heavy weaponry in the region.

The intent of such a move, if it comes, is to send a message of resolve to nervous allies and to Vladimir Putin that the United States will not stand idly by while Russia commits aggression in the Ukraine and possibly elsewhere.

Although no official statement has been issued yet by the Pentagon or the White House, a telling comment was reported on Sunday from James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and the former supreme allied commander of NATO.

“This is a very meaningful shift in policy,” he said. “It provides a reasonable level of reassurance to jittery allies, although nothing is as good as troops stationed full-time on the ground, of course.”

That last bit was no abstract declamation of strategic doctrine. Stavridis undoubtedly had in mind the request submitted to NATO recently by Baltic countries for permanent assignment of United States troops. For the time being, they’re not getting them, of course.

Whatever reassurance the NATO stockpiling could provide in Warsaw or Vilnius may already have dissolved by Monday when the first reaction came in from Moscow. Russian General Yuri Yakubov told the Interfax news agency that such a move would be considered “the most aggressive step by the Pentagon and NATO” since the Cold War, and would necessitate a boosting of Russia’s forces on its western flank.

Clearly, the West must take measures to deter Russian expansionism in the region. It may well be that only a firm stance, harking back to that of NATO itself during the Cold War, will convince the Kremlin to desist from its newfound aggressiveness.

That is what this unofficially contemplated show of resolve is about. But if that is the policy, then the resolve must be real, and not a show. Or else, the Russians will be tempted to call somebody’s bluff, a very dangerous possibility.

We can only wonder, given the facts on the ground, how firm the resolve could be. American leaders have become accustomed to deriding Russian military power. It has been referred to as “Upper Volta with missiles,” or in the words of Senator John McCain, “a gas station masquerading as a country.”

The Russians, sensitive as ever about their international reputation, are determined to put an end to the snickering. Led by Vladimir Putin, described recently by one analyst as “the hardest of the hard-liners,” Russia has embarked on a longterm military buildup.

The goal is a million active-duty military personnel by 2020, backed up by 2,300 new tanks, some 1,200 new helicopters and planes, 50 new surface ships, 28 submarines, and 100 new satellites to coordinate things.

Regardless of whether their economy can actually support such a buildup, and whether the technical and administrative wherewithal exists to make it a potent reality, it would be foolish to dismiss it as mere rhetoric, as rattling an empty scabbard. Major budgetary allocations are already being made, and recent events in Crimea and Ukraine demonstrate the willingness not just to talk but to act.

In the short term, military sources acknowledge that the amount of hardware being talked about in the NATO buildup is small compared with what Russia could deploy on or near its borders.

Meanwhile, American military personnel have reportedly already conducted site surveys ahead of a significant upgrading of the local infrastructure, of railways and warehouses to move and store all the stuff they’re going to bring.

But again, in a token of America’s well-advertised aversion to the commitment of ground troops, officials assured reporters that weapons warehouses would be guarded by local or security contractors and not by American military personnel.

The dispatch of weapons and equipment being discussed would serve about 5,000 American troops. It recalls the U.S. decision to send the 5,000-man 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade to Vietnam in 1965. The premise then was that the mere sight of armed American resolve to stand by its ally in South Vietnam would deter the communists. Unfortunately, the enemy was far more determined than the Americans, and the consequences of underestimating him were painful in the extreme.

True, Eastern Europe in 2015 is not Vietnam in 1965. The current allies there are presumably far more reliable and motivated to fight off any Russian incursions than the shaky regime in Saigon was. The field of conflict is also a lot closer to home; not so many people will be asking “Where is Poland?” as they asked in 1965, “Where is Vietnam?” The American interest in preserving the integrity of the borders in Eastern Europe from Russian encroachment is far clearer than was the goal of stopping infiltration from North Vietnam.

Thus, the United States and NATO dare not be passive in the face of Russian aggression; they must back up words with action, and not mere gestures.

That being said, it must also be understood that even the most carefully crafted policy will not make the problem go away. As Michael A. McFaul, the American ambassador to Russia until last year, said: “The United States-Russia conflict is not going to be resolved in weeks or months; this challenge will take years, even decades.”

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