By A. Wess Mitchell

More than any place on earth, Europe has symbolized America’s ability to stabilize and transform troubled regions in the modern era. This success has rested on two foundations: deterrence and integration. By extending the U.S. nuclear and conventional security umbrella into the historic crush zone between the Baltic and Black Seas, U.S. policy suppressed geopolitical competition within Europe after a century of both hot and cold war. By encouraging the spread of Western institutions through the enlargement of the European Union and NATO, that same regional policy helped to create a zone of peace that soothed national rivalries and provided a partner to the United States in managing the global order. With the 20th century’s hotspot thus all but eliminated as a zone of geostrategic concern, the United States could turn its attention to the Middle East and Western Pacific.

Both deterrence and integration are now in jeopardy. The first faces the challenge of a re-emergent and creatively predatory Russia; the second is a victim of perennial squabbles and divergent strategic interests within Europe. By degrees, Europe is turning from a centerpiece of global stability to an engine of crisis. This is dangerous for the United States. Coming at a moment when America faces increased competition from revisionist powers elsewhere, Europe’s dual crisis threatens to unravel the peace of Europe, undermining the Western democratic order and diminishing the value to the United States of important allies. The conditions now exist for a military confrontation in Europe’s East that, if fought tomorrow, NATO might lose. The next Administration must re-stabilize Europe and rebuild U.S. alliances there as one of its highest foreign policy priorities.

The conditions now exist for a military confrontation in Europe’s East that, if fought tomorrow, NATO might lose.

As in all regions, U.S. deterrence in Europe is based on two components: the belief among friends and foes that America is able to defend its allies against attack, and the belief that it is determined to do so. Both are doubted in Europe today.

Doubts about American capabilities stem from two factors. First, unlike in other allied regions, the United States has until recently maintained virtually no military presence in frontline NATO states. It has also been cutting back its presence elsewhere on the continent. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military presence in Europe has dropped from more than 300,000 troops to about 60,000. The Obama Administration has accelerated this process, removing 15 bases and the most combat-ready units, including two Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), two air squadrons, and all remaining U.S. heavy armor.

Second, as U.S. capabilities have diminished, those of our rival are increasing. Long discounted as backward, the Russian military under Vladimir Putin has acquired new weapons, absorbed lessons from the Georgia War, and developed hybrid warfighting techniques to effectively counter NATO’s capabilities. The Russian Army now outstrips in size and quality any force between itself and Germany, outnumbering NATO’s CEE militaries combined by 3:1 in men and 6:1 in planes. In the Baltic region, it has a 10:1 edge in troops and maintains air dominance over NATO’s northeastern corner. Backing its conventional forces is a 27:1 advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, rooted in a doctrine of limited strikes for strategic effect. Using these advantages, Putin has boasted he could be in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, or Bucharest in two days. A recent RAND war game concluded that he is correct.[12]

Deterrence is not just physical, but also political in character. While NATO’s eastern and northern members generally see Russia as a threat, its western and southern members mostly do not. Many Polish and Baltic leaders assume that if they were to invoke Article 5 in a crisis, NATO would not be able to summon the requisite consensus to act. A recent Pew Research poll validated their fears, finding that a majority in many West European countries opposes supporting a NATO ally if attacked.[13] Russia understands this disunity. It uses divisive diplomacy to exploit Europe’s cleavages and has crafted limited-war techniques designed to grab land quickly without triggering Article 5.

The United States has contributed to the crisis of deterrence. Until recently, the Obama Administration has pursued what many U.S. allies viewed as an unbalanced courtship of Russia that advanced a narrow definition of Western interests and prioritized diplomatic ties with Moscow over security links with allies. As damaging as the substance of the U.S.-Russia “reset” was its style. Against the backdrop of an early Obama Administration that questioned the value of Cold War-era alliances and pursued personal diplomacy with the Kremlin, the reset seemed both apologetic and freewheeling.[14] The Administration has made headway against this perception. But a lasting impression of the suddenness with which U.S. priorities can shift from one Administration to the next remains, undermining the predictability that is the sine qua non of effective deterrence for any great power.

Even as deterrence is eroding, the primary mechanism that U.S. policy over the years has cultivated to reinforce it—European integration—is stalling. The strategic value of integration to the United States was that it stabilized Europe and offered to extend that stability into abutting regions. It thus strengthened deterrence in two ways: by thickening the political bonds of U.S. allies into a whole that was less susceptible to coercion or invasion, and by promising to pacify Europe’s borderlands.

Integration today is doing neither. The European Union in its current form is capable of performing hardly any of the functions of geopolitical competition, and partly as a result Europe has ceased being a model for other regions. Structurally, it possesses few tools of competition, notably a functionally integrated security force. Politically, it is unwieldy and divisive. Ideologically, it struggles to comprehend conflict and competition. Economically, it is as of late a huge mess, and these economic problems have been the platform upon which all the latent tensions and contradictions of the EU framework have been let loose. Even the less ambitious U.S. hope that Europe’s members would at a minimum not actively undermine each other is proving questionable. Increasingly, the EU’s political crises are distracting attention away from its core value as an economic free trade area, spurring close U.S. allies like Britain to reconsider their membership.

The European Union is also foundering in its effort to pacify Europe’s borderlands. The value of EU eastern policies was that they quieted the zone beyond NATO’s walls with less risk of confrontation than NATO enlargement would provoke. Like Rome’s emissaries to client tribes beyond the frontier in antiquity, they offered to civilize what could not be conquered or otherwise absorbed. By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin put a hard object in the EU’s path—military power—that it has neither the tools nor mindset to confront. The war created a deterrent to reviving the eastern partnership while also planting seeds of future disagreement among the EU’s largest western and eastern members, Germany and Poland, over how to manage growing Russian influence in the East.

Where U.S. diplomats played a leading role in the negotiations that ended Europe’s past frontier wars, they have been conspicuously absent from diplomacy on Ukraine.

Recent U.S. behavior has contributed to this negative dynamic. Where U.S. diplomats played a leading role in the negotiations that ended Europe’s past frontier wars, they have been conspicuously absent from diplomacy on Ukraine. America’s hands-off approach effectively outsourced leadership to the European Union, which in its current state meant outsourcing to Germany. By failing to participate in the Minsk process, the Administration aided Putin’s attempt to fashion a diplomatic template—the Normandy format—that excludes the European Union and the United States and settles eastern disagreements through Russo-German bargaining.

The Minsk process signifies a different order for the “Lands Between” than either the old NATO enlargement model (extending deterrence) or the EU enlargement model (extending integration). It revives the model of great-power settlements that ignore the wishes of smaller actors. It weakens deterrence by signaling U.S. disengagement on what America’s core role in Europe should be: dealing with a predator. It weakens integration by allowing that predator to be handled, not by an entity representing all of Europe’s interests, but by Germany, which does not always have the exposed EU members’ interests at heart.

The erosion of deterrence and integration is generating two sets of problems for the United States. One is the vulnerability of frontline NATO members to attack; the other is a perpetually unsettled frontier for which the West has no obvious solution.

Both problems are grave, but the first is potentially existential. NATO today is highly vulnerable to a sudden Russian military strike aimed at achieving limited territorial gains. Unfavorable force ratios could allow Putin to hold a swath of NATO’s flank hostage to the threat of escalation. Russia’s ability to re-escalate the Ukraine war or ignite other frontier conflicts enables it to dissuade a renewed EU push in the East. Europe’s disunity aids these tactics, offering a mosaic of variously arming, accommodating, or cowering states whose divisions are easy to stoke.

All of this represents a serious danger. Recurrent frontier crises deepen Europe’s paralysis while draining American resources needed elsewhere on the U.S. security perimeter. A deterrence failure in the Baltic that results in an unrepelled attack or stealth land-grab would render NATO meaningless. This would undermine the foundations of security upon which the wider European political order rests and, perhaps worse, undermine the credibility of U.S. deterrence in other rimland regions that share frontline NATO’s vulnerability and proximity to predators.

America will compete at a disadvantage in conditions of contested primacy as long as Europe, the seat of Western strength, is insecure. Stabilizing Europe and rebuilding U.S. alliances there should be a high priority for the next Administration. America’s strategy should be to strengthen deterrence against immediate threats while shoring up the foundations of the European security order to handle renewed geopolitical competition. Four tasks are especially important.

First, we must deter Russian aggression in the Baltic. The highest priority must be to prevent a military attack against any and every NATO member. The next Administration should expand the half-implemented European Reassurance Initiative with an emphasis on increasing U.S. troops, heavy weaponry, and air defenses in Poland and the Baltic States. It should strengthen frontline efforts at conventional deterrence, including by equipping Poland, Romania, and Finland with offensive weapons such as the AGM-158 JASSM and investing in efforts to combat Russian hybrid-warfare and propaganda techniques. It should insist that West European allies contribute to this effort.

Second, we must refocus NATO on territorial defense. Europe’s frontline will remain vulnerable as long as NATO is militarily unbalanced. The next Administration’s biggest goal in Europe should be permanent NATO basing on exposed members’ territory. It should encourage the Alliance to jettison its defense-in-depth posture and embrace a preclusive strategy that raises the costs of aggression at the local level. It should encourage the trend toward greater defense spending among many European states prompted by the Ukraine war, while also giving up on promoting out-of-area capabilities in all but the largest West European states. Territorial defense must return as NATO’s core mission. It should overhaul U.S. nuclear strategy, discontinuing the force reductions of the 2010 nuclear review and focusing particular attention to countering Russian advantages in tactical nuclear weapons.

Third, we must build sub-regional alliances. The next Administration should take a realistic view of the European Union as a valuable institution that deserves U.S. support but is not ready to be a recipient of U.S. security outsourcing. While continuing to engage the European Union on areas of common interest—Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, energy security, and above all Eastern Partnership—it should pursue closer cooperation with sub-regional alliances that possess the skills and common view to deal with Europe’s security crises. In particular, it should promote a miniature military alliance among northeastern NATO states (the NBP9) and organize the Visegrad Four (V4) to support Polish and Baltic requests for permanent basing. The U.S. role in these groupings should go beyond the coalition-of-the-willing format and be systematic, well resourced, and focused on problems in Europe rather than other regions. The United States should form an annual NBP+U.S. Ministerial in defense and an annual V4+U.S. Ministerial on regional diplomacy. It should organize routine military planning and spur collaboration in strategic industries and R&D. The goal should be to foster a corridor of well-armed, tightly knit states that radiate stability in their neighborhood. This task should receive the level of priority that the United States devoted to encouraging the European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s and NATO enlargement in 1990s.

Fourth, we must position ourselves for a “long game” on Ukraine. The next Administration’s goal in the East must be the survival of Ukraine. America should arm Ukraine. But it should also organize the West for the long game in this contest, in much the same way that it did for Germany during the Cold War. The immediate object is to make the Ukrainian rump state an economically viable polity to avoid collapse or state capture. This will require greater Western aid and a strategy for investment and infrastructure. In these tasks the U.S. government should actively encourage EU strategic unity and action. While supporting German leadership in key EU equations, it should be wary of outsourcing eastern diplomacy to Berlin and should be more vocal in pressing Germany to back a revitalized EaP and contribute to NATO’s eastern defenses.

In all of these areas, the measuring stick for future U.S. policy should be “deterrence first”: to judge virtually every action by whether it is likely to strengthen or weaken America’s credibility among allies and rivals. This implies a greater seriousness about Europe than America is lately accustomed to. Unlike either of its past two predecessors, the next Administration must view Europe as an active theater in its own right rather than an area from which to retire or from which to recruit allies for other regions. While accepting the urgency of ISIS and the threat of a rising China, the United States can no longer afford to treat Europe as a post-strategic zone of stability. Rebuilding alliances and restoring American power globally begins in Europe. Taking that task seriously is one of most important things U.S. policymakers can do to put the United States on the right track for restoring order to a disordered century.  

(12) David Ochmanek, presentation of findings from the RAND Baltic Wargame, Center for a New American Security, June 4, 2015.

(13) "NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid", Pew Research Center, June 10, 2015, p. 5.

(14) Note especially President Barack Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 23, 2009, and David Nakamura and Debbi Wilgoren, “Caught on open mike, Obama tells Medvedev he needs ‘space’ on missile defense,” March 26, 2012.