A Tranquilizer with a Scent of Gunpowder
No. 4 2017 October/December
Prokhor Yu. Tebin

PhD in Political Science
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies
International Military-Political and Military-Economic Problems
Section Head


SPIN-RSCI: 3561-6090
ORCID: 0000-0001-6516-4581
ResearcherID: HMV-1575-2023
Scopus AuthorID: 57798416300

The Balance between Russian and NATO Forces in Eastern Europe

The reunification of Russia and Crimea led to the most serious decline in Russia’s relations with the United States and NATO in recent history. The events in Crimea prompted NATO to intensify its military activities in Eastern Europe—a trend that continues to this day. It is therefore necessary to examine this process to determine the nature of the military threats it poses to Russia’s national security.


The events of February-March 2014 came as a great shock. The speed and stealth of the operation caught NATO by surprise, as was admitted most notably by Major General Gordon Davis, the then-Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations and Intelligence of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.

This was largely the result of Washington’s sharp drop in demand for military and political expertise on Russia after the end of the Cold War and the consequent general decline in that area of interest. Of course, the U.S. still has many capable Russia specialists, but their ranks have thinned as interest in the study of China and international terrorism has grown. U.S. military experts with expertise on Russia have focused primarily on nuclear disarmament and missile defense issues.

Washington and Brussels further compromised their ability to gain an objective understanding of the situation by backing themselves into an “ideological trap” through adherence to double standards and a departure from interpreting international processes from the perspective of pragmatic political realism. The West referred to its military interventions in Yugoslavia, Kosovo, and Libya as humanitarian operations and a struggle for democratic values, but branded Moscow’s operations in Georgia as military aggression.

The Baltic countries actively contributed to the ideologically driven and extremely negative perception of Russia among NATO member countries. With no significant military, economic, or expert resources of their own, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia broadcast their own exaggerated fears of Russia and do everything in their power to enlist the support of the U.S. and other leading NATO member countries.

Many experts from NATO member countries viewed the operation in Crimea as an example of a successfully implemented fait accompli strategy and as an indication of Russia’s readiness to conduct preemptive operations aimed at changing the status quo, even at the cost of a resultant long-term crisis.

The spate of studies, such as a recent analysis by the RAND Corporation, point out NATO’s unpreparedness for what they see as a possible Russian large-scale military invasion of the Baltic countries. One such study describes Russia’s strategy as an attempt “to demonstrate NATO’s inability to protect its most vulnerable members and divide the alliance, reducing the threat it presents from Moscow’s point of view.” At the same time, the study offers no rationale for why Moscow would be willing to initiate an open conflict with NATO or directly challenge Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty for the sake of such a goal.

The threat of Russian aggression provides an excellent opportunity for NATO institutions to mobilize, strengthen, and enhance the role of the Alliance; enables the Baltic countries to boost their own importance and develop deeper economic and other ties with the U.S. and other NATO members; makes it possible for the United States European Command to augment its status and the scope of resources available to it; gives the Pentagon a substantially new and more politically convenient argument for increasing its budget than the threat posed by China; and enables the White House to strengthen U.S. influence in Europe and to finally induce its European allies to assume a greater share of the cost of ensuring collective security.

It is worth noting in this regard the imbalance within the NATO bloc between those who supply and those who “consume” security. The U.S. remains the primary supplier of security within NATO, and it successfully uses the worries and fears of the Baltic countries and Norway, the main security “consumers,” to achieve its foreign policy goals in Europe, including its objective of deterring Russia.


In response to events in Crimea, the U.S. and NATO adopted a number of measures in 2014–2016 aimed at containing a perceived threat from Russia. Former U.S. President Barack Obama launched the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) in early June 2014. Washington’s initial goal with the ERI was to demonstrate to its NATO allies, primarily in Central and Eastern Europe, its commitment to ensuring their security and territorial integrity. The ERI focused on five main areas of increased U.S. involvement:

  • the build-up of the U.S. military presence,
  • increased training and exercises,
  • pre-positioned equipment,
  • infrastructure,
  • building partner capacity.

The spending on the ERI in the U.S. military budget for 2017 was greatly expanded. The task of “reassurance” was augmented by that of deterrence, for which it was decided to finance a number of measures aimed directly at mounting a rapid reaction in a hypothetical event of Russian aggression. Whereas the ERI budget in 2015 stood at $985 million and for 2016 at $790 million, the budget for 2017 more than quadrupled to $3.4 billion. Spending to build up military presence more than doubled, exceeding $1 billion, but the main growth stemmed from a $1.9 billion outlay for enhancing the prepositioning of U.S. combat equipment in Europe. This is a sharp increase as compared to the less than $200 million allocated towards that goal in 2015 and 2016.

Spending on the U.S. Army is the largest single expense of the ERI, reaching 83% of the total in 2017, up from 64% in 2016 and 45% in 2015. The ERI budget for 2017 provides funding for the combat service of 5,100 military personnel in Europe, 97% of which are U.S. Army military personnel.

The ERI sets out to strengthen significantly the presence of the U.S. Army in Europe. As of May 2016, 25,000 U.S. Army troops were stationed in Europe, 21,000 of whom served directly under the EUCOM. These forces are mainly concentrated in Germany (2nd Cavalry Regiment, 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command (with the SAM Patriot) and in Italy (the 173rd Airborne Brigade).

In 2016, the decision was made within the framework of the ERI to supplement these forces with one U.S. rotational heavy armored brigade combat team (ABCT) in Eastern Europe. This ABCT is composed of more than 3,500 military personnel and approximately 2,500 pieces of military equipment, including 87 tanks. It will be stationed primarily in Poland, with individual units stationed in the Baltic countries, Romania, Bulgaria, and Germany. The ABCT additionally includes an Army aviation brigade with approximately 2,200 military personnel and 86 helicopters based primarily in Germany. Interestingly, official documents describe the armored combat brigade as serving the function of “reassurance,” while the aviation brigade is charged with deterrence.

It is worth noting that the U.S. withdrew its 17th and 172nd infantry brigades from Europe in 2012–2013, meaning that the current build-up essentially substitutes one armored and one aviation brigades for those that were in place prior to 2012.

The ERI has had much less impact on the presence of the U.S. Air Force in Europe. The ERI budget for 2017 envisioned a temporary suspension of plans to eliminate the 493rd Fighter Squadron with its 20 F-15C aircraft based in Lakenheath, UK. The U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) currently have six fighter squadrons—three in the 48th Fighter Wing in the UK, one in the 52nd Wing in Germany, and two in the 31st Wing in Italy. The USAFE also includes one squadron of KC-135 Stratotankers in the UK (part of the 100th Wing) and one squadron of C-130 Super Hercules military transport aircraft (as part of the 86th Wing of military transport aviation).

The ERI does not call for a build-up of the naval presence in Europe. In its area of responsibility, the U.S. Sixth Fleet has only five permanent ships—its flagman, the USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20) based in Italy and four destroyers deployed in Spain as part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach for missile defense. Other U.S. Navy ships also rotate through the Sixth Fleet’s zone of responsibility. The aircraft carrier strike group that constitutes the backbone of the U.S. fleet maintains a very limited presence in the region, usually only passing through as it moves between the Fifth Fleet and the continental U.S. The number and movements of U.S. submarines in the region remain secret.

As mentioned above, the creation of prepositioned forces accounts for most of the increase in the ERI budget. Current plans call for deploying such forces in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and possibly Poland, and for forming two ABCTs, logistical support brigades, and artillery brigades. During a crisis or period of threat, these reserves would enable the U.S. to deploy fairly quickly a division-sized unit of its 4th Infantry Division based in Germany that can operate in high intensity conflicts.

The ERI also contains numerous and varied individual measures for enhancing the Air Force (such as modernizing airfield infrastructure and creating aviation munitions reserves), reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as special operations forces. These are largely aimed at preventing a surprise invasion by Russia.

At the same time, similar measures are implemented within the framework of NATO. A decision reached at the NATO summit in Wales in September 2014 resulted in developing a Readiness Action Plan. In particular, a decision was made to significantly strengthen the NATO Response Force by expanding its ranks to 40,000 troops and to create, within that formation, a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) capable of deploying within 48-72 hours.

The VJTF will consist of 20,000 troops, including a multinational land brigade of 5,000 men. The VJTF will also be supplemented with two multinational brigades that require more time to deploy, and with various command and logistical elements, air and naval forces, and Special Operations Forces. Small command elements called NATO Force Integration Units were created in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the Baltic countries, Hungary, and Slovakia in order to facilitate the deployment of the NATO Response Force in the event of a crisis, and to coordinate actions between national armed forces, including periods of training maneuvers.

The exact composition and actual battle readiness of the NATO Reaction Force and the VJTF remain unknown. However, considering their multinational character and the attendant organizational and logistical difficulties that ensue, the battle effectiveness of the Reaction Force and the VJTF is probably lower than what analogous forces composed of troops from a single country could possess.

At its Warsaw summit in July 2016, NATO adopted a number of additional measures to combat the notorious “Russian threat.” As part of the Enhanced Forward Presence program, it was decided to deploy four multinational battalions in Poland and the Baltic countries. The United States will be responsible for deploying to Poland while the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany are tasked with deploying to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania respectively.

Those forces total approximately 4,000–5,000 personnel. In the event of a major conflict, the small size and locations of these battalions would reduce their military importance and leave them vulnerable when carrying out preventive or pre-emptive strikes. Rather, they play primarily a political role by demonstrating the presence of multinational forces in the Baltic countries and NATO’s willingness to uphold Article 5 of its Treaty.

NATO intensified its training maneuvers in 2015-2016. The Noble Jump 2015 exercises held in June of that year, in which approximately 2,000 troops from nine countries took part, included efforts at streamlining the deployment of the VJTF.

Trident Juncture, major military maneuvers conducted in October-November 2015, rehearsed mechanisms for deploying both the VJTF and the NATO Rapid Response Force. Those exercises were held in Spain, Italy, and Portugal, with the participation of approximately 36,000 personnel, four multinational brigades, approximately 190 aircraft, and about 70 ships and submarines.

Poland also conducted its own Anaconda Exercise in June 2016 in which 31,000 military personnel, including 14,000 U.S. and 12,000 Polish troops, participated.


The U.S. and NATO have been intensifying their military operations in Europe, and individual NATO member states have announced decisions to increase their military spending.

According to official estimates, NATO defense expenditures totaled approximately $921 billion. The United States paid the lion’s share of that sum, contributing 72% of the total. Only three other members of the NATO bloc spend more than $40 billion annually on defense—the United Kingdom ($56.8 billion), France ($44.2 billion), and Germany ($41.7 billion). Together, they contribute 15.5% towards overall NATO defense expenditures. Another four countries—Italy, Canada, Turkey, and Spain—spend at least $10 billion on defense:  $22.1 billion, $15.5 billion, $12 billion, and $11.2 billion, respectively, meeting 6.6% of all expenses. The remaining NATO member countries combined contributed less than 6% to the total cost.

Canada and all European NATO member countries except the UK reduced their annual military spending by 1-3% in 2009-2014. According to data for 2016, among key countries, in absolute terms, only the U.S. and the UK met the requirement to allocate not less than 2% of GDP for defense purposes. Among key NATO countries, in terms of military spending, only the U.S., the UK, France, Italy, and Turkey fulfilled their obligation to devote at least 20% of their total military outlays to the purchase of arms and military equipment.

At the NATO summit in Wales, it was decided that members of the bloc failing to comply with the military and arms procurement spending requirements would stop cutting back those expenses and would strive to meet the 2% / 20% requirement by 2024. And indeed, spending did increase by 0.5% in 2015 and by 3.8% in 2016.

The Donald Trump administration is trying to persuade Washington’s NATO allies to meet the 2% of GDP military spending requirement. Given that the European NATO countries currently spend 1.47% of their combined GDP on defense, or $241.8 billion, delivering on that pledge would mean a 36% larger outlay, or an additional $87 billion at current GDP levels. Germany would have to provide the largest share of that increase by expanding its military budget by 67%, or by $28 billion to meet this goal. If it does so, it would place second after the U.S. in terms of military spending within NATO. As for the other key countries, France, Italy, Turkey, Spain, and Canada would have to increase their military spending by 12% ($5.3 billion), 80% ($17.7 billion), 18% ($2.2 billion), 122% ($13.7 billion), and 96% ($14.9 billion), respectively.

By comparison, Russia’s military spending in 2016 totaled approximately 3.8 trillion rubles, or about $63 billion. That figure accounts for 4.5% of Russia’s GDP, but it includes 800 billion rubles ($13 billion) that represent the 1% of GDP that the state allocated to repay loans incurred by companies of the military-industrial complex. Excluding these significant expenses, Russia’s military budget equals only 5.4% of the total military expenditures of NATO member countries. Moreover, while NATO is striving to increase its military spending, Russia plans to maintain its level of spending at 2.7-2.8 trillion rubles per year.

The disproportion becomes even more manifest between NATO’s planned increase in military spending and the decrease in the intensity of Russia’s military development associated with the completion of major programs to modernize and upgrade its Armed Forces.

On December 12, 2017, Donald Trump signed the defense policy bill for 2018, setting military expenditures at a record high of $692 billion over the past ten years. This is a significant increase since last year when the defense budget was $619 as Barack Obama sought to gradually cut military spending.

The budget allocates $4.6 billion for containing Russia as part of the European Deterrence Initiative. Its purpose is to bolster NATO allies’ confidence and strengthen the U.S. military capabilities in Europe. This is more than the U.S. spends on missile defense and the deployment of additional interceptor missiles in the west of the country against North Korea ($4.4 billion).      

$4.6 billion is not enough to start a full-scale war, but enough to intensify Russia’s anxiety. The U.S. is now trying to buy new allies which would legitimize its superpower status and do what they can to ruin that of Russia.

If the Congress passes the bill and if the U.S. actually jacks up defense spending, it would make sense to increase the number of military personnel.

The U.S. Armed Forces have been functioning under increased operational load over the past 15 years. That is the result of maintaining the global presence and participating in numerous operations, of which those in Iraq and Afghanistan are merely the largest. Other factors also contribute to this situation:

  • the long-term impact of sharp cuts made in the 1990s in military spending and the procurement of arms and military equipment;
  • restrictions on military expenditures imposed in the 2010s;
  • a number of major programs that were completed only after significant cost overruns and delays (such as the F-35 fighter aircraft or the new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier);
  • a number of major programs which, after receiving considerable resources, were shelved or scaled back substantially (such as the construction of Zumwalt-class destroyers);
  • the need for very costly modernization of strategic nuclear forces (with a price tag of up to $400 billion in 2017–20126, of which the Defense Department will have to pay $267 billion).

As Deputy U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Work stated last December, the Pentagon will have to spend approximately $88 billion annually in additional outlays in the coming years (approximately 16% above the basic Fiscal Year 2017 military budget, excluding overseas operations) in order to restore the combat capability of the Armed Forces, and for a number of other priority measures. Expanding the numerical strength of the Armed Forces would require an even more substantial outlay. That is why, for the U.S., greater military spending by its European allies and Canada would ease some of the financial burden on its own military budget—especially considering that Europe remains the third highest priority in Washington’s military-political strategy, after the Middle East and the Western Pacific. It is noteworthy that experts at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA) suggest that the Western Pacific should be the top priority for the U.S. military build-up, followed by Europe and the Middle East.


Russia has actively developed its Armed Forces in recent years. Priority areas include the Arctic and Crimea, but it has built up its military contingent most intensively in the southwest, on the border with Ukraine, as well. There, Russia has augmented existing brigades with three new motorized infantry divisions: the 144th in the Smolensk and Bryansk regions, the 3rd in the Voronezh and Belgorod regions, and the 150th in the Rostov region. It also renewed the 1st Armored and 8th Combined Arms armies in Odintsovo and Novocherkassk, respectively, and the command for the 20th Combined Arms Army has been returned to Voronezh.

The reasons for this process are obvious: until recently, Russia had only very limited forces on its border with Ukraine. Now, given the strained relations with the current authorities in Kiev and the continuing conflict in Donbass, Moscow must take measures to shield this strategically important area and to create the capacity to respond in the event of a crisis.

The forces in other military districts are also undergoing reorganization. For example, the 90th Armored Division was restored in the Chelyabinsk region of the Central Military District, and the 42nd Motorized Infantry Division in the Chechen Republic of the Southern Military District. It should be emphasized that many of these decisions are aimed at halting the reduction and reorganization of the Armed Forced caused by the military reforms of the late 2000s and early 2010s rather than at building up military strength. The reasons for this are also clear: the Ukraine crisis and Moscow’s disappointment with the failure of the “reset” in Russian-U.S. relations.

In contrast to its active military build-up in the south and the north, Russia has shown a noticeable lack of desire to strengthen its military presence in the immediate vicinity of the Baltic countries, that is, in the Novgorod, Pskov, and Kaliningrad regions, planning no significant reinforcement of its forces there. Combat strength remains at approximately the same level there, with the exception of certain reorganizational measures.

For instance, the command structure for 11th Army Corps and the 7th Motorized Artillery Guards Regiment was reassigned the status of brigade. Rearming and re-equipment of forces in the three regions of Northwest Russia has been proceeding very slowly. The poor condition of the Baltic Fleet deserves mention here. Nearly every Baltic Fleet commander has been dismissed, including Commander Vice Admiral Victor Kravchuk who was fired in June 2016 for “serious shortcomings in the organization of military training and daily operations of the troops.” It is difficult to imagine that Moscow could be planning to start a conflict with NATO given such a state of affairs in one of the key elements of Russia’s military system in the northwest of the country.

Belarus is another factor. Minsk currently maintains an ambivalent position, in both political and military terms. On the one hand, Russia and Belarus enjoy close political and economic ties. Minsk generally follows Moscow’s military and political strategy and shares its concerns over NATO activities, as Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov noted in a recent speech. On the other hand, Minsk tries to pursue an independent foreign policy, avoiding open confrontation with the West while refusing to extend unconditional support for Moscow. This is particular manifest in its unwillingness to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, its very cautious stance on the issue of Crimea, and its occasional disagreements with Russia.

Moreover, Russia does not have a significant military presence in Belarus, maintaining only a Volga-type radar missile-warning system and a naval communications center there. Plans to create a Russian air base in Belarus have not been implemented.

Despite this, the West considers Belarus a Russian ally and a strategically important staging area for deployment in the event of hypothetical invasion of the Baltic States. The West’s logic is that Belarus could participate directly in such an invasion, using its forces in combination with those in Russia’s Kaliningrad to take control of the so-called Suwalki Gap, thereby cutting off the Baltic countries from the rest of Europe.

In fact, Belarus does serve as a buffer zone between Russia and NATO, and changing the status quo would be highly disadvantageous for both sides. Brussels would undoubtedly view the deployment of a large Russian contingent in Belarus as a direct threat. For its part, Russia would find it completely unacceptable if Minsk breaks off relations with Moscow or, conversely, if NATO applies military and political pressure on Belarus.

Central Asia and the Far East are of only secondary concern, whereas Ukraine, the Arctic, and Crimea are currently Russia’s top priorities for developing its Armed Forces. It is the latter three that the Russian leadership considers the main objects of its national security threats and where it feels its military capabilities are lacking. Moscow has made it very clear that it does not want any further deterioration of relations with NATO, much less a military conflict with the bloc. However, the measures adopted by NATO and the U.S.—including the ERI, the staging of major military exercises close to Russia’s borders, and the decision by NATO’s European member countries to increase military spending significantly—heighten the security threat to Russia in general and to the Kaliningrad exclave in particular.

Despite the increase in NATO activity, the level of risk remains low at present. The decision to place pre-positioned military equipment in Europe was something of a compromise. It permitted the U.S. to increase its military potential in the region and ease the concerns of its European allies at relatively low cost while creating far less of a threat for Russia than deployment of a full division of its forces would have done. The current U.S. presence in Europe is comparable to that in 2011.

At the same time, plans by NATO’s European member countries to increase military spending could exacerbate tensions between Russia and the Alliance even further. However, many questions remain open: Will military spending actually increase, and if so, to what extent? How would such an increase change the structure of the Armed Forces of the leading NATO member countries in Europe? To what extent would an increase in spending enhance the combat capability and readiness of NATO forces? Could the NATO countries interact effectively in the eastern region?

Nonetheless, if the U.S. and NATO continue to step up their activity near Russia’s borders, this could increase the level of threat to Russia. Yet this is precisely what some experts are calling on Washington to do. For example, representatives of the RAND Corporation claim that NATO is “unprepared” for war with Russia on the territory of the Baltic countries and propose that the U.S. and NATO deploy substantial additional military contingents of up to 21 brigades, in addition to artillery and aviation.

Were that to happen, Russia would have to take extra measures to ensure the security of its northwestern borders. As a result, Russia and NATO would wind up as hostages of a security dilemma, and the risk of conflict would rise, instead of fading away completely. Moscow is trying to prevent this, but it is not willing to go so far as to abandon all efforts to parry threats to its own security, including those connected with Ukraine. Furthermore, the status of Crimea is entirely non-negotiable. The failure to understand this and NATO’s reluctance to hold pragmatic negotiations with Moscow could lead to a number of problems for Europe.

Yet the situation is far from critical. Chief of the Russian General Staff, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov maintains contact with U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General John Dunford. Intensified dialogue between Russian and NATO military officials and diplomats could facilitate an easing of tensions and make it possible to reach a mutually beneficial solution to existing problems.

This article is a shortened and revised version of the paper written for the Valdai International Discussion Club. The original copy published in July 2017 is available at: http://valdaiclub.com/a/valdai-papers/valdai-paper-70-a-tranquilizer-with-a-scent-of-gun/