During a visit to Estonia on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter made it official: The United States is sending a combat brigade’s worth of tanks, armored vehicles, and other military equipment to six NATO allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. For the first time since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Washington will station heavy weaponry on territory that was once under Moscow’s boot. Along with plans for a new NATO rapid-response force, as well as a series of large-scale military exercises this month, the pre-positioning of equipment in the former Soviet satellites is part of what is being called “the biggest reinforcement of NATO forces since the end of the Cold War.”
To judge from the news coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking America and its allies were revving up for war with Russia.
"US To Send 250 Tanks to Countries Along Russian Border to Respond to Russian Aggression," ran the headline in The Independent. The New York Times reported a "seismic shift" in NATO's reinvigorated plans "to confront a much larger and more aggressive threat from its past: Moscow." The Russian global news channel RT, playing up an interview with the head of Russia's Security Council, ludicrously proclaimed: "US would like Russia to cease to exist as a country."
Let's take a deep breath, shall we? The deployment of US tanks and artillery to the countries involved — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria — is hardly a game-changer. It's a small step in the right direction. But it will take a good deal more to effect a seismic shift. The Pentagon isn't exactly reconstituting Patton's Third Army. The suite of military armor being positioned in the region wouldn't "fill up the parking lot of your average high school," a top military official told The Wall Street Journal, and it will be divided among six countries. All told, there will be equipment for about 150 to 750 soldiers in each country, or a fighting force of no more than 5,000 across NATO's eastern flank. But those troops are theoretical: No American military personnel are being deployed, even though Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia have pleaded for US troops to be stationed on their soil.
In moving military hardware to the Baltics and Eastern Europe, the US and NATO are abandoning what remains of a 1997 agreement to refrain from establishing a permanent military presence in the states bordering Russia. But that agreement was explicitly premised on "the current and foreseeable security environment" — an environment that an ever-more-belligerent Russian regime has thoroughly poisoned in the years since. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and gobbled up two large chunks of that country, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Having gotten away with one rape, it then embarked on another, forcibly annexing Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in 2014, and fomenting a separatist war in eastern Ukraine that has so far killed more than 6,000 people.
The United States and its NATO allies have bent over backward to avoid "provoking" Russia. Missile-defense systems intended for the Czech Republic and Poland were canceled in deference to Moscow's protests. Georgia was barred from joining the Atlantic Alliance; so was Ukraine. And after the Baltic nations entered NATO in 2004, no contingency plans for defending them against attack were drafted for years, for fear the Kremlin might be irked. Only after Putin sent tanks and warplanes against Georgia did NATO begin to rethink that timorous attitude.
NATO's core mission is defensive: Its aim is to deter an attack on its members by giving credible assurance that all will respond if one is harmed. That assurance would have far more credibility if NATO worried less about offending Russia's malevolent ruler. In the face of the allies' irresolution, Putin's demands have grown more extreme, and his attitude more menacing. "If I wanted," he declared, "Russian troops could not only be in Kiev in two days, but in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, or Bucharest, too." Those aren't the words of a peace-seeking statesman. They are the boast of a despot keen to reimpose Moscow's control over its former satrapies.
That boast should be taken seriously. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania know only too well the price of unchecked Russian aggression. They were invaded by the Red Army in 1940 and spent the next 50 years under Soviet occupation. Now they are our allies, democratic and independent, and anxious to remain so. Their request for a permanent military presence within their borders — not merely military equipment, but a well-staffed armored brigade — is an opportunity NATO should embrace. For there is no better way to keep the peace than to send one unmistakable signal: We will defend our allies, come what may.