NATO MILITARY PRESENCE IN EASTERN EUROPE
Collins Alexander, Anastasia Papadopoulou, Pètra van de Gevel, EUCOM Team
Week of Monday, June 28, 2021
Exercise Sea Breeze 2019
The Bucharest Nine (B9) is a coalition consisting of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia formed to combat aggression from Russia. B9 has requested a more extensive military presence from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Romania and the South of the Eastern flank, as a result of Russia’s military build-up in the neighborhood and military exercises in the Black Sea. Tensions in Eastern Europe, specifically between Russia and Ukraine, are likely to increase in the next few months due to NATO’s decision to increase its military presence in the region. Although NATO’s military presence aims to de-escalate tensions in Eastern Europe, it will likely increase tensions, especially in Ukraine where Russia is engaging in information and kinetic warfare. Furthermore, Romania’s heavy investment in defense infrastructure and collaboration with the United States (US) to deter Russia will likely contribute to deteriorating relations between the US and Russia. The deteriorating relations will almost certainly force Russia to increase its hybrid warfare techniques to increase its global influence. Russia will likely continue to undermine US authority and erode unity within political institutions and organizations such as the European Union (EU) and NATO, posing grave security and diplomatic risks.
The B9 group’s call for a more extensive allied military presence in Eastern Europe will highly likely result in deteriorating relations between the US and Russia. Russia has proven to be willing to go to great lengths to protect what is perceived as its territory. As the US supports and finances the plan to bolster the security and capacity of US allies and partners in Eastern Europe, Russia will very likely see this as an attack on its authority and influence in the region. Moreover, Russia will very likely see it as a demonstration of US support for Ukraine. As Russia will highly likely view US involvement in Russian power politics as a sign of its will to be superior and spread Western policies and initiatives in Eastern Europe, Russia is almost certain to aggressively expand its influence in Ukraine to protect its territory. The US should exercise caution with disregarding Russia’s objections against NATO’s military presence in Eastern Europe, as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and Euromissile Crisis of the early 1980s have shown that this will very likely lead to an underestimation of Russian intentions and capabilities. Russia will, therefore, highly likely take military, hybrid warfare, or economic countermeasures to undermine US authority and counter the US threat to its authority, severely worsening US-Russia relations.
The expansion of membership to Western organizations from former Soviet republics, especially a military alliance and troop placement via NATO, is particularly troubling for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin historically views maintaining influence over the former Soviet bloc as critical to its security interests. However, Russian efforts to retain leverage over its near abroad had a downward trajectory in the last year as its relationship with regions like Eastern and Central Europe has become unstable. Due to the cooling relations between Russia and its neighbors, Russia is more likely to expand hybrid warfare and influence efforts regionally to prevent the strengthening and enlargement of NATO.
NATO membership enlargement by year
The Russia-Ukraine conflict, which started in 2014 with Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea, has caused significant agitation in Eastern Europe. Eastern European states responded to Russian aggression through the US announcement of the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) in 2014. This initiative agreed upon between the EU, NATO, and the US enables the US to enhance its security and increase the readiness and responsiveness of US forces in Europe. Moreover, the EDI supports the collective defense and security of NATO allies and bolsters the security capacity of US allies and partners through increased American presence in Europe to deter Russian expansionist aims. Russia has shored up vulnerabilities to NATO on its Southern flank, caused by NATO’s eastward expansion that resulted in Eastern European countries favoring NATO instead of Russia. In June 2021, the Kremlin issued a red line on Ukrainian NATO membership after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked US President Joe Biden for a clear answer on Ukraine’s membership action plan. The idea of having a large, geostrategically-located neighbor in a historical rival, Western military pact is cause for significant concern in Moscow. Additionally, it violates the Kremlin’s perceived historical sovereignty over Ukraine. Therefore, if NATO offers Ukraine a membership action plan, Russia would almost certainly interpret Ukrainian NATO membership as an existential security threat. This could result in an increased likelihood of Russian hybrid warfare tactics, such as disinformation, economic influence, cyberwarfare, and troop mobilization against NATO’s regional military presence.
Consequently, Russia tries to undermine the cohesion of institutions like NATO and the EU to make policy agreements more difficult to attain. Although the goal of the EDI program is to minimize future escalations by strengthening Eastern Europe’s security infrastructure, tensions have risen due to the NATO enlargement stemming from the initiative. Sustaining the deterrence efforts of Eastern European countries minimized Moscow’s efforts to reassert Russia’s great power status in Eastern Europe, increasing Russia's assertive military posture, resulting in unsettlement. It is highly likely that, as a result of recent developments, new tensions between the US and Russia, as well as Russia and Ukraine, and within Eastern Europe in general, will develop, posing a threat to the stability of the region. If tensions continue to increase, Russia will very likely pursue to divide Western countries and weaken Western alliances to weaken the EU and NATO for political influence. This will very likely be done by starting influence campaigns, intelligence operations, and military exercises. Russian intelligence services will likely increase their activities and influence European decision-making if tensions are not decreasing in the region. It would be probable for Russia to continue with its tactics by targeting populations through social media and developing military, cyber, and intelligence capabilities to advance its agenda; Russia will highly likely pursue building a stronger relationship with China to achieve its objectives.
The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) EUCOM team assesses that it is very unlikely that NATO will offer membership to Ukraine since it likely will not risk a military confrontation with Russia. The team bases this assessment on historical events; Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008, Russia’s attack in Donbas, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 showed that Russia proved willing to use military force to achieve its vital geopolitical objectives. In the event of Ukraine’s acceptance into NATO and a potential conventional deterrence of Russia, NATO would have to stay credible to the rest of its Member States and prove that it can protect them. As the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) initiative, that NATO exercises to strengthen deterrence against Russia in Eastern Europe, has not yet been proven effective with a plethora of national warnings, deficiencies in interoperability, and wasteful capabilities it is almost certain that NATO is still vulnerable to the Kremlin’s operations. If Ukraine were to join NATO, the latter would almost certainly not be able to make its security commitments credible regarding gray zone operations below the threshold of collective defense that Russia has been testing in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
NATO-Russia relations are highly likely to worsen as a result of NATO’s eastward expansion. Over the past decade, Russian foreign policy has become increasingly authoritative, making it very likely that in case of need, Russia will deploy its capabilities to remain a regional power in Eastern Europe, even if it is against NATO troops. NATO and Russian forces have previously been in close contact in the air, sea, and land across the region. As mistrust is at a high point, the risk of military incidents will very likely rise, especially in the context of Operation Sea Breeze. Russia will highly likely view NATO’s military presence near its borders as a provocation and will respond militarily to various NATO operations in the area. The pattern of aggressive behavior towards NATO and its members is likely to continue, increasing the risk of NATO-Russia military incidents and escalation. NATO’s relations with Russia will likely deteriorate, posing a significant challenge to the region’s security, stability, and peace. It is highly unlikely other international organizations will get involved in this conflict so as not to encroach on Russian and NATO relations. Thus, the risk of a military confrontation between NATO and Russia is especially expected to rise with new military developments evolving rapidly, indicating that potential weak communication channels and crisis control plans can be capitalized on.
Russia’s positioning of tanks, rocket batteries, and aircraft in Crimea throughout 2021 caused tensions in other Eastern European countries to increase sharply, particularly in Romania. Recent and less recent incidents, such as the poisoning of Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, show that Russia has continually ignored international laws, regulations, and norms that govern security and defense. This poses a severe threat to the countries with geographic proximity to Russia. Therefore, recent developments concern Romania as Russia’s assertiveness and influence in Eastern Europe seem to rise. As a result of the mobilization of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine, the B9 called for a more substantial allied military presence on the bloc's Eastern flank. As the EU lacks a permanent military structure, the need for NATO military presence in Eastern Europe to counter and deter Russia’s military incursions and confront evolving threats has grown. NATO's military efforts may help the economic and political efforts of the EU through stabilization and peace. Consequently, Russia’s military incursions have resulted in some NATO members, like the US, stationing more military units in the Black Sea region.
In late April 2021, a part of the Russian troops withdrew from the border with Ukraine to de-escalate tensions in the run-up to the summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, several divisions of Russian ground troops and attack helicopters remain active in Crimea and pose a threat to the security of Eastern European countries. Moreover, Russian armed forces fired warning shots and dropped four bombs against a British warship that entered Russia’s territorial waters off Crimea, while the UK government rejected Russia's account of the incident. NATO is intensifying its countermeasures to deter Russia with Operation Sea Breeze 2021 by implementing a military exercise involving more than 30 countries in the Black Sea and southern Ukraine. Operation Sea Breeze aims to strengthen maritime security in the Black Sea region and prove the shared commitment to ensure free access to international waters. As the Kremlin requested the Sea Breeze exercise to be canceled from the beginning, Russian warships also carried out a fire training exercise in the Black Sea on July 1, simultaneously with NATO’s military drills in the same wider area. Nevertheless, there is a roughly even chance that a military confrontation between NATO and Russian forces will occur. The EUCOM team assesses that even though the NATO operation is taking place under questionable conditions that underline the rising threat of military collisions between Russia and the West, Russia will not currently risk an all-out conventional confrontation with NATO due to its unawareness for success.
An allied military presence in Eastern Europe does not only have implications for NATO-Russia and US-Russia relations but will almost certainly increase Russian hybrid warfare tactics. To undermine US authority, it is highly likely that Russia will spread disinformation campaigns about Western political institutions, values, and leaders to influence and alter public opinion. Russia has actively used the Internet Research Agency (IRA) to operate social media accounts posing as citizens worldwide to spread discord throughout Western countries, most notably during the 2016 US presidential election. The Russian disinformation operations during the 2016 US elections highly increased the influence of the Russian state. The goal was to change the global narrative by making US democratic institutions look weak. This was caused by new information hybrid warfare techniques, such as deception and propaganda through social media and public forums. As Russian disinformation operations during the elections have seemed to be effective, Russia will very likely continue to use disinformation, fake news, and propaganda techniques to weaken the capacity of the US to counter Russian actions.
It is almost certain that Russia will continue using all tools of hybrid warfare to undermine unity by exploiting social tensions and within political institutions and organizations such as the EU and NATO. To gain more global power, Russia will most likely disrupt relations between other nations and discredit foreign governments by interfering in Western politics by eroding faith in democracy and intergovernmental organizations. Russia will likely use covert intelligence operations, such as cyber activity, and overt operations, such as state-funded media and trolls. Efforts will highly likely aim to penetrate political and informational environments by spreading disinformation through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The trend of the growing power and influence of the Russian state that can infiltrate the political dialogue by using technological tools, such as cyber hacking operations, to stain the image of Russia’s adversaries is a significant threat. Russia’s techniques can create chaos on a massive scale, discredit politics and divide society. The 2016 elections suggested that political outcomes can be influenced through social media, posing a threat to free, fair, and democratic elections.
While the EU has been starting to become more active in intelligence during the last years, it ought to bolster its resilience against Russian hybrid warfare as it does not seem to be adequately prepared so far. This is likely to occur through creating and enhancing its intelligence agencies. The EU should create a sufficient intelligence capacity under the Common Security and Defence Policy, using various instruments and institutions in the necessary combinations to address each aspect of hybrid threats. Cooperation with NATO in intelligence issues is also necessary. As European intelligence activity will increase, Eastern Europe can benefit significantly in reinforcing its security.
The EUCOM team at CTG recommends NATO and the EU to establish local resilience and stabilize countries within Eastern Europe by resolving the economic, governance, political, and security challenges that Eastern European countries face, countering Russia’s military incursions into Eastern Europe. EUCOM also recommends monitoring the Sea Breeze Operation closely and assessing Russia’s capabilities and intentions to decrease the risk of a military confrontation between NATO members and Russia, while reinforcing collective defense and sharpening NATO’s technological edges. Finally, the EUCOM team suggests establishing a mechanism to provide notification of the location and scale of exercises in Eastern Europe to mitigate future risks.
The EUCOM Team at CTG will continue to monitor and analyze the increased NATO military presence in Eastern Europe, especially pertaining to tensions between Ukraine and Russia. Furthermore, the team will continue to track Russian hybrid warfare tactics, analyzing disinformation campaigns about Western political institutions, values, and leaders to influence and alter public opinion. EUCOM will also work with the NORTHCOM Team at CTG to continually investigate the potential deterioration of US-Russian relations and monitor the responses of other states and international institutions to this situation. The team will report violent situations across Europe and Eurasia that have the potential to create further instability and can be taken advantage of by Russia, insurgent groups, or other non-state actors. Through the Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) CTG continuously tracks all violent events to provide current fact-based analysis.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
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