In a pre-retirement interview on May 1, NATO’s top military officer, General Philip Breedlove, warned that the Russian military might not be ten feet tall but was “certainly close to seven.” NATO’s war planners are right to worry about the Russian military threat to its eastern flank. Fortunately, the alliance may be in a stronger position than it thinks—and although its leaders may not realize it, what is important is that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals almost certainly do.

NATO’s efforts to build a stronger deterrent and defense posture in the east are necessary and long overdue. But they may not be enough to de-escalate the alliance’s confrontation with Russia and reduce the risk of a direct conflict. Two years after NATO launched plans to beef up defenses on its eastern front, a midcourse correction is needed to reduce the risk of a collision with Russia.

Richard Sokolsky
Richard Sokolsky is a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program. His work focuses on U.S. policy toward Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
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NATO’s perception of the Russian threat has changed dramatically since Moscow gobbled up Crimea. Once thought to be outmanned and outgunned by NATO, Russia is now seen by many observers as a superior military force, poised to overrun an alliance that is “outnumbered, outranged, and outgunned” on its eastern flank. From the West’s perspective, Russia is a revisionist, neoimperialist, and expansionist power determined to overturn the post–Cold War European security order, destroy NATO’s cohesion, and restore its sphere of influence throughout the former Soviet Union. As a military alliance with a collective security commitment at its core, NATO should be reinforcing its exposed eastern flank with a more persistent presence of heavier forces to reassure these countries of NATO’s resolve and capacity to make good on its Article 5 commitment. Military organizations are prone to plan conservatively, and NATO is basing its plans on a worst-case scenario.

From where Putin sits, however, “the correlation of forces,” to use an old Soviet phrase, probably looks quite different. From the Kremlin’s perspective, in its decision to spread east, NATO has muscled in on Russia’s traditional turf. Meanwhile, Moscow believes the United States seeks to subvert the Putin regime by promoting democracy in and around the country. Russia’s estimates of the military balance with NATO are permeated by a deep sense of inferiority in terms of conventional Prompt Global Strike capabilities, nuclear weapons, missile defenses, cyberweapons, and even the much-hyped hybrid forms of warfare. The Russian general staff, like NATO’s military planners, are basing their plans on worst-case thinking as well.

In other words, there is a lot of mirror imaging going on. NATO and Russia are trapped in a classic security dilemma: each side sees the other side’s efforts to improve security as coming at its own expense. Meanwhile, each interprets its own measures as defensive. And so, both sides build up their forces along their shared border, each assuming it will have a deterrent effect on the other and thus stabilize their standoff. In reality, the opposite is true. The situation has become less rather than more stable, and tensions will continue to grow unless both sides find ways to climb down from the escalatory ladder they are on.
In short, betting on the current standoff to become a new normal is not a good option, given the stakes for both sides and how fragile the normalcy is likely to be. Nor does it help that each side is misreading the intentions and the capabilities of the other. The Russian threat to the alliance’s eastern flank is probably not as grave as is commonly assumed. And for its part, Moscow often deliberately misrepresents NATO’s threat to Russian security for domestic political purposes.

Paranoia about NATO’s intentions blinds the Kremlin to several key factors: NATO is a defensive alliance. It is inconceivable that the governments of all NATO members would approve a deliberate and unprovoked attack on Russia (as would be required by the alliance’s charter). Further, with enough time, NATO could generate a robust deterrent against Russia, but an offensive against it would require a substantially greater investment in force improvements and resources than the alliance currently plans. Although the alliance’s conventional precision strike, nuclear, missile defense, and cyberweapon capabilities are a formidable deterrent, they simply can’t wipe out Russia’s strategic forces in a disarming first strike.

Still, it is important to remember that intentions, not just capabilities, matter. It is reasonable to assume that the Kremlin would prefer to incorporate the Baltic states in its sphere of influence rather than confront NATO troops deployed on their territory within some 100 miles of St. Petersburg. However, Russia’s behavior over the past decade—since it began to recover its military capabilities—suggests that the Kremlin is sensitive to the likely costs of its actions and has a healthy dose of respect for NATO’s security guarantee. In fact, some Western analysts have fallen into the trap of inferring Russian intentions toward the Baltic region from its aggression against Georgia and Ukraine. This kind of linear thinking, however, overlooks important differences in how Moscow views both regions and the way it makes decisions.

First, the Kremlin takes NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee very seriously. Why else would it go to war against Georgia and Ukraine to keep NATO from bringing both countries into the alliance, destroying a quarter century of benign security relations with the West? Ukrainian membership in NATO would have marked a major strategic setback for Russia and a humiliating political defeat for Putin. By contrast, the Baltic states are already in NATO. The Kremlin opposed their membership in 2004, but it did not use force to prevent it, in large part because the Russian national security establishment did not see the loss as a threat to Russian security interests—and also because the Russian military was in bad shape from years of neglect. In effect, the Kremlin already considers the Baltic states “lost.” It cannot afford the same in Ukraine.

Second, NATO’s preoccupation with the order of battle on the eastern front overlooks the fact that a Russian decision to wage war against the Baltic states would be a political choice, not one made by Russia’s generals based on the number of tanks, troops, and aircraft along Russia’s border with NATO. The Russian elite’s paramount concern is the survival of the system it has built and in which it is so invested, and it harbors a deep-seated fear of political instability and U.S. designs for regime change. It would be extremely risky for the Kremlin to bet that Russian forces could attack the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world and prevail, because the consequences of losing—or even winning—that gamble would be catastrophic for the Russian elite and the country as a whole. Putin would no doubt like to destroy NATO’s cohesion. But he has less risky and far cheaper ways of sowing division within an alliance that is not, in any case, fully united on its military and security priorities, including how to deal with challenges in the east.

Third, for all of Putin’s vaunted unpredictability and proclivity for risk taking, he has demonstrated caution when he judges that the costs and risks of Russian belligerence are too high. Putin has been careful not to cross NATO’s redlines. Russia’s opponents in Georgia and Ukraine were weak and were not protected by a NATO security guarantee. In Syria, the Russian military stepped into a vacuum, confident that the United States and its allies had no intention of intervening on the ground. In short, it is extremely dangerous to draw any conclusions about Putin’s propensity to wage war against NATO—and the capabilities of the Russian armed forces for either a conventional operation or the anti-insurgency campaign it would have to wage in the days after a Russian attack—on the basis of recent operations.

Still, the dynamics between NATO and Russia are a recipe for increased tensions, unintended consequences, and a growing risk of accidental conflict arising from the escalation of a military incident. Moreover, military steps taken to bolster deterrence and defense could make the task of de-escalating a crisis more difficult. An allied ship’s port visit to Gdansk to signal NATO solidarity and commitment to collective defense brought NATO within 80 miles away from Kaliningrad. A Russian jet fighter’s buzzing of a U.S. ship in the Baltic Sea was probably intended as a warning but instead was interpreted as a sign of Russia’s aggressive intentions. More NATO battalions, tanks, and artillery tubes along the Russian border may have a deterrent effect on Moscow, but it could also provoke the Kremlin to up the ante against vulnerable neighbors—as it has recently done with a more robust military buildup of heavier forces on and near Russia’s western frontier. Further, deploying more NATO multinational battalions to the Baltic states will not reduce their vulnerability to Russian unconventional warfare—for example, subversion, economic coercion, and information operations—which is a far more plausible scenario than an overt conventional military attack.

To get out of the escalatory spiral, NATO may need to go beyond the narrow, military-centric approach to bolstering deterrence and defense on its eastern flank. As Breedlove has recommended, the alliance needs to reopen a “line of communication” with the Kremlin. Both sides also need to show more mutual and verifiable restraint in their military activities and exercises along their shared borders. Toward this end, NATO and Russia should launch serious exploratory discussions on the negotiation of new arms control and confidence-building measures to limit and reduce the risk of war in Europe. As both the European Leadership Network and the recent report of the Deep Cuts Commission have noted, increased military-to-military communication, information exchange, and transparency measures could help reduce the risk of an unintended NATO-Russian conflict—for example, increasing mutual inspections, expanding information that can be collected by aerial observation flights under the Open Skies Treaty, increasing data sharing on force movements, and implementing new risk reduction mechanisms to prevent dangerous military incidents all merit further consideration.

NATO has a rich historical legacy of standing firm against the Soviet Union with defensive preparations while holding the door open to diplomacy to maintain peace. In 1967, the alliance’s Harmel Report reaffirmed NATO’s core principles and established the foundation for more cooperative approaches to security based on deterrence and dialogue with the Soviet Union. Twenty years later, NATO’s experience of successfully deploying intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe while negotiating an arms control agreement continues to be relevant. NATO and Russia may or may not be locked into a new Cold War, but they are on a collision course. Both need to borrow a page (or two) from the Cold War handbook to avert a conflict in Europe. The July 8–9 NATO summit in Warsaw would be an opportune moment for the alliance to invite Russia to start moving together down this rocky but necessary path.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Affairs