US proposes ‘pre-positioned’ stocks of heavy weaponry for Eastern Europe

The US Pentagon is considering transferring heavy weaponry to the newer NATO member states in Eastern Europe and the Baltics according to the New York Times. The aim would be to strengthen forces in the region and send a clear message of resolve to allies and to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, that the United States would defend the alliance’s members closest to Russia’s border.

The amount of equipment included in the planning is small compared with what Russia could deploy against the NATO nations on or near its borders: the “prepositioned” stocks would be enough to equip a company of about 150 soldiers in each of the three Baltic nations (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), and a company or possibly a battalion of about 750 soldiers in each of Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and possibly Hungary. US military specialists have conducted site surveys in the countries under consideration and are working on cost estimates for upgrading and replacing Soviet-era weapons storage facilities. Local or security contractors would guard the weapons warehouses.

After the 2004 NATO expansion to include the Baltic states, NATO avoided the permanent stationing of equipment or troops in the new member states as it sought various cooperative partnerships with Russia. However, in May, as a consequence of the events in Ukraine, senior officials in the Baltics requested the permanent stationing of NATO troops on their soil. While the US proposal falls short of this request, the move is still likely to be viewed by the Kremlin as a violation of the spirit of the 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia, in which NATO pledged that, “in the current and foreseeable security environment,” it would not seek “additional permanent stationing of substantial ground combat forces” in the nations closer to Russia. The agreement also says “NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries”.

Many in the alliance argue that Russia’s activities in Ukraine, as well as its increasingly aggressive actions around NATO’s borders, are already a de facto violation of that agreement. Others see things differently. On 7 March, the German weekly Der Spiegel published a report based on sources in German chancellor Angela Merkel’s office and the Federal Intelligence Service, describing the US and NATO claims about Russia’s controlling role in Ukraine as a gross exaggeration.

In an interview before a visit to Italy this week, President Putin dismissed fears of any Russian attack on NATO. “I think that only an insane person and only in a dream can imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO,” he told the newspaper Corriere Della Sera. “I think some countries are simply taking advantage of people’s fears with regard to Russia”.

The Pentagon’s proposal still requires approval by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the White House, and is also likely to be discussed at the NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting in Brussels later this month.

The US Army previously said after the invasion of Crimea last year that it would expand the amount of equipment it stored at the Grafenwöhr training range in southeastern Germany. An interim step would be to preposition the additional weapons and vehicles in Germany ahead of any decision to move them east. US Army units now fly into the range on regular rotations and train with the equipment there or take it to exercises elsewhere in Europe.

This prepositioning of equipment to Germany, along with increased air patrolling and training exercises in Eastern Europe, were among the initial measures approved at the NATO Summit in Wales last year. To this end, NATO and regional allies are currently involved in a series of training exercises in Eastern Europe that go under the name of Allied Shield, including:

  • NOBLE JUMP, the first training deployment of NATO high-readiness units under the new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) framework;

  • BALTOPS, a major Allied naval exercise in Poland;

  • SABER STRIKE, a land exercise with forces scattered across the Baltic States; and

  • TRIDENT JOUST, a NRF (NATO Response Force) command and control exercise in Romania.

According to NATO, approximately 15,000 troops from 19 different allied countries and 3 partner nations are taking part (or about to) in this series of training events whose purposes are “defensive and are a part of NATO’s assurance measures in response to challenges on NATO’s southern and eastern periphery”.

Although NATO membership requires countries to go to the aid of a fellow member in case of attack, only around half of Europeans would endorse military action by their country in such a situation, according to a new Pew Research Center study. Only 48% of Europeans support NATO’s Article 5 provision and even fewer—only 41%—support sending arms to Ukraine. “Our data shows that Germans, French and Italians have little inclination to come to a NATO ally’s defence,” Bruce Stokes, the director for global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center, told The New York Times, “and if the next military conflict in the region is hybrid warfare, and there is some debate who these Russian-speaking fighters are, such attitudes will only further inhibit NATO’s response”.