With deterrence against a Russian incursion along its Baltic flank a paramount strategic concern of NATO, military mobility has emerged as a key Alliance focus over the past several years. Issues related to rail and roadway sovereignty across national borders, diplomatic notices, environmental concerns, bridge and tunnel heights, railcar and custom regulations, plus others, all combine to slow down west-to-east military resupply and reinforcement capabilities.[i]
NATO’s European logistical “tail” went from a static to a flexible model following the end of the Cold War.[ii] The change in the strategic dynamic confronting the Alliance resulted in an alteration of focus from territorial defense against the Soviet threat to tackling out-of-theater operations in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Now in light of Russian activity along the fringes of Moscow’s former Soviet domain, the threat once again resides closer to home for many European nations. In particular, the three small Baltic nations – each formerly held against their will within the Soviet umbrella – feel threatened by Kremlin messaging and perceived designs. These countries each feature sizable Russian-speaking minority populations whose political sympathies are susceptible to Moscow’s influence-building actions that target and aim to consolidate the larger Russian diaspora outside Russia’s national boundaries.[iii]
Poland, too, feels vulnerable due to historic memories of Russian incursions and the Russian Federation’s external Kaliningrad Oblast wedged between the Polish and Lithuanian borders along the Baltic Sea.[iv]
The need for reassurance from NATO allies has increasingly driven the national security agendas of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland since the takeover of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia in March 2014. This in turn spurred NATO to begin shifting its posture under Enhanced Forward Presence efforts that see four multinational battle groups deployed within the four aforementioned nations on a six-month rotational basis.
But the real hurdle remains supporting the logistical end of this “tripwire” forward security presence.
Efforts are being made to improve things, as seen by the European Union’s willingness to earmark EUR6.5 billion ($7.5 billion) of its upcoming seven-year budget toward synchronizing transportation facilities and military requirements.
While this is all well and good, the EU funds do not go into effect until 2021. Meanwhile, Russia is able to move large numbers of forces and materiel within its own national borders to potential flashpoints without the hurdles currently confronting NATO forces.[v]
Having approved the creation of a Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC) and stood up a headquarters in Germany in July, the Alliance is beginning to rectify the mobility and logistical support gap vis-à-vis Russia. But for now that gap remains large.
Author Daniel Darling covers Europe and Asia, Australia & Pacific Rim for Forecast International’s International Military Markets series, where he bringings a wealth of expertise on the political and economic forces shaping these markets. The IMM series examines the military capabilities, equipment requirements, and force structures inventories of 140 countries, with corresponding coverage of the political and economic trends shaping the defense outlook for these individual countries and regions.
[i] The Wall Street Journal, “NATO Dusts Off a Cold War Skill: Moving Troops,” October 24, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/nato-dusts-off-a-cold-war-skill-moving-troops-1540382400
[ii] Marta Kepe, “Military mobility returns to the forefront in Europe,” Defense News, June 25, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.defensenews.com/smr/nato-priorities/2018/06/25/military-mobility-returns-to-the-forefront-in-europe/
[iii]Kristina Kallas, “Claiming the diaspora: Russia’s compatriots policy and its reception by the Estonian-Russian population,” Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe (JEMIE), Vol 15, No 3, 2016, 1-25. Retrieved from https://www.ecmi.de/fileadmin/downloads/publications/JEMIE/2016/Kallas.pdf
[iv]Andrew Michta, “Kaliningrad and the Escalatory Spiral in the Baltics,” Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe (Carnegie Europe), December 9, 2016. Retrieved from http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/66402
[v] Elisabeth Braw, “Russia Has 100K Troops on the Move. Here’s Why NATO Can’t Do the Same,” Defense One, September 5, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2017/09/nato-russia-military-mobilization-zapad/140747/?oref=d-topstory