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The following is a summary of the CDA Institute Roundtable “Europe, Ukraine and the US Army” in Ottawa on 25 September 2015. These roundtable discussions are held under the Chatham House Rule. This summary reflects Analyst Bradley MacKay‘s perception of the discussion. The CDA Institute thanks our Strategic Partners Lockheed Martin Canada and General Dynamics for their generous sponsorship of the 2015/16 Roundtable Discussion Series.

The United States’ military commitment to Europe has been scrutinized, criticized, and trivialized by many. Given Russian belligerence in Eastern Europe, many commentators, pundits and academics have pondered exactly what the American strategy towards this complex affair will be, and what exactly they can, and will do operationally. However, given the complex geopolitical nature of this standoff and domestic constraints, the US will need to rely more on allies and maximize strategic efficiency in order to strengthen its presence in Europe. Russia poses a dynamic threat, in both conventional and unconventional theatres of conflict, and the United States cannot, and will not, undertake a unilateral stance in the face of potential Russian aggression.

What exactly is this Russian threat? Russia appears to be a state invested in denying access to the Baltic region and Black Sea. A state whose officials utilize strong aggressive rhetoric when engaging with their neighbors, and opts for hybrid warfare techniques to increase its clout in the international system. Despite economic sanctions and resistance from the West, Russia has continued its revisionist ways. Conventionally, they are displaying their capacity in Syria in the face of a severe economic downturn. With oil at barely $40/barrel and international sanctions hitting hard, many believed Russia’s dire economic sanctions would limit their willingness to engage in a spectrum of military operations, however, as recent events in Ukraine and Syria suggest, this is not the case.

Through its use of media manipulation, Russia also actively attempts to obscure public perception of the current geopolitical situation. In the digital age, controlling and regulating the information space is almost impossible. Nevertheless, Russia continues to spread its propaganda, primarily through pro-Russian television channels across continental Europe in the hope of garnering support and obscuring perceptions. As a result, it is difficult to assess Russian intentions and separate fact from fiction. The US and other allies have clear incentives to impede Russia’s expanding sphere of influence. However, American strategy in Europe has changed greatly since the end of the Cold War and in the wake of increased resource constraints, the US will need to rely considerably on efficient use of resources and ensuring sufficient multilateral deterrence through alliance resolve, continued economic sanctions, and political will.

The United States, like many of its allies including Canada, has faced severe financial constraints in the past few years. In fact, US Army Europe has been reduced from 300,000 soldiers in West Germany alone during the Cold War, to approximately 30,000 from the Baltics to the Black Sea. In the face of this reduction, there is a clear need to empower forces and ensure that they are operationally prepared. This proposal is based on five crucial pillars. Firstly, the US has empowered junior leaders in the region, increasing their incentive to succeed by adding responsibilities, and, resultantly, opportunities. In addition, the United States has increased its reliance on reserve components. Most importantly, US Army Europe has begun to rely much more heavily on its allies. For instance, they have integrated allies into the executive decision making process, and they have sought their support logistically. Ultimately, the ability for the Americans to remain interoperable with its allies and make use of their capabilities during campaigns and training exercises remains a crucial foundation to European collective security.

The importance of NATO allies needs to be underlined in the face of Russian aggression. The United Kingdom pledged to maintain their 2 percent GDP commitment to defence spending, while Germany has played an important role in maintaining and enforcing European Union (EU) sanctions, which to this point are the sole punitive measures are taken against Russia. Yet, there must be an increase in support from all parties to properly assure at risk allies and deter any potential Russian adventurism, not least in the Baltics. For one, not all NATO allies are meeting the alliance’s benchmark 2 percent GDP commitment to defence spending, and states on the eastern flank must not simply rely on the American security assurances that they will defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their borders.

Defence begins at home, and states are required to ensure their own security. When challenged by Russian aggression, states, most specifically, those in the Baltics, must secure their cleavages or risk having these weaknesses exploited by Russia. One of the most worrisome possibilities involves Russia interference on the territory of a Baltic state in the name of protecting Russian speakers and stateless citizens, a tactic they have previously employed in Ukraine. This would test NATO’s Article 5 commitment, and raise the stakes to an even greater degree. However, the potential negative consequences of the stateless citizen epidemic in the Baltics is subject to a logical and simple counter-argument. Not every Russian speaker is the same, and not every Russian speaker longs to be back in mother Russia. There is a clear desire in some of these areas to become members of NATO and the EU, and it is up to the US and their NATO allies to assure European states that they will uphold Article 5 and act as a clear, capable deterrent.

The current impasse between Russia and the West does not necessarily imply the start of a Cold-War. Unlike in the past, Russia is a member of the larger international community, and the goal is to have them further integrated politically, diplomatically, and economically. However, this may imply altering expectations of success on both sides. The US cannot unilaterally defend Eastern Europe, and Russia is a capable threat. However, with continued allied support through NATO and the EU it is possible to both adequately defend our Eastern allies and deter Russia.

Bradley MacKay is an Analyst at the CDA Institute and a Master’s Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. His research interests include collective security, the economics of defence and security policy and American foreign policy. (Image courtesy of US Army Europe.)

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