Afghanistan, Baltic states, Biden, China, Cold War, deterrence, Eastern Europe, NATO, North Atlantic treaty Organization, nuclear weapons, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Poland, Russia, Taiwan, tripwire, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin
This is by no means what I want to happen – in fact, I find the prospect pretty troubling (as should you), But I can’t help but wonder if the current Ukraine crisis will end peacefully with the United States putting tripwire forces permanently in many of the relatively new Eastern European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in order to protect them against possible Russian designs, along with throwing Russian leader Vladimir Putin some kind of a rhetorical bone concerning his opposition to Ukraine joining NATO.
As known by RealityChek readers, tripwire forces are relatively small numbers of U.S. troops stationed on the soil of a vulnerable ally whose purpose is to deter attack by an aggressive, heavily armed neighbor. The idea isn’t that these U.S. forces will be enough to defeat the enemy – Washington has never been willing to pay for the manpower and weaponry to accomplish that goal. The idea is that the fear of killing American soldiers will greatly reduce the odds of an attack in the first place. That’s because it would greatly increase the pressure on a U.S. President to respond with the only measure that could prevent their imminent, total defeat (and possibly many more U.S. casualties) – using nuclear weapons.
I don’t like the idea because, especially today, it exposes the American homeland to the risk of nuclear attack (by far the worst national security disaster that could befall it, and likely the most destructive event in the nation’s history) in order to protect countries less than vital to the United States, and which could easily defend themselves if they weren’t such defense skinflints and free-riders. (South Korea has been a prime example, although, as I’ve written, its semiconductor manufacturing prowess has made it more important lately.)
At the same time, the tripwire strategy arguably played some role in keeping the Soviet military on its side of the Iron Curtain for decades during the Cold War, and it’s certainly conceivable that the kinds of deployments that President Biden seems to be thinking about could produce the same results in places like the Baltic states (which used to be Soviet republics) and Poland.
Not that this course of action would be risk-free. Sending lots of troops and heavy weapons like tanks would amount to stuffing lots more soldiers and lethal hardware into a relatively small area, and very close to major Russian military forces. As I’ve written, the odds of an accidental conflict would inevitably rise.
That’s why it would be much better for the United States to come to an agreement with Putin recognizing the need for limits on Western military deployments on Russia’s borders, and on future NATO expansion.
But Mr. Biden doesn’t seem interested in serious negotiations. Maybe that’s because he honestly believes that geography shouldn’t matter in world affairs and that countries should be free to make any security arrangements they like regardless of what powerful neighbors think. Maybe that’s because he’s afraid of further charges of weakness from domestic critics and voters in the wake of his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. Maybe it’s both. But at this point the reasons for his position matter much less than his position itself..
Boosting the U.S. military footprint in Eastern Europe, especially in a steady, methodical way, would project an image of strength that he so desperately seeks now, and in theory enough to offset the effects of his decision (for now) not to use force to save Ukraine (which in my view will at the very least increase Moscow’s dominance of the country, either through a military occupation, attacks that enable Putin to peel off regions of Ukraine’s east, or a coup or other machinations that install a puppet government in Kyiv).
And although Moscow will huff and puff, the presence of Americans in places like the Baltics in particular are likely to keep the Russians out – and in ways that the presence of, say, Danes and Spaniards won’t.
Some big questions would remain. For example, what if Putin tried to destabilize the Baltics by stirring unrest among their sizable Russian populations? And will Germany, which is actually blocking the efforts of NATO countries to strengthen Ukraine’s armed forces apparently and in part for fear of antagonizing Russia further, be OK with using the American bases on its soil to help maintain U.S. forces stationed on NATO’s easternmost front lines?
I don’t have the answers here. But worrisome as the tripwire strategy is, unless Washington is ready for some significant give-and-take on Eastern Europe’s future, it’s much better than some of the alternatives I can imagine:
>like a Russian takeover of Ukraine without any offsetting steps that really could create big doubts about American reliability in places unmistakably vital to the U.S. future – especially global semiconductor manufacturing leader Taiwan – and tempt more aggression by China (mainly against Taiwan);
>like so many foreign weapons flooding into Ukraine that they could either trigger a Russian preemptive attack on their own, or give Kyiv enough confidence to mount the kind of full-scale resistance that following an invasion that would produce fierce enough fighting to spill over into neighboring countries. Alternatively, such a conflict could push President Biden into more active U.S. military involvement that might become particularly dangerous because of its very haste.
After his summit with Putin in Geneva, Siwtzerland last June, the President said “I think that the last thing he wants now is a Cold War.“ Unfortunately, largely because he’s painted himself into such a tight diplomatic corner, for now, that may be the best of a series of bad outcomes for Americans. And for Europe East and West, it’s certainly better than the other kind of conflict.