A Russian serviceman interacts with a bear at the zoo in Ukraine's port city of Mariupol on May 18, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine.

A Russian serviceman interacts with a bear at the zoo in Ukraine's port city of Mariupol on May 18, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. AFP via Getty Images / Olga Maltseva

The West Should Not Wish Away the Russian Threat Yet Again

The time to institutionalize a muscular and ready front line force posture is now.

The West’s initial response to Russia’s brutal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has been remarkably unified and effective. The multifaceted effort to arm Ukraine while reinforcing NATO allies in Eastern Europe has helped to turn the war’s tide and prevent, for now at least, an expansion of the conflict beyond Ukrainian territory. However, Ukraine’s battlefield prowess coupled with newly revealed Russian military shortcomings are prompting some officials to suggest pumping the brakes on changes to Western defense and deterrence measures in Europe. Such suggestions indicate a dangerous underestimation of the Kremlin’s military capabilities, its capacity, and its desire to avoid a strategic setback. Abandoning these needed changes would undermine Kyiv’s successes and leave NATO’s eastern flank exposed to the horrific devastation and death seen throughout Ukraine.

Russian military performance in Ukraine clearly has not been as successful as expected by many in the West and presumably in the Kremlin. Over the last several years, many analysts ignored or overlooked persistent shortcomings in Russian military logistics, command and control, and culture. Instead, they saw Moscow’s military successes in Crimea and Syria, its advances in hypersonics and conventional weaponry, and its robust fossil fuel-injected economy as evidence of a newly dominant Russian threat in Europe and beyond. Today, an opposite perception is taking hold: the Kremlin’s inability to overrun Ukraine in the war’s opening days and weeks is seen as evidence of a Russian military hopelessly incapable and sapped of its capacity and will.

Neither of these extremes was or is entirely correct, but it’s the latter that’s now most worrisome. These misperceptions are compounded by four other factors that impede a more robust response to Russia’s upending of security in Europe. 

First, the U.S. government remains keenly interested in deterring the systemic, long-term threat posed by China. Even in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, the recently released National Defense Strategy specifies China as “our most consequential strategic competitor,” while referring to Russia as an “acute” challenge. Although the characterization of China is doubtlessly correct, the phrasing about Russia implies its eclipse is just around the corner, obviating the need for long-term investments in conventional deterrence.

Second, there may be a temptation for the West to rest on its laurels. The changes made since Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea in 2014 have paid dividends in the current crisis. For example, Europe improved military mobility across the continent, the U.S. and other key allies implemented small yet persistent rotational deployments in the Baltic States and Poland, and NATO sought to quicken its decision-making. Together, these steps may provide a false sense of security, leading to the conclusion that deterring Russia with the promise of a punishing response might still suffice.  

Third, the impending membership of Finland and Sweden in NATO may prompt some to hit pause on further changes to alliance strategy and posture. These two new members will bring highly capable militaries into alliance defense planning and their geopolitical orientation likely will make reinforcing the Baltic States somewhat easier. Nevertheless, waiting for complete integration of these new members risks delaying obvious, necessary short-term changes in how the alliance defends Eastern Europe.

Finally, the recent decision to at least temporarily cut U.S. Army manpower may make a larger, more permanent American presence in Europe more difficult to achieve. Expanding U.S. military presence overseas is always politically easier when the military itself is expanding, instead of having to move a unit in the United States to an overseas facility. Although all the military services have a presence in Europe, the capabilities and capacities that need to be strengthened most are primarily in the ground forces, including air and missile defense, artillery, rotary-wing attack units, armored units, and corps- and division-sized headquarters. Letting the Army’s size dictate its overseas force posture feels like a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, and it underestimates the willingness of Congress to tolerate changes in basing. 

These four factors in combination with the notion that the Russians can’t shoot straight or the premature conclusion that the war is Kyiv’s to lose jeopardize security across Central and Eastern Europe and undermine efforts to foster a strategic defeat of Russia. They ignore the fact that Putin assembled a force of nearly 200,000 troops, brutally invading a neighboring country in the largest war of its kind in Europe since World War II. He did so in defiance of a dizzying array of punishments that he has willingly accepted and is weathering despite their unquestionable severity. And so far, he has expanded Russia’s control of Ukrainian territory and created unimaginable tragedy for the Ukrainian people.

In response to this, more needs to be done now to shift the alliance toward a strategy and force posture of deterrence by denial. For example, the West should expand the relatively small NATO units in the Baltic States and Poland (and soon in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria) from battalions to larger, more effective brigades. It should privilege persistent engagement and collective defense against Russia (and China) over other important missions like counterterrorism. And it should base key U.S. units permanently in Europe, instead of continuing to rely on more expensive, less impactful rotational deployments. The time to institutionalize a muscular and ready front line force posture is now. Doing otherwise amounts to wishing away the Russian threat.

John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He’s the author, most recently, of “Coalition of the unWilling and unAble.”

Christopher Skaluba is the Director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a former senior executive in the Pentagon’s European and NATO policy office.

The views expressed are their own.