Senior Research Scientist,
Center for Naval Analyses
Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars
Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
The security environment in Europe changed dramatically due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and ongoing conflict with Ukraine. NATO members, together with partner countries, have increased defense spending, begun to change force posture, initiated new procurement programs for high end warfighting, and launched an intense regimen of military exercises. The largest of these events, Trident Juncture 2018, demonstrating NATO’s ability to provide collective defense in and around Norway included approximately 45,000 participants. There is an inexorable logic to NATO’s efforts to render deterrence commitments credible, Russia’s military modernization, large exercises, and the threat perceptions behind them.
Maximizing security for one self, particularly when dealing with other great powers, is a process that must be calibrated so as not to result in an expensive, and unstable, security dilemma. Security dilemmas are a dangerous business, when steps to hedge or gain security are seen by adversaries as evidence of military buildup. At times the cycle leads to conflict that neither side intended, or could have profited from.
As NATO’s exercises grow in size, scope, and frequency, and defense spending increases, there is no visible slack in the competition with Russia. If anything the confrontation between Russia and the United States in 2018 intensified at the political, economic, and diplomatic levels, including pernicious forms of indirect competition by Russia. If both sides perceive military modernization, and pursuit of defense or deterrence, as offensive in nature, then a historically dangerous cycle of military buildup, or ‘force bidding’ may ensue. To be clear, a security dilemma is hardly inevitable, but Europe has an unfortunate history in this department, from the choices made by great powers in the run up to World War I, to the tenuous crisis stability of the first two decades in the Cold War.
The problem is partly structural. Following two decades of divestment, Russia has replaced the rotten mass mobilization army it inherited from the Soviet Union with a substantially modernized and permanently staffed force, with levels of readiness arguably not seen even in the 1980s. The wave of modernization is only recently hitting the northern parts of Russia’s Western Military District and the Northern Fleet’s Joint Strategic Command, with new aircraft, helicopters, radars, air defense systems, and various types of strike systems being deployed across the force.
Although Russian defense spending has leveled off, the budget outlays in trillions of rubles are approximately 2.854 in 2017, 3.032 in 2018, 2.914 in 2019, and 3.019 in 2020. Perhaps another trillion rubles or so could be added in total military expenditure. Russia’s defense budget is holding flat, or undergoing a sequester based on inflation, but it affords substantial funds for procurement. At 1.25 trillion rubles per year, the Russian State Armament Program may have purchasing power parity equivalent of $50 billion USD, and as a middle income country, Russia can afford a much larger force structure for considerably less. Although much of the Russian ground force expansion is driven by a contingency of expanded war with Ukraine, rather than being stationed near Baltic borders, improvements in mobility mean that Russian forces are much better positioned in the initial period of a conflict with NATO.
NATO as a whole has also increased spending 1.8%, 3.3%, and 4.3% from 2015 to 2017. U.S. expenditure on the European Deterrence Initiative has risen from $3.4 billion in 2017 to $6.5 billion in 2019, seeing increases in spending on infrastructure, prepositioning of forces, exercises, and increased rotational presence. On top of NATO’s enhanced forward presence in the form of several battlegroups, countries like Poland argue for a much larger, and more permanent, U.S. military footprint on their soil. These processes in NATO are driven by a legitimate reassessment of Russia as a threat, and no longer a status quo power with a stake in the European security framework. Hedging is prudent. However, they are also shaped by political considerations, and the structural incentives that encourage states to ask for ‘free’ security benefits from much more powerful alliance members, without thought to the consequences for the security environment.
There is an inherent danger that spending and modernization become linked to credibility, with both sides feeling compelled to respond to the others’ decisions, or be perceived as being unwilling to pay the price of competition. Attaining a credible deterrent, without it leading to an expensive security dilemma, or engendering crisis instability, is a balancing act of patience, prudence, and good judgment. Assuming intentions cannot be divined (and they can change in the future), the most important factors are whether offensive policies can be distinguished from defensive ones, and if there is a clear advantage for offense over defense in military technology.
If defensive plans can be made clear, and defense is militarily advantageous, then stability will ensue. In the worst cases, offense is perceived to hold a clear advantage, and there is no discernible difference between a posture that maximizes security over that which signals aggressive intent. Today the evidence is ambiguous on whether defense or offense are advantageous in warfare, and if it is even possible to defend without conducting offensive strikes across a theater of military operations. Meanwhile high readiness, exercises, and forward deployments make it challenging to parse intentions. These are fertile grounds for the emergence of a security dilemma, and potentially poor crisis stability between Russia and NATO. A dilemma is manageable, but like most security problems, it is much easier and cheaper to prevent than it is to resolve.
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