Now, as President Biden and the alliance’s 30 other leaders prepare to gather for their annual summit, few doubt the bloc’s crucial role as a bulwark against Russia’s neo-imperialist aggression. When it convenes starting Tuesday, in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, the goal will be nothing short of “the biggest overhaul of our collective deterrence and defense since the Cold War,” as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it.
If anything, Mr. Stoltenberg is understating the case. For what happens in Vilnius could set Europe on a path toward a decade or more of durable security arrangements — or, if the U.S.-led alliance fails to show serious intent and strength, invite new wars by demonstrating to the Kremlin that NATO is a paper tiger.
The timing is not great for such a high-stakes meeting. As Europe reels from its biggest war in eight decades, and as NATO’s own front-line members face the increasingly plausible scenario of future Russian attacks, most of the West’s biggest economies are struggling with the threat or reality of recession. Even if the 31-nation bloc strikes the right notes and charts solid plans for shoring up its weak links, members will be hard-pressed to pay for the commitments they make. As things stand now, only eight of 31 members meet its target of spending 2 percent of annual gross economic output on defense.
Yet they have little choice but to step up their game, because Mr. Putin has proved that it is folly to play down the threat Moscow poses.
That danger is likely to persist following the illegal war in Ukraine, whenever it finally ends, and addressing it will be high on the Vilnius agenda. NATO’s collective security guarantee, under which all members pledge to respond to an attack on one, means it cannot grant Kyiv’s wish for accession without drawing the alliance into the war against Russia. But the leaders can and should craft concrete, long-term plans to give Ukraine top-shelf arms, training and intelligence.
Done right, with follow-up legal and political guarantees from the United States and other key allies, such a blueprint would amount to a multilateral version of the steady flow of military aid that the United States has long provided Israel. It would turn the tables on Mr. Putin, showing that he cannot outlast the West’s determination to help Ukraine defend itself.
The Biden administration and key NATO allies, to their credit, have already started preparing for a multiyear commitment. That was the significance in the president’s decision, this spring, to allow Ukrainian pilots to begin training on U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, which might be provided starting early next year. Washington and its European allies have also embarked on a concerted effort to ramp up production of howitzer shells, supplies of which have run low as Ukraine and Russia have traded intense volleys of them for more than a year.
In the interim, Mr. Biden made a tough but correct call this week in agreeing to plug the ammunition gap by sending Kyiv thousands of cluster munitions, which are expected to help Ukrainian forces break through heavily entrenched Russian lines. Their use is banned by some major NATO allies, because dud bombs left behind on the battlefield pose a threat to civilians. But Russia has used them intensively in Ukraine, and the Biden administration is legally required to export only shells that have a very low dud rate.
The assurances that Ukraine needs from NATO are urgent, but not the only pressing item on the Vilnius agenda. It’s critical that the alliance also approve plans not just to slow but repel possible future Russian attacks on its own front-line members — the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, along with Poland, are most acutely at risk. That would represent a major strategic pivot, critical to NATO’s own credibility.
Those blueprints, overseen by U.S. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the supreme allied commander in Europe, are designed to beef up the bloc’s troop presence and weaponry on its eastern flank, bordering Russia. In addition, individual NATO member states would be assigned specific roles in quickly deploying additional forces and firepower to the front line in the event of a Russian attack.
The idea is to scrap the previous doctrine under which the alliance’s forces would act mainly as tripwires in the small, vulnerable Baltic states — capable of slowing but not stopping Russian troops, who, the theory went, would be driven out eventually by NATO reinforcements. A lesson from the war in Ukraine is that in the intervening weeks or months, Moscow’s forces would commit war crimes on a chilling scale — and also be difficult to dislodge.
That cannot be countenanced; NATO needs to stop a Russian invasion in its tracks, at the border. But deterring an attack will mean pumping up NATO multinational battalions of roughly 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers in front-line states to brigades of 3,000 to 5,000 troops — and pre-positioning more artillery, air defense systems and other weapons.
That project is costly and will take time — to build new barracks, training grounds and even schools (for soldiers who deploy with families). The work is underway. Germany recently announced it will lead a 4,000-strong battalion in Lithuania, and Canada, which already commands a battalion in Latvia manned with soldiers from 10 nations, is planning to expand that force to a brigade of about 3,500 troops by fall 2026.
Those are promising steps; other alliance members should follow suit. The unpleasant fact is that the West is facing a readiness race. Russia’s navy, air force and submarines remain formidable threats — and its army, though badly depleted by the war in Ukraine, might be able to rebuild itself in as little as three years, according to NATO defense officials. As it happens, that’s also the minimum time the alliance will need to reinforce units in the front-line states with the brawn, numbers and infrastructure that would convince the Kremlin that future aggression would fail. The time to start is now.
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