“[Vladimir] Putin’s aggression makes the possibility of a war in Europe between nuclear-armed adversaries frighteningly real,” writes Kimberly Marten in a new Council Special Report on tensions between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). She outlines how U.S. policymakers can deter Russian aggression with robust support for NATO, while reassuring Russia of NATO’s defensive intentions through clear words and actions based in international law.
Marten, a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and director of the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at Columbia’s Harriman Institute, lays out several scenarios that could lead to a dangerous confrontation, ranging from an inadvertent encounter between NATO and Russian military aircraft or ships to an intentional Russian land grab in Europe. The report, produced by the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, offers a plan for how the Donald J. Trump administration could work with Congress and NATO allies to lessen the chances of crisis escalation.
Marten recommends that U.S. policymakers take the following steps to deter Russian threats:
- Reaffirm the U.S. commitment to NATO defense. “President Trump should immediately reaffirm, and the State Department and Pentagon should periodically restate, that the defense of all NATO member states is Washington’s highest priority in Europe.”
- Sustain U.S. troop deployments in Poland, while emphasizing the deployments’ legitimacy under past international agreements with Moscow. The president and the Pentagon should urge allies to honor their parallel commitments in the Baltics and stress that these deployments are “far lower than what Russia itself agreed as being legitimate in 1999.”
- Rely on—and publicize—comprehensive, superior capabilities to deter Russia. Historically, NATO never relied on matching conventional forces to deter superior Soviet conventional deployments. Similarly, the United States and NATO should today rely on asymmetrical capabilities, like offensive battlefield cyber capabilities and the threat of sanctions, rather than large new conventional force deployments in Europe.
- Encourage NATO to think creatively about measures that would significantly raise the costs for Russia of attacking NATO and therefore make such an attack less attractive and less likely.
She also suggests a series of reassurance measures to demonstrate that the United States and NATO have only defensive intentions, including:
- Treat Russian leaders and the Russian state with public respect even if tensions rise. “The Trump administration will achieve more if it remains diplomatic and unemotional, and helps Russian leaders save face at home.”
- Formally announce that the United States does not seek to impose regime change on Russia and ask Putin to reciprocate, proposing a new accord to limit cyber attacks against civilian targets in peacetime.
- Explicitly tie planned deployment of interceptor missiles at the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland to Iran fulfilling its commitments in the nuclear nonproliferation deal reached in 2015. “To demonstrate that this BMD system is indeed designed against a threat from Iran and not Russia, the United States should reach agreement with Poland that missiles will be stored on U.S. territory,” unless Iran violates its obligations.
- Publicly state that the United States believes Ukraine has not currently met NATO membership standards and has a long way to go.
- Reestablish regional military and arms control negotiations, especially in the Baltics. “If relatively narrow military-to-military dangerous incident agreements prove workable, it would be a sign that Moscow might genuinely be receptive to reopening larger arms control negotiations.”
Marten acknowledges that President Trump’s “efforts to reach out to Russian President Vladimir Putin and launch another ‘reset’ policy may lead to new accord between the two countries,” but expresses fear that “Putin will test Trump’s strength by seeking unequal advantages for Moscow.”
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