Staying power: How the EU can support NATO in eastern Europe

NATO should deter Russia by establishing a truly permanent presence in front-line states. The EU has a major role to play in this effort.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Ursula von der Leyen at the NATO Summit in Madrid in June 22
Image by NATO

At a recent summit in Madrid, NATO leaders reached an agreement to overhaul their alliance’s force posture in Europe. In response to Russia’s war on Ukraine – and the threat that President Vladimir Putin could also set his sights on alliance territory – NATO will increase the size of both its permanent presence in front-line states and its rapid-response forces stationed further west. These measures will require significant infrastructure investment to support permanently forward-deployed forces, those that rotate through front-line states during peacetime, and forces that would surge into their area of operations in a crisis or conflict. The European Union should play a key role in funding this infrastructure – especially given that its Strategic Compass and NATO’s new Strategic Concept call for deeper EU-NATO cooperation. To these ends, the EU should strengthen its Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) project on military mobility and create a new one on military permanence.

Since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, NATO has engaged in a flurry of activity designed to reassure its eastern allies and deter Putin from attacking them. At the same time, European governments and their partners – led by Washington – have supplied Ukraine with advanced weapons and other military aid. Even before the Madrid summit, the alliance beefed up its enhanced forward presence – comprising battalion-sized tripwire deployments, which are designed to trigger a NATO response to aggression – in each of the three Baltic states and Poland. Moreover, the United States deployed aircraft, heavy armour, air defence batteries, and thousands of troops to these countries. These measures have stretched the limits of Europe’s decaying military infrastructure, forcing soldiers on rotational enhanced forward presence deployments to sleep in tents.

The EU should complement military mobility with a PESCO project on military permanence

NATO has long sought to avoid the impression that it is creating a permanent troop presence on Russia’s border. Even after Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, western NATO member states were keen to uphold the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the alliance’s accompanying pledge not to deploy “substantial combat forces” on the territories of new NATO members. As a result, since the creation of the enhanced forward presence in 2017, rotating forces have hauled all their equipment across Europe and back for each deployment.

But, with Putin’s all-out attack on Ukraine, the NATO-Russia Founding Act is all but dead. NATO’s new Strategic Concept retains none of the previous edition’s relative optimism about Russia. Instead, it identifies the country as the “most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” The document does not even mention the act. And it reflects the fact that members of the alliance have jettisoned their self-imposed limits on the deployment of substantial combat forces to eastern Europe.

They are strengthening their forces in the Baltic states and Poland, and deploying new battlegroups to Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. They have also approved a tiered system of readiness for up to 300,000 troops – with 100,000 ready to deploy within ten days and the remainder within 30 days. In the future, even more NATO forces will rotate through front-line states, conducting exercises to reinforce the eastern flank.

NATO will also increase its permanent presence there. To upgrade the infrastructure necessary to accommodate these changes, Europeans should look to PESCO – which the EU created in 2017 to improve defence cooperation between its member states. Among PESCO’s 60 collaborative projects, “military mobility” has arguably received the most attention. This Dutch-led initiative includes Canada, Norway, and the US; it aims to simplify and standardise cross-border military transport procedures and improve related infrastructure. Yet, during negotiations over the EU’s 2021-2027 budget, the project’s funding was slashed from a proposed €6.5 billion to just €1.7 billion.

This decrease in financial support is no longer tenable – as European leaders now seem to recognise. In March, they agreed to accelerate “ongoing efforts to enhance military mobility throughout the EU”. But the initiative has made little progress since then. To address the problem, member states should – with the leadership of the Czech presidency of the Council of the EU – reconsider the resourcing of military mobility. If the EU is to facilitate a substantial increase in the number of troops on the move in Europe, it will need to improve transport infrastructure and establish seamless procedures for crossing national borders.

Moreover, the EU should complement military mobility with a PESCO project on military permanence. Eastern EU member states will incur considerable costs to expand military facilities as NATO deployments grow and become more permanent. This will include housing for troops; storage for equipment, ammunition, and other supplies; and land on which to conduct realistic multinational combat training and exercises. For instance, Lithuania’s government recently stated that it will take until 2025 to build facilities that can support the growing presence of the German armed forces in the country. Therefore, the EU should provide financial support to host nations as they work to increase NATO’s capability and credibility in Europe. It should also aim to ensure that burden-sharing is more equitable – and to allay fears in some quarters about increases in common NATO funding for similar initiatives.

NATO, especially its European pillar, should create a truly permanent presence in front-line states. Members of the alliance are now discussing the right balance between forward-deployed and preassigned surge forces. But, to be effective for both deterrence and reassurance, size and robustness matter: regardless of rhetoric, the alliance’s commitments are only as strong as its members’ willingness to incur costs and tie themselves to the defence of their allies. During the cold war, deployments of American troops to Europe helped build societal bonds between Europe – particularly West Germany – and the US. Europe’s cohesion would similarly benefit if troops and their families spent two or three years at a time deployed in other parts of the continent. Finally, cost-intensive upgrades of airfields to allow for the dispersal of allies’ nuclear-capable aircraft would enhance the survivability of NATO’s nuclear deterrent in a conflict with Russia.

The Russian threat to the European security order is now more acute than it has been for decades. As both the EU and NATO have come to recognise, significant adjustments will be necessary to “deter, defend, contest and deny” the threat. This will require Europeans to rebuild the intellectual, bureaucratic, and physical infrastructure to support large-scale military operations on the continent: military mobility and military permanence. PESCO can be part of the solution.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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