Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Why the US is Sending an Armored Brigade to Eastern Europe

Whether an armored brigade is "big" depends on the size of the pond it swims in.

At about 1100 armored vehicles (Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and some mobile artillery), such a brigade could easily overwhelm the conventional militaries of most small countries.

In the Eastern European theatre, an armored brigade is nothing close to large enough to be a game-changer. Russia's military sports about ten thousand pieces of active heavy armored equipment (tanks, fighting vehicles, and mobile artillery), most of which is dedicated to its western front.

Despite the numerical gap, the US is sending such a brigade to Eastern Europe, spread out from the Baltics all the way down to Romania. What we know is that such a brigade won't be a decisive force if Russia were to invade Sweden, the Baltic countries, Romania, or Poland (all of which it's threatened to do over the past few years). Why the effort, then?

Some analysts suggest it is a "symbolic" gesture for wary allies. I think a fifteen-second gut check suggests this hypothesis is weak: Eastern European countries are skeptical of NATO, terrified of Russia, and are smart enough to see past symbolic gestures. And US leadership is smart enough to see all of this.

I think what's really going on is that these vehicles are there to be a "positive deterrent" of sorts. That is, rather than deterring Russia by having overwhelming strength on the battlefield, this brigade deters Russia by promising that if Russia attacks one of these countries, the US will be dragged into the war: these units are mixed in with local units and have the right to defend such territory from invasion--all these countries are NATO allies. If that happened, US assets would be attacked and destroyed, with all the shock and fury on the domestic front that would come with that.

The United States' leadership would have almost no choice in the matter: they would face massive pressure to deploy more forces (probably first from Germany) in order to repel the Russians from whichever ally was attacked. For Russia the subsequent fight would be long and messy at best. If Russia lost, defeat could bankrupt the country, wreck Putin's reputation, and set the Russian military back years. Not to mention that countries like Ukraine and Sweden would likely hop on the express train to NATO and request heavy garrisoning by the US to prevent further Russian attacks.

So what this brigade does is that it embodies lessons from the errors of 2004 and 2014 that allowed Russia to invade and annex parts of Georgia and Ukraine. Russia's success in those conflicts depended on avoiding getting entangled with NATO and on pitting their forces only against the small domestic forces of their target territories, and on moving quickly enough that it won the status quo in the area. Such a strategy has worked so far, but its effectiveness would quickly end once an American battle tank was destroyed on the field. Russia could not have a quick, clean victory that way, and would no longer be able to use Europe's lethargy to its advantage.

Russia's leadership is also smart, and knows this. The US administration is putting American lives at risk, yes, but with the expectation that Putin will understand the consequences of attacking, and thus be far less likely to attack at all. It is a clever way of containing Russia in a world where Western European allies are afraid to get on Russia's bad side: the US uses its cowboy reputation to its advantage here, and deploys its own deterrent.

The final stroke of brilliance here is that it is a force that is too small to be a credible offensive threat to Russia, so Russia not only won't feel territorially threatened, but its leadership will have shaky ground on which to pretend that it feels threatened (and thus justify an arms race).

In a comparatively cheap, gentle stroke, the US has out-positioned Russia in most of Eastern Europe, putting time back on the West's side for sanctions to squeeze Russia into acquiescence. 
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