The 8,500 U.S. troops President Biden has ordered to prepare to go to Eastern Europe if Russia invades Ukraine can only be deployed by a consensus vote of all 30 NATO member countries. That could result in a bureaucratic disaster in the middle of the crisis and effectively give a veto over the deployments to countries such as Germany, Hungary or Turkey — a situation Russian President Vladimir Putin is sure to exploit.
Biden said Tuesday, when he announced the move, that he had told Putin that if Russia “continued to build up and/or was to move, we would be reinforcing those troops.” The president said he had also spoken with all 30 NATO allies and all agreed on those terms. But Pentagon officials have held back from commenting on exactly what would trigger the deployment and whether all 30 NATO member countries are really on the same page.
The Pentagon has said that these 8,500 U.S. troops would be placed on “heightened alert” for a possible deployment under the NATO Response Force (NRF). What that means in practice, several officials have confirmed to me, is that the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Lt. General Tod D. Wolters, would have to request their deployment from NATO itself before they could carry it out. The 30-member North Atlantic Council (NAC) would then have to unanimously vote to approve it.
There’s growing concern, especially on Capitol Hill, that this could be a huge problem for two reasons. First of all, considering how far apart NATO countries are on how to respond to Russian aggression now, there’s no reason to be sure that after Putin attacks, they would be united on a massive deployment of the NRF, which in total could send 40,000 NATO troops to places such as Poland, Romania and the Baltic countries. Negotiations over the size and the scope of the mission could drag on.
NATO members who border Ukraine or Russia could easily find themselves in the position of having to beg for approval for security reinforcements from countries that are more Russia-friendly, such as France, Germany, Hungary or Turkey, all of whom have been reluctant to do anything they think might provoke or escalate tensions with Putin. This would give Putin a clear opening to manipulate those fissures in the alliance, as he loves to do.
“It’s a slow bureaucratic process that outsources security interests to leaders in Germany, Hungary and Turkey, who would each have a veto,” said one senior GOP congressional official. “Putin understands the bureaucratic nature of how NATO works and I’m sure will be deftly skilled at exploiting that bureaucracy and the divisions inside NATO.”
What’s more, because the leadership of the NRF rotates annually among the member nations, the U.S. forces would likely be deployed as part of a command led by France, which is led by a president who is actively trying to set up a European defense force to supplant NATO.
U.S. defense officials I spoke with defended the arrangement. They argued that NATO is the natural place to coordinate a military response because NATO has been key in allied efforts to manage the Russia-Ukraine crisis so far. U.S. defense officials also express optimism that the ongoing diplomatic prep work will allow NATO to act quickly if the need for the deployment arises.
“There’s a lot of faith that at the end of the day, that if the Supreme Allied Commander decides to call up the NATO Response Force, many nations of the North Atlantic Council will already be on board,” one U.S. defense official told me. “If the call comes, I’m pretty confident that they would be able to make a decision very quickly.”
The officials pointed back to the last time the NRF was activated. In August, NRF troops helped to evacuate Afghans who had worked with NATO from Afghanistan as the Taliban took over. At that time, the NRF lead country was Turkey, but the Turkish government declined to participate. Still, Turkey did not stand in the way of the mission and the NAC acted relatively quickly.
U.S. defense officials also point out, rightly, that Biden has other options for deploying troops in Europe, or moving other U.S. forces within Europe, if the NATO scheme doesn’t work when the time comes. But countries directly in the line of Putin’s fire want Biden to deploy U.S. forces to help them now. They don’t want to bet their security on the future good graces of leaders in Berlin, Paris or Budapest.
“Given the force imbalance in the region, effective deterrence and defense can be achieved only by capable, in place forces … including persistent, ‘heel-to-toe’ presence of the U.S. forces as a necessary and indispensable element,” wrote the heads of the Lithuanian defense and foreign affairs committees, in a letter they sent last week to all the leaders of the U.S. Congress’s defense and foreign affairs committees.
As Putin points 100,000 guns at Ukraine’s head, Germany is offering Kyiv no weapons, only helmets. But the theory that avoiding any provocation of Putin makes Europe safer is not bearing out. If and when Putin does attack, the fallout will not be contained to Ukraine. Putting U.S. reaction forces under NATO command might work out — let’s hope it does. But Biden might want to start preparing a Plan B now, just in case.