VLADIMIR PUTIN recently told an Italian newspaper that “only an insane person and only in a dream can imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO.” So what is a sane person to make of the vastly expanded military exercises, patrols and incursions ordered by Mr. Putin along NATO’s borders since his invasion of Ukraine last year? According to NATO’s figures, Russian air activity near NATO territory increased by 50 percent from 2013 to last year; on the ground, there have been multiple last-minute military exercises, kept secret from the West or announced belatedly.
Russian military aircraft have flown unannounced over Poland; the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; and the North Sea. In April, a Russian fighter flew dangerously close to a U.S. plane over the Baltic Sea, even as the Russian navy conducted exercises in the waters below. Russian forces also have been deploying in the Arctic, forcing Sweden, Norway and Finland to contend with incursions by planes, and in Sweden’s case, a suspected submarine.
All of this might be dismissed as bluffing and posturing by Mr. Putin. But given the fact that the Russian leader has now launched two military invasions across European borders, it is only prudent that NATO prepare for the possibility of an incursion into the Baltics, which joined NATO a decade ago, or even into former Warsaw Pact states such as Poland. Doing so will not only deter Mr. Putin but also reassure those nations, which sometimes question whether the United States, Britain and France would really come to the defense of Eastern Europe’s border nations.
The Obama administration took a preliminary step a year ago when it began rotating a brigade of troops through the Baltic states and Poland and increasing military exercises in those countries. NATO has also mounted air patrols over the region. Now the Pentagon is considering a plan to pre-position tanks, infantry vehicles and other arms and equipment for up to 5,000 troops in the Baltics and Poland, as well as in Romania, Bulgaria and possibly Hungary.
It’s a good idea for practical as well as political reasons. As a Pentagon spokesman explained this week, NATO can save money by positioning equipment closer to training sites. In a crisis, the gear would be available for a rapid deployment by U.S. or other NATO troops. Even the most paranoid Kremlin analysts cannot regard equipment for 5,000 soldiers as an offensive threat, but the initiative could cause Mr. Putin to think twice about infiltrating special forces and other “little green men” across a NATO border, as he did in Ukraine.
Some in the West oppose any step by Western countries to defend themselves, no matter how small, on the grounds that doing so could “provoke” the Russian ruler. But it is more likely that a rejection of the Pentagon’s plan by President Obama would encourage Mr. Putin to believe NATO would crumble if challenged. Mr. Obama should approve the pre-positioning and make it clear that Moscow’s belligerence will be matched by tangible defensive acts.
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