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Recommitting to NATO, Resisting Putin’s Aggression

Editors’ Note: This article is part of our special series Predictions & Predicaments. It should be read as if written in April 2024. Read more about the special series here.

It is one thing to send little green men to attack Ukrainian soldiers. It is another to send them to attack the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division. Vladimir Putin learned that lesson the hard way.

NATO Member States

NATO member states could have reacted to Putin’s recent offensive by reinforcing their own defenses, preparing for the day Spetsnaz commandos and eastern Ukrainian separatist militias came to their borders. Luckily, the alliance remembered its recent history. As in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, the alliance had a reason to act even though the conflict was outside NATO’s borders.

What led the alliance to dispatch U.S., UK, and French paratroopers to Kyiv International Airport, daring Putin’s troops to continue their march toward the Ukrainian capital? It is possible to label any one of hundreds of events, large or small, as the decisive one. But three decisions made by the United States in the last three years stand out. The fact that they were U.S. decisions shows how indispensable the country is to European security.

First, commanders challenged very long-held assumptions. Take heavy armor, for example. Decades after the threat of Red Army tanks driving through the Fulda Gap vanished, the U.S. Army in 2019 was still ordering more M1 Abrams tanks. But with Military Sealift Command strained, and its ability to transport tanks across the Atlantic compromised, planners questioned their reliance on armor to fight off a Russian incursion. They realized cyber security was more valuable – witness the swiftness with which U.S. cyber units blocked Russian hackers’ attempts to disable Ukrainian government websites the same day as the invasion.

Second, the Pentagon began investing more in personnel, rather than putting excessive faith in traditional warfighting technology. As impressive as the United States’ warships, armored vehicles, fighter planes, and other machinery are, they will be useless if the men and women operating them are not fully prepared. Learning from the two fatal collisions involving Navy destroyers in 2017, and from the Marine Corps’ high number of deadly aviation mishaps in 2018, the U.S. military paid more attention to the troops’ training and wellbeing. Today, service members have ample opportunities to upgrade their skills, rest after long missions, and learn from their comrades.

Along with this investment came a different conception of what it means to fight. After much resistance, each of the services now has a cyber auxiliary, a unit whose members, while they must be physically fit, are not expected to meet the same high fitness standards as infantrymen. Former Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller was half-joking when he said a Marine in the Cyber Auxiliary “can have purple hair,” but he spotted the value of flexibility in particular standards. It was the warrior ethic that mattered, the commitment to using one’s skills in service to one’s country, not just the number of pushups one could do.

Third, and most importantly, was simply recommitting to the alliance. With a separate European Defense Force still under discussion, and with Americans’ domestic economic anxieties flaring up, it was tempting to simply let the Europeans go their own way. It is their continent, after all, a less committed president might have said. Why not let them boost their defense budgets, square off with Putin themselves, and leave the U.S. free to confront a still-rising China in the Pacific?

Fortunately, Washington chose the opposite path. For example, while continuing the multilateral Trident Juncture exercise in the Arctic, it restarted Marine Corps training missions along the Black Sea, a rejection of the false choice between preparing for conflict in one and in the other. So prepared were the U.S. sea services that, when the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit sailed toward Crimea aboard an Amphibious Ready Group, in tandem with the paratroopers landing in Kyiv, there was no doubt the United States was ready to fight.

Putin must have thought he had timed his incursion perfectly. When his troops set off for Kyiv on March 19, he saw no reason to worry. Surely, he thought, NATO members would not risk their soldiers’ lives for a non-member. Ukrainian resistance would crumble by April 4, giving NATO a black eye on its 75th birthday. But he reckoned without U.S. and allied resolve.

As his henchmen withdrew to the Donbass, unwilling to fight a U.S.-led detachment, Putin offered the laughable idea that his intention all along was simply to show the world what Russia was capable of. That remark will quickly fade from memory. Instead, the world will remember the words of dozens of ordinary people who spoke at NATO’s summit last week: Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians saved from massacres by NATO airstrikes a generation ago; Ukrainians who fled Crimea and the Donbass after seeing the brutal crackdown on friends who resisted Russian domination; Russians who risked their lives to speak out against the Putin regime. None of them were citizens of NATO members, but all praised NATO eloquently – a stark reminder that the alliance, when it summons the will to act, protects millions outside its ranks.

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Michael Purzycki

Michael has worked as an analyst in the Pentagon and at Bloomberg LP. His primary interests are U.S. defense policy, the Middle East, and energy policy. He has been published in the Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24.
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