NATO’s Military Build-up in Eastern Europe: Necessary or a Prompt for Retaliation?

By Christine Deng

As of February 2017, there are over 7,000 NATO troops deployed in Eastern Europe (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland), alongside tanks, heavy armoured vehicles and 12 fighter-jets policing over the Baltics and Romania.[i] The amassment of troops right on Russia’s border is arguably part of the largest military build-up in the region since the end of the Second World War. In addition, the Alliance has been increasing the number and intensity of its military exercises in Eastern Europe. ‘Anaconda 2016’, purported to be the largest war game in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War, lasted for 10 days with more than 31,000 participating troops and thousands of military vehicles from 24 countries.[ii] This year’s notable exercises include ‘Saber Strike 2017’ with 11,000 troops in Baltics and Poland,[iii] and ‘Iron Wolf 2017’ with over 5,000 troops in Lithuania.[iv]

These measures are all part of the ‘Readiness Action Plan’ (RAP), a major reinforcement of NATO’s collective defence since the 1990’s, designed to allow NATO to rapidly respond to new and contingent security threats. As a direct result of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, RAP was created to reassure Eastern allies with large Russian speaking populations that a similar fate will not befall them.

The plan entails (selected):[v]

1.      Assurance Measures

  • Increasing military presence and activity (land, sea and air) in Central and Eastern Europe, contributed by troops from member states on an annual rotational basis;

  • Increasing the number of fighter jets on air policing patrols over Baltic States, Romania and Poland;

  • Enlarging NATO’s Standing Maritime Group and deploying Standing NATO Mine Counter-Measures Group to patrol the Baltic Sea and Eastern Mediterranean.

2.     Adaptation Measures

  • Facilitating long term changes to NATO’s military capability for quicker response times to emergencies;

  • Creating a ‘Very High Readiness Joint Task Force’ (VJTF) with 5,000 ground troops supported by air, maritime and special forces that can be deployed in just 48 hours;

  • Doubling the ‘NATO Response Force’ (NFR) to 26,000 troops;

  • Improving the national infrastructure such as airfields and ports in Eastern European states.

It is now time to step back and re-evaluate these actions. It calls for us to examine: is such military build-up necessary or a prompt for retaliation?

President Putin has called this build-up on the borders as a threat to national security and a show of aggressive force. In response, the Kremlin has also demonstrated its hard-military strength. Just a month ago, Russia launched a large-scale military exercise, ‘Zapad 2017’ with missiles, tanks and fighter jets firing very close to Russia’s border with Eastern Europe. Some fear that ‘Zapad 2017’ is a metaphorical ‘Trojan Horse’ acting as the starting point from which Russia will launch significant military action.

The Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, warned that Russia’s latest military drill showed that it was preparing for war in Eastern Europe.[vi]  Former Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, believes that this is a precursor to another annexation.[vii]

However, others like Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow at Chatham House, states “there is no cause for alarm.” Russia conducts ‘Zapad’ once every four years and contrary to the Western narrative that 100,000 servicemen would be involved, Russia had kept the drills “small, managed and contained”.[viii] Boulegue notes that the aim of ‘Zapad 2017’ is an effort to deter NATO by conveying the message that NATO must be prepared to bear profuse costs in case of a conflict.[ix] Such deterrence plays well to the internal divide in the Alliance, as Germany, France and Italy remain reluctant to engage in military force for the defense of Eastern allies against Russian aggression.

NATO’s military buildup in Eastern Europe is a pertinent issue that requires careful consideration from both sides to prevent the signaling of wrong intentions and aggravating tensions further. NATO has a difficult role preventing a breakout of conflict whilst ensuring adequate reassurance for Eastern allies and the capability to defend against a potential counter-attack.

Further points for research include the re-evaluation of the nuclear deterrence as a credible measure and the question of granting Georgia and Ukraine membership in light of recent aggressions, as well as the legality of Russia’s claim that the United States promised not to expand NATO eastward allegedly implied in NATO-Russia Founding Act 1997.


Christine Deng is a junior studying International Relations at the London School of Economics. She is the Blogger for Defense Affairs.








[vii] ibid.