Late last month, a German convoy of 1,000 troops with tanks, drones and armored vehicles made its way some 750 miles to a Lithuanian military compound in Pabrade in three days, using trains, ferries, trucks and planes — all NATO drills for a possible incursion. by foreign (read: Russian) troops.
The huge military exercise, integrating German and Lithuanian forces, began with a reconnaissance and turned into a noisy, dusty battle that, not surprisingly, NATO won. Leopard tanks covered in camouflage raced back and forth in a haze of dirt, firing as they went; drones buzzed in the air; armored infantry vehicles rolled across a battlefield; soldiers covered in brush advanced slowly, weapons blazing.
The NATO exercise aimed to convince Lithuania and other countries bordering Russia that the promise of rapid reinforcement and collective defense was a reality. It was also intended to show the new commitment of the alliance to fight more dangerous Russia, which argues that its war in Ukraine is a necessary response to what it sees as a NATO effort to dismantle Moscow’s sphere of influence.
As NATO leaders prepare to gather in nearby Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, on Tuesday, the Baltic nations and others on Europe’s eastern flank are feeling especially vulnerable.
In the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022, the Russians captured more territory than the entire country of Estonia, notes Juri Luik, Estonia’s ambassador to NATO and former defense minister.
What happened on that territory, before Russian troops were forced to withdraw, became a symbol of unrestrained destruction and possible war crimes. Citing the devastation in the Ukrainian cities of Bucha, Irpin and Kherson, NATO’s frontline states have convinced allies that collective defense means greatly enhanced deterrence.
The military alliance is responding, developing detailed war plans and a commitment of troops, equipment and money not seen since the end of the Cold War. Political approval of these plans is at the center of the annual summit.
While political language about Ukraine’s future relationship with the alliance and the practical military aid promised in the current conflict will likely dominate coverage, NATO’s primary task is to defend its 31 members.
Speaking in Pabrade together with the Lithuanian president and German defense minister, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insisted that NATO is a purely defensive alliance, but with a keener sense of the threat it faces.
“This exercise sends a clear message: NATO is ready to defend every inch of allied territory,” he said, adding, “We are proving that we can also reinforce quickly, whenever necessary.”
As it evolves strategically and operationally, NATO is moving toward what the military calls “deterrence through denial,” which in practical terms means more troops along the Russian border.
Currently, the total number of soldiers for the eight battle groups along the eastern flank is only 10,232, NATO says. The leaders at Vilnius are expected to approve plans on how to scale up to 4,000 to 5,000 troops – a brigade – in each of those eight countries, with clearly defined tasks and pre-positioned equipment.
Separately, since the Russian invasion began, about 40,000 troops drawn from member nations have been placed on standby under NATO command, but officials admit that the forces it can quickly send into battle are currently nowhere near that level. Under its new plans, NATO aims, at least, to have up to 300,000 troops ready to move to its eastern flank within 30 days, though officials call that number “aspirational.”
The main point, Mr. Stoltenberg said, is that the new regional plans detail what each country must do to help defend its assigned territory, and with what equipment. Those troops will train regularly with allies on the territory they are assigned to defend.
NATO also plans to transition from the type of air policing now conducted over the Baltic to keep an eye on Russian warplanes to active air defense. And NATO understands the sophistication and the vulnerability of its modern equipment.
A modern Leopard 2A6 tank, the best of those supplied to Ukraine, has excellent speed and armor and runs on most any fuel. But it requires two hours of complicated maintenance for every hour on the battlefield, said Capt. Moritz, who commands one but was not authorized to reveal his last name under NATO rules.
As NATO changes, Adm. Rob Bauer, the chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, was blunt about what should be done. “We have to go and do our job to get the higher number of forces with higher readiness,” he said. “We have to practice against the plans. We have to buy the skills we require.”
“It’s not a switch,” he added. “That will take a considerable number of years to get there.”
It will also be necessary to convince the leaders and voters of larger allies further from Russia that their own security is at risk, and that they will have to pay the considerable price of a more militarized Europe for decades to come. And that means being really willing to come to the aid of smaller countries bordering Russia, like Lithuania, as they rebuild their weak militaries and learn to trust the United States less.
For Lithuania, a country of 2.7 million people that borders Russia and Belarus, getting Germany to commit to permanently stationing a brigade within its borders has become a domestic political issue. But Lithuania is not ready to host a brigade, and after this exercise, the Germans took their troops and equipment home.
However, at Pabrade, the German defense minister, Boris Pistorius, promised to establish a brigade of 4,000 soldiers in the country – after Lithuania built the necessary infrastructure, including housing, schools and storage facilities for ammunition and vehicles.
“Germany used to be the eastern flank of NATO, and we could always count on our NATO allies,” he said. Three decades later, “the eastern side is Baltic, Poland, Slovakia.”
As the largest economy in Europe and a key member of NATO, Mr Pistorius said, “Germany, of course, is willing and able to take responsibility now for the new eastern flank.”
Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nauseda, praised the German decision and said his country had started construction for the brigade and hoped to finish by 2025 or 2026. “The alliance is as strong as its most exposed locations,” he said.
Lithuania now spends 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, above the NATO target, and is working to increase its own active forces in the next seven years to one division of 17,000 to 18,000 soldiers.
NATO supports Germany’s decision about a brigade in Lithuania, Admiral Bauer said. But he added that most allies would continue to plan for the rapid deployment of more forces in a crisis rather than stationing them permanently at the front, partly out of expense and partly out of caution – a war could start with troops in the wrong place, and massed troops could be exposed to a first attack.
Despite all the reassurances, the Balts feel vulnerable, because of their size and their neighbor. And they feel that their past warnings about the imperial intentions of Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin have been downplayed by larger, more distant allies, such as Germany. One of those most outspoken early on about the Russian threat and NATO complacency was the former president of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite.
So it was a strong and symbolic gesture that after the exercise Mr. Pistorius presented a special award named after Manfred Wörner, the only German who was secretary general of NATO, to Ms. Grybauskaite.
Known for her candor, Ms. Grybauskaite did not disappoint in her acceptance speech. Her warnings about Russian revanchism were largely unheeded, even after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, she said.
“We tried to warn our allies about Russia,” she said. “People listened, but they did not hear.”
Perhaps now they will listen, said Mrs. Grybauskaite, urging the rapid integration of Ukraine into NATO as a full member.
“We don’t have to wait until the end of the war,” she said. “If we declare that Ukraine must not be a member until the end of the war, the war will never end.”