NATO countries are discussing increasing the number of troops stationed in members bordering Russia and putting them under formal alliance command, part of a new effort to deter aggression from Moscow, according to diplomats and military officers.
Under one plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would have a battalion in Poland and each of the three Baltic states—roughly 800 to 1,000 soldiers in each unit. A more modest version would have a single NATO battalion in the area.
While the U.S. and other allies are supportive, however, German officials in particular have expressed reservations, telling the allies in private discussions that they don’t want to treat Moscow as a permanent enemy or lock it out of Europe, despite the frictions over Ukraine and other provocations.
NATO officials say Berlin is unlikely to back the biggest deployment, but could support the more modest increase. East-West relations have plummeted to their lowest level since the Cold War in the wake of Russia’s annexation last year of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine, which isn’t a NATO member but shares a border with several.
The alliance has been deeply critical of Russian backing for separatists in eastern Ukraine and stepped-up Russian military exercises in the region, as well as what they have called provocative incursions into NATO airspace and threats to use nuclear weapons.
Moscow in turn has said repeatedly it views NATO as a security threat. NATO officials say the new plans are at an early stage. Nothing has been formally presented to its North Atlantic Council, which requires consensus to approve alliance actions, and no deployments are likely before the July summit of NATO leaders in Warsaw.
But senior allied officials say there is a growing agreement that more needs to be done to show Russia that NATO is committed to defend its territory.
“There is a sense if we are going to have a long-term defense and deterrence strategy we need to discuss what more we need to do beyond our readiness action plan,” said Alexander Vershbow, the NATO deputy secretary-general.
U.S. officials have said they are willing put the 150 U.S. soldiers currently in each of the Baltic states and in Poland under NATO command, and are open to rotating in additional troops from the U.S. The plan would also require other countries that have deployed troops there to agree to a NATO command. The U.K. has about 150 troops there and Germany is deploying up to 200 soldiers.
Senior U.S. officials say that, in light of stepped-up exercises by Russia in the region, increasing the NATO presence could show Russia President Putin that the alliance is cohesive and Washington remains committed.
“We are not picking a fight; we aren’t trying to provoke him,” said a senior U.S. defense official. “But we are trying to make sure he understands we are engaged in Europe, we are militarily capable in Europe and we are going to defend NATO. That is the message.”
Alexander Grushko, the Russian ambassador to NATO, said the alliance was already violating a 1994 agreement not to permanently station troops on Russia’s border, and the idea of increasing the numbers was provocative.
“From political point of view these military activities are aimed at creating a new ‘Iron Curtain’ in Europe,” Mr. Grushko said. “NATO military planning generates confrontational approaches to security issues that in our view should belong to the past.” He said what he called the “creeping increase in NATO’s military presence on our frontiers” was testing Russian patience.
NATO officials insist that because the troops would rotate in and out, and be smaller than a regular brigade, the new deployment wouldn’t violate the 1994 agreement, under which NATO promised not to station substantial numbers of combat troops on Russia’s border.
While the alliance accuses Russia of having repeatedly violated other aspects of the agreement, the U.S., Germany and other members have insisted on abiding by it.
NATO has never defined what a substantial force would be, however. In negotiations over the accord, Russian officials suggested defining substantial as a brigade-size force, usually between 3,000 and 5,000 troops. NATO officials in the early 1990s insisted on keeping the language vague. Mr. Grushko said NATO should agree to a new dialogue aimed at defining what substantial combat forces are.
Senior NATO officials say they believe they will be able to get troop contributions from member nations now, as more come to the conclusion that they face a long-term strategic competition with Russia.
“The prospects are good that allies will contribute their fair share,” said a NATO official.
However, it isn’t clear whether Germany would block such a move. NATO officials say Berlin is eager to avoid any public discussion of additional troops in the Baltic states at a moment when the cease-fire in the Ukrainian conflict is holding and relations with Russia are in flux. By contrast, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have all requested that NATO increase its presence to deter Russian aggression. Poland’s new governing party in particular has stated it would renew the push for a permanent allied base.
“The easterners are saying we need more presence to have more deterrence,” said another alliance official. “They have a good logic, but it is a clash of two logics.”
U.S. officials remain opposed to a permanent base, arguing they don’t have the funding for an expensive new installation or long-term deployment.
Privately, Pentagon officials have also told Polish defense officials that building a permanent base would take far too long, requiring years of approvals and construction. But U.S. officials told Polish counterparts that boosting the rotational forces could be done quickly. The senior U.S. official said there is “lot of room for creativity” in how the U.S. and its allies use rotating forces. U.S. and other officials are considering coordinating the deployments and have the U.S., U.K. and German companies begin training together as a NATO battalion.
“It is a very attractive idea to synchronize these forces,” said the senior U.S. official.