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Research Questions

  1. What factors will likely affect Russian reactions to NATO posture enhancements in Europe?
  2. Using the framework created, how might Russia respond to planned and proposed NATO posture enhancements, and what are the implications for U.S. and NATO policymakers?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is in the process of implementing posture enhancements to increase capabilities on its eastern flank, and the escalation in tensions between Russia and NATO since 2014 has led analysts to propose measures that are even more extensive. However, Russia's likely reactions to such posture enhancements remain understudied. In this report, we develop a framework that analysts can use to assess likely Russian reactions to ongoing and proposed NATO posture enhancements in Europe. We develop this framework by assessing Russian strategic writing, the broader international relations literature, and the history of post–Cold War interactions between Russia and NATO. Our analysis suggests that Russian reactions will depend on 11 key factors that capture the strategic context, the Russian domestic context, and the characteristics of the proposed posture enhancements. We then illustrate how this framework can be applied in practice by assessing Russia's potential reactions to both planned and proposed enhancements. These assessments highlight the importance of clear analysis of Russian perceptions of NATO's intentions and commitment, domestic threats to the Russian regime, and the cost sensitivity of the Russian leadership.

Key Findings

Analysts Should Consider 11 Key Factors When Attempting to Determine Possible Russian Reactions to U.S. and NATO Posture Enhancements

  • Within the strategic context, analysts should consider NATO's relative overall capabilities, NATO's relative local capabilities, Russian perceptions of NATO's intentions, and Russian perceptions of NATO's willingness to defend its members against aggression.
  • Within the Russian domestic context, analysts should consider the extent of threats to regime legitimacy, the power and preferences of Russia's elite, and the preferences of Vladimir Putin.
  • Analysts should consider the following factors related to the characteristics of the posture enhancements: effect on strategic stability, effect on conventional capability, location, and extend of infrastructure improvements.

Posture Enhancements Currently Being Implemented Are Likely to Further Strengthen an Already Robust NATO Deterrent

  • Several factors suggest a very low Russian incentive to attack NATO, including Russia's perceptions of NATO's willingness to fight to defend its members against a Russian attack; limited Russian political or strategic interest in any current NATO territory, including the Baltic States; and limited domestic threats to the security of the regime in Moscow. Additional NATO posture enhancements have the potential to further limit this incentive.
  • However, many Russian policymakers appear to have increasingly concluded that the strategic goals of the United States and NATO are not compatible with the long-term security of the current regime in Moscow. While a direct attack on NATO is unlikely, Russia is likely to explore additional avenues to signal its displeasure with ongoing U.S. and NATO activities.

Recommendations

  • Proposals to enhance deterrence must consider the wider context in which they will be implemented. Enhancements that could strengthen deterrence in one context could be escalatory in another.
  • Enhancement projects should avoid autopilot. Policymakers should consider delaying final completion or announcements of posture enhancements that may take place during times of heightened tension and should routinely reassess posture decisions in the process of being implemented.
  • Posture enhancements that could affect strategic stability deserve special scrutiny. Given the centrality of Russia's nuclear deterrent to its security, Russia may be willing to run substantial risks to forestall further development of NATO capabilities that could threaten Russian leadership or command and control systems. Differing perceptions between the two sides over the implications of NATO development of these capabilities has the potential to lead to conflict.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Current, Planned, and Proposed Postures in Europe

  • Chapter Three

    Factors Affecting Russian Decisionmaking

  • Chapter Four

    Assessing Russian Reactions to U.S. and NATO Posture Enhancements

  • Chapter Five

    Conclusion

  • Appendix A

    Russian Decisionmaking in Key Cases

  • Appendix B

    B. Key NATO and Russian Interactions, 1995–2015

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by Brig Gen Mark D. Camerer, United States Air Forces in Europe, and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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