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Report: Russia still has edge over NATO on alliance’s eastern flank

German Marders, infantry fighting vehicles, assigned to 1st Mechanized Infantry Company, Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Lithuania, are positioned during a multinational exercise with U.S. soldiers near Baltadvaris, Lithuania, Dec. 14, 2017. (DUSTIN D. BIVEN /U.S. ARMY)

NATO remains outgunned by Russia on its eastern flank despite having spent years bolstering its forces in that region, according to a new Rand Corp. study.

“A more robust posture designed to considerably raise the cost of military adventurism against one or more NATO member states is worthy of consideration,” said the think tank’s report, which seeks to gauge how allies stack up to Russia.

The report stops short of making specific recommendations on the types of forces and capabilities that should be added along NATO’s eastern flank. But in other work by Rand, security analysts have said additional combat brigades should be deployed to the region.

The U.S. and NATO have been working for nearly four years to reconfigure alliance forces in Europe, with more units deployed to potential hot spots such as the Baltic states and Poland. After Russia intervened in Ukraine in 2014, NATO embarked upon its largest reinforcement since the end of the Cold War, with four alliance battle groups operating in the Baltics and Poland, a new quick-reaction force and a U.S. Army brigade on full-time rotation along NATO’s eastern edges.

Still, those moves haven’t kept pace with Russia’s own military advances, according to the Rand report, titled “Assessing the Conventional Force Imbalance in Europe.” As Russia has modernized its military in recent years, Moscow has moved newer and more capable ground and air force units near the borders of NATO allies Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — all small countries with tiny militaries, the report said.

In the Baltics, allies have roughly 32,000 combat troops, compared with 78,000 Russians in the vicinity, whose high readiness and mobility could overwhelm allies, the report said. Russia also has an advantage in tanks in the region, with 757 main battle tanks, compared with NATO’s 129.

And while NATO members have spent most of the past 15 years developing lighter forces that can be more easily deployed to places like Afghanistan, Russia has retained “combined-arms force that emphasizes mobility and firepower,” the report said.

Russia still has the advantage in conflicts between mechanized forces close to NATO’s border because of its ability to deploy with speed, it said.

Russia can also mass forces within its borders, leveraging its rail and road networks to “enjoy a significant time-distance advantage in generating combat forces during the opening period of a crisis,” the report said. Moreover, NATO’s numerical advantage in fighter planes would be put “at high risk” because of Russia’s “advantage in advanced integrated air defenses.”

For the U.S. and its allies in Europe, the challenge is finding a balance of force that can deter potential Russian aggression without further raising tensions. Moscow, which has repeatedly stated it has no designs on NATO territory, has lashed out at the alliance’s moves near its borders, calling them provocative.

The Rand report is largely focused on the imbalance of conventional forces with Russia around the Baltics. There is a growing sense within NATO, however, that Moscow poses a larger threat in nonconventional areas such as cyberattacks, electronic warfare and information operations. NATO is developing plans for a new cyber operations center at its military headquarters in Mons, Belgium, to deal with those concerns.

For now, allies don’t appear to have any plans for a more sizable buildup of conventional forces in the Baltics.

“We will not match Russia soldier for soldier, tank for tank, or plane for plane. Our aim is to prevent conflict, not to provoke it,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a meeting of defense ministers in 2017.

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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