NATO Will Boost Its High-Readiness Forces, Mainly On The Eastern Flank Near Russia

On June 27th, The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) announced an increase in the number of its high-readiness forces – the NATO Response Force (NRF), from 40,000 to 300,000 from 2023, with the primary objective of countering the threat on the alliance’s eastern flank. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg publicly declared that the move was a direct reaction to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, describing Russia as the “most significant and direct threat” to the alliance.


Stoltenberg further explained that “this will mean more NATO forward-deployed combat formations, to strengthen our battlegroups in the eastern part of the alliance, more air, sea and cyber defences, as well as pre-positioned equipment and weapons stockpiles.” He also described this unprecedented increase in troops as “the biggest overhaul of collective defence and deterrence since the Cold War.”


While the recent announcement eases the hearts of NATO member countries, in the context of the broader Russia-Ukraine war the announcement does not do much. Indeed, NATO’s plan to boost its forces on the eastern flank will satisfy the 30-member states, especially those who have been concerned about the possibility of Russia extending its invasion to their territories. Such a move, however, has two potential effects on the war from a Russian perspective. On the one hand, the move could very well dissuade Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine and compel a withdrawal. On the other hand unfortunately, Russia could use the announcement by NATO as justification to continue its aggression in Ukraine.

NRF comprises land, air, sea and special forces that are mainly utilized for rapid deployment, and was launched in November 2002 at the Alliance’s Prague Summit. Initially, it mobilised for disaster relief, and it did not engage during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Despite its cautious approach, its size has gradually grown from 13,000 troops to 40,000 since 2014. However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NRF was activated at high readiness for the first time. Battle groups from NATO member states have already launched in countries on the alliance’s eastern border, such as the Baltic states -Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. More battlegroups are planning to deploy in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.


The recent deployments were in response to appeals from the Baltic states who called for a fundamental alteration to NATO’s existing military construct. Three countries who are all members of NATO and the European Union argued for an increase in the number of troops given that they shared the EU border with Russia, and needed measures in place to ensure the protection of their countries in the event of a Russian invasion.


The decision to alter NATO’s existing set-up was simply the start of further changes to come. At the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain from the 29th to 30th June, the key agenda was discussing the pathway for the 30-member alliance in the coming years. Stoltenberg commented, “Our NATO Summit in Madrid this week will be transformative with many important decisions, including on a new Strategic Concept for a new security reality.” During the summit, NATO member states also individually confirmed their national plans to support other NATO allies. For example, Germany had announced a military mission to Lithuania; while France was making plans to increase its forces in Romania, including plans to deploy 1,000 troops with Leclerb Tanks by the end of 2022.


Increased NRF in the eastern flank will provide a ‘one-sided’ peace. It will reflect a modern illustration of a security dilemma. The textbook conclusion of the security dilemma is that it will end up with a decrease rather than an increase in security conditions. Unless Russia experiences severe damages or outrightly loses the war in Ukraine, it will likely not end its aggression despite the increase in military efforts by NATO. The North Atlantic Alliance must consider other alternative non-military actions if it is to generate long-lasting peace in Eastern Europe.


Heewon Seo