It is not the first time the Bundeswehr is engaged in the Baltic States. For a number of years, the German air force has participated as a rotating member in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission. But the new presence of the Bundeswehr in the German-led NATO battalion marks a sea change in German security policy: Collective defense is again part of the daily practice of the Bundeswehr. In contrast to the Cold War era, however, it does not take place on German territory but on NATO’s Eastern flank.
With the decision to take the leadership role for one of the four multinational battalions that the Alliance deploys to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, the German government has signaled a clear change in its policy toward Russia. For a long time, Germany, in particular, opposed any moves by NATO to strengthen Alliance capabilities in Central and Eastern Europe. Time and again, politicians even from the governing coalition in Berlin, from CSU to SPD, have warned of Western “saber-rattling” and thus only add to the widespread skepticism concerning a more determined response to the often thinly veiled threats that emanate from the Kremlin. Yet, the Germans should know better than anyone how the people in Poland and the Baltic States feel. After all, West Germany always insisted on the deployment of Allied soldiers along the intra-German border just to be sure that it would not be left alone if push came to shove. In essence, Germany has to demonstrate the same kind of solidarity today.
It is hardly surprising that parts of the German population are afraid of an escalation. But one cannot address these concerns by doing the right thing without properly communicating it. It is unfortunate that the proponents of the new posture—except for the defense minister—have shied away from explaining and defending this decision proactively. In the long run this is a dangerous attitude: A poll conducted by Pew Research in 2015 found that 58 percent of those surveyed in Germany agreed that the Bundeswehr should not be sent to defend its allies if there was a violent conflict with Russia. This undermines the credibility of deterrence—and makes an escalation more likely.
NATO’s enhanced forward presence is a measured response to the concerns of our Allies in Central and Eastern Europe. While Moscow has violated almost every core principle of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 and thus has destroyed its basis, as the Central and Eastern Europeans argue, the NATO battalions remain well below the threshold of “substantial combat forces” mentioned in the Founding Act. Taking into account that Russia’s armed forces in the region are far superior, this careful strengthening of defense capabilities can hardly be seen as an escalation by NATO.
This is another reason why all the talk about Russia being “encircled” or Western “saber-rattling” is off the mark. Whereas NATO publishes its exercises on the website months in advance and invites international observers, Russia often stages snap exercises involving troop levels that far exceed those of the NATO exercises. Moreover, the German engagement was the conditio sine qua non for the decision to reengage with Russia within the framework of a new dual-track strategy. As much dialogue as possible, as much deterrence as necessary—that is the NATO compromise in a nutshell.
But in order to be effective, deterrence has to be credible. For democratic states, this means that public opinion is a crucial element of security policy, which must not be neglected. The German participation in NATO’s new strategic posture is right and appropriate. It is, however, more than just a minor adaptation. Rather, it is the first response to a fundamental change in the European security environment. As a result, German contributions to military missions by NATO or the EU will likely be in rising demand. It would be smart to communicate it this way.
The German version of this op-ed was first published as “Das gefährliche Schweigen” by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on February 8, 2017.
Dr. Tobias Bunde is a researcher with the Centre for International Security Policy (CISP) at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and Head of Policy & Analysis for the Munich Security Conference (MSC).