The Most Important Corpses

By Steve Saideman

I was on twitter talking with some folks about what Canada might promise at the Warsaw Summit, with the focus on who is going to provide the troops for the four battalions that will be based in the Baltics and Poland.  The conversation went into a bunch of directions, so I had an epiphany while shopping–it is not about proximity or folks who have ties to the Baltics–it is about whose corpses would have the greatest international political relevance.

The basing of NATO troops in the East (the Eastern Front is what people are calling it) is all about two things: reassuring the allies and deterring Russia.  And, no, the forces to be deployed would not stop a Russian invasion.  Just like the old days, the point of the troops would be to serve as a tripwire–that any invasion of West Germany in the Cold War would almost automatically produce an American/West European response because any such invasion would kill Americans and Brits and Canadians and on and on.

Four battalions/one brigade is not a lot of troops and divided among four countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland) means that there is actually not a very complicated force generation problem.  The current commitments thus far are one American battalion, one German, one British (I think), and one TBA.  Today’s conversation was about Norway and Denmark possibly jointly providing the fourth, with, of course, other NATO countries sending smaller numbers to complement the bigger American, German, and British units.

For me, going back to whose dead bodies are most important, I would like to see US, UK, Germany and France make the bigger commitments.  Why?  Three of those countries have nuclear weapons and all four are the major decision-makers at NATO.  France and Germany are often viewed as the most reluctant to assent to various decisions (France, which is always sensitive to the costs it pays; Germany, because it does not want to provoke Russia and has a bit of a history problem).  One could imagine a scenario where some NATO soldiers have been harmed, and then a decision has to be made at the North Atlantic Council (NATO’s decision-making body).  Since there is no automaticity to Article V, we would want those countries who have the greatest heft and most likely tendency to block action to have a direct stake in the form of soldiers who are hit in the first wave.

Tying French and German hands as well as tying British and American hands would be important both to assure the Baltics AND to send a clear signal to Russia that an attack would lead to World War III via an uncertain but potentially uncontrollable process that starts with a Russian attack on territory held by Americans, Germans, Brits, French and others.  Italians?  Not so important?  Canadians?  Only important to those who study/pundit Canadian defence (guilty!).

It is brutal but necessary to think in these terms–what would it take to deter Russia?  Which countries matter to Russia’s decision-making?  How do we make the commitment to escalate credible?  Politicians are more likely to react if their soldiers have been harmed than if the soldiers of their allies have been harmed.  So, tripwire that has the usual major force contribution countries present and accounted for.

 

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