Setting the tripwire

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of the US Army in Europe, recently visited Kiev, where he promised that a small number of army trainers would deploy in Ukraine shortly. He also visited troops from the US 2nd Cavalry regiment who are currently conducting exercises in Latvia. Stars and Stripes recently published an interview with Hodges in which he announced that the United States is making preparations to pre-position equipment, including armour, other vehicles and logistical support material, in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Some of the equipment will be stored in Germany.

During the Cold War, pre-positioning equipment was a core part of US strategy. Rather than tying down US forces in Europe, the United States pre-positioned equipment – essentially enough to support several divisions – in Europe. In the event of war, the soldiers would be flown to Europe on civilian and military aircraft and would ‘marry up’ with their equipment and move into combat. In a sense, many units had two sets of equipment: one set at the bases in the United States, making the unit deployable to other areas, and the other already in Europe. Since delivering equipment is time-consuming and moving troops is much faster, the US response time to a Soviet move was decreased dramatically.

These new deployments are nowhere near the scale seen during the Cold War. These are going to be company and battalion-sized packages. The deployments do, however, give the United States the ability to put boots on the ground quickly. The United States has a lot of conventional equipment, going back to the 1980s and 1990s, which is still extremely capable and well maintained, as well as troops trained in their use. A major pre-positioning is well within the United States’ capability if it chooses.

This is not an offensive capability in any way. Nor, frankly, would it represent much of a defensive capability should the Russians attempt a massive attack against the West. However, it does represent a tripwire. Should the Russians choose to move into the Baltics, for example, or should there be unrest among ethnic Russians there, the United States would be engaged already. Pre-positioned equipment must be maintained and guarded. However small, there would be a permanent military presence in the countries hosting the equipment, and the implicit promise is that in the event of conflict, forces would arrive quickly to marry up with the pre-positioned equipment and, by extension, further troops could be deployed. The Russians would need to calculate that any move against one of these countries would involve immediately at least a few Americans. That would serve as a deterrent to the Russians, as they would know US involvement to be automatic and could not know the degree to which the United States would get involved. When Russia invaded Georgia, it was not deterred by a US military presence in the Caucasus country. However, adding more personnel and equipment makes the pre-positioning of equipment in the Baltics and Central Europe a more sensitive tripwire than the US presence in Georgia.

Pre-positioning is also a confidence building measure among the host nations. They occupy an exposed position, as West Germany did in the Cold War. They depend on the promise of US support in the event of war. Pre-positioned equipment and support personnel put American skin – however little – into the game from the beginning. It doesn’t eliminate the element of doubt from this equation, but it gives the United States a small degree of exposure and some military capability, eliminating the claim that the United States doesn’t have time to move its equipment into position. And this is simply the first pre-positioning step.

Some journalists have been discussing an alliance system called the Intermarium for quite a while. First proposed by Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski after World War I, the Intermarium would be a defensive alliance against both the Soviet Union and Germany. It was called the Intermarium because it would stretch between two seas – the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. In Pilsudski’s mind, it would be supported and guaranteed by the French. Obviously, this was never possible.

Some journalists have been arguing that, given the re-emergence of Russian power, the idea of the Intermarium – supported not by France, but the United States, and focused on Russia – would become inevitable. Hodges’ statements on pre-positioning essentially announced the Intermarium, or its small beginning. The area in which the equipment would be pre-positioned stretches from the Baltic states through Poland and then skips to Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea. It signals to the Russians that whatever happens in Ukraine, the next line of countries is the line that triggers the alliance.

It is interesting that Hungary is not part of this group. It has chosen to bet on the Russians, or at least did when it appeared that the Russians would be ascendant. The new US ambassador to Hungary, Colleen Bell, met with Hungarian Defence Minister Csaba Hende on January 26, signalling that the United States could be attempting to bring Hungary back into the fold. It will be interesting if Hungary reconsiders its position.

The pre-positioning is not clearly part of NATO, although all the countries involved are NATO members. It is not clear whether the command structure for this system will run through Brussels or be autonomous. Many things remain unclear, and many things must evolve. But two things are obvious. First, the United States has made a decision – in a small and reversible way – to reinstitute its Cold War operational system in what used to be called Eastern Europe. The second is that the Intermarium is the only rational strategy in a Europe uninterested in defending Eastern Europe, which must defend itself with a great power guarantor.

George Friedman