The Future of the Zeitenwende

Jan 18, 2024

The Future of the Zeitenwende: Scenario 3—Russia Masses Troops on the Latvian Border

NATO must develop a credible deterrent in order to prevent attacks from Russia. In this, Germany has particular responsibility.

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Bild: Bundeswehrsoldaten bei einer Übung im litauischen Pabrade, März 2023.
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In this scenario, NATO members observe a worrying development: As in the months before the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russia is massing large numbers of troops and military equipment, this time on the Latvian border. At the same time, the authorities in the other two Baltic states are registering an increasing level of cyberattacks against private and state institutions and (attempted) attacks on critical infrastructure, along with disinformation campaigns that claim Latvia and Estonia are oppressing ethnic Russians..

As the situation worsens, many in NATO look to the German government, which has played an increasingly important role in Euro-Atlantic security since Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine. Among other things, the Zeitenwende—the much-used term indicating a “sea change” in German foreign policy—has prompted hopes among Germany’s allies that Berlin has finally begun to grasp the responsibility it bears for its allies’ security. The key questions in this scenario are: Has Germany in fact understood this responsibility? If not, what must be done to make this happen? And finally, in a scenario like this, how will decision-makers in Berlin react?

We can assume Germany would act on three levels: military, diplomatic, and economic. When NATO members—most of whom are now also members of the European Union—observe Russian forces massing close to allied territory, coordinated diplomatic efforts would probably take place, looking to deter Moscow from any attack on alliance territory. We can also assume that further sanctions packages against Russia would be put together within the EU framework, in conjunction with the United States. If the situation were then to further deteriorate, these could be quickly put into action.

Not Yet Ready for Deployment

This article, however, will mostly focus on military matters, where Berlin faces the greatest expectations from allies, and where it has the most still to do to catch up with its responsibilities.

In this scenario, Germany has not yet fully or permanently relocated its much-heralded “Lithuania Brigade” to the Baltic region. The Forward Command Element (FCE) was deployed to Lithuania in September 2022, and by now some advanced party and formation staff  would have been added. The first combat units of the brigade’s tank and armored infantry battalions would now also be on site, along with some support elements and materiel, some of it stationed in Lithuania itself. But the unit would still be far from being fully operational.

Nonetheless, in the event of a Russian attack, German soldiers would be ready and authorized to defend themselves, fighting alongside units from the multinational “enhanced Forward Presence” (eFP), which have been present in the region since 2017 and which are slated to become part of the promised Lithuania Brigade. We can assume that eFP forces, along with other brigade elements, would take up defensive positions, and supply and support units would be straightened out to reduce allied vulnerability.

As the Russian buildup on the Latvian border continues, NATO would also take further steps, with the NATO Supreme Commander (SACEUR) playing a particularly important role, most likely implementing the first stage (“Tier 1”) of the New Force Model (NFM), NATO’s new force structure. This stage foresees 100,000 soldiers to be deployed and “combat ready” in the country of operation within 10 days.

This move by SACEUR would have two aims: first, to increase real defensive readiness in an emergency situation, and second, to signal to Russia that NATO is genuinely determined to defend “every centimeter” of the alliance territory. Since February 2022, the alliance has repeatedly emphasized this willingness, including at the highest levels of political leadership.

Convening the North Atlantic Council

In addition to this military action, Latvia—possibly along with Estonia and Lithuania—would almost certainly invoke Article 4 of the Washington Treaty, NATO’s founding document. Article 4 allows for consultations to be requested between member states and in the North Atlantic Council—the alliance’s highest political body—if an alliance member perceives a threat to its territory, its political independence, or its security. This step can serve to prepare for a decision to invoke Article 5, although it does not have to.

Any activation of Article 5—the promise of mutual security that is at the “heart” of the NATO alliance—would occur only in the event of an armed attack on allied territory. For Article 5 to be invoked, an attack has to be formally reported by the state or states affected, and even then, a declaration of collective self-defense does not automatically follow.

Berlin’s Lengthy To-do List

To prevent such attacks from occurring, NATO’s deterrent posture must be rendered credible. To this end, capabilities for immediate defense must be available and kept in readiness, able to respond immediately to a potential attack. Although these preparations clearly require organization and coordination across the alliance, Germany will nonetheless have to play a central role. Berlin still has a long “to-do list” to complete before it is capable of reacting adequately to the scenario outlined above, or indeed to an actual attack on NATO territory.

First and foremost, Germany must ensure that the planned “Lithuania Brigade” is made permanently and fully operational in that Baltic state as quickly as possible. Until these planned forces are stationed on Lithuanian soil, it would make sense to designate another German-based brigade if the need arises, to serve as a “bridge” between the current situation and the desired state of affairs. As things stand as of now, the Lithuania Brigade is set to formally enter service in 2025. Even then, however, the unit may not reach complete operational strength until 2028.

For this reason, a solution must be urgently found for the transitional period before full operational readiness: This is where a “flexible brigade” based in Germany may prove useful. Furthermore, the FCE can play a hinge role during this period, a bridge between Lithuania’s armed forces and the brigade  still on German soil. Using this framework, units of the German brigade should be sent on exercises in Lithuania as often as possible, so as to familiarize German soldiers with their operational terrain as quickly as possible.

Germany should also consider separating eFP forces from the Lithuania Brigade and replacing them with another battalion from Germany, to be permanently stationed in Lithuania proper. Alternatively, rotating eFP forces should be done away with, with these forces instead being based permanently in Lithuania, along with the other units of the brigade. This step would necessarily have to be taken in conjunction with Germany’s allies. It would also have the advantage of stationing all forces assigned to the brigade formation permanently in a single location. This could strengthen their deterrent effect with regard to Russia, while also improving defense capability through frequent joint exercises in the operational area.

Germany must also ensure that adequate quantities of combat-ready military materiel is maintained on Lithuanian soil, above all battle tanks and armored personnel carriers, which remain the primary weapon systems of tank units and armored infantry. Expanding air defense capabilities is another necessity, especially short- to medium-range defensive systems, which can deal with possible close-range attacks, including the threat from drones.

Learning the Right Lessons

It is crucial that Germany draws the right lessons from Russia’s attack on Ukraine in terms of procuring the right equipment for future wars. Among other things, Germany has catching up to do in terms of electronic warfare, as well as in equipping its armed forces with more armed drones and artillery defenses.

Alongside the equipment issue, Germany also needs to further simplify and streamline defense policy processes and procedures. In September 2023, it was revealed that the German army had purchased digital communication devices but had not organized for them to be correctly installed in the designated vehicles—a case in point typifying the confusion in ministerial procurement processes.

What might at first seem a relatively minor matter has proved to have serious implications for Germany’s role in NATO. The German government had promised the alliance that it would supply the alliance with a fully equipped division, totaling three brigades, by 2025. However, nowadays a “fully equipped” NATO formation must include digital capability, and to achieve this, the communication devices must be installed in a wide variety of military vehicles. Without this equipment, German soldiers are unable to maintain encrypted communications with allied units.

These kinds of errors simply cannot happen again if Germany is to see a genuine “sea change” in defense policy and continue to be a reliable partner for its allies in the Euro-Atlantic region.     

Aylin Matlé is a Research Fellow at the Center for Security and Defense at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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