Russia’s war on Ukraine pushes overhaul of Nato defences

VIITNA, Estonia – US troops stage an airborne assault. British marines conduct a nighttime beach landing. French paratroopers drop from the skies after flying across Europe.

In Estonia, on Nato’s eastern flank, the allies train in the shadow of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The message is clear.

“It says that at short notice we can deploy very fast,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Edouard Bros, commander of the French troops in Estonia and taking part in the Spring Storm exercise.

Fifteen months into Russia’s war on Ukraine, and a month ahead of a summit of Nato leaders in Vilnius, the alliance is reinforcing its eastern defences.

Now that Moscow has ripped up decades of post-Cold War order, Nato is conducting the biggest overhaul to its defences and planning in a generation.

“This change will move us from an alliance that was optimised for out-of-area contingency operations to an alliance fit for the purpose of large-scale operations to defend every inch of the alliance’s territory,” US General Christopher Cavoli, Nato’s supreme commander in Europe, said in May. “This is necessitated by the new realities we face.”

At a summit in Madrid in 2022, spurred on by the destruction Russian troops wrought in Ukraine, Nato reverted to “deterrence by denial” as it had during the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union.

That means stopping any attack by Moscow at the borders, rather than being willing to cede frontline territory such as the Baltics, which would then need to be recaptured.

“What is clear is that Nato made a strategic shift,” said Mr Kristjan Mae, head of the policy planning department at Estonia’s defence ministry. “Collective defence is the most important task, and we need to get our house in order.”

Battle groups and brigades

Since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the alliance has added thousands more troops to its eastern flank.

It has deployed four more multinational “battle groups” in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria in addition to those set up on Russia’s border in Poland and the Baltic states in the wake of Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.

Nato members are now planning how to scale up deployments to Baltic nations and Poland to brigade-size, which would mean adding thousands more troops, “where and when required”.

Military hardware – time-consuming and complicated to lug across the continent – is being pre-positioned in the east, and exercises are being stepped up.

For Estonia, Britain will have troops on standby at their home bases ready to rush to the country to bolster the roughly 1,000 British and French troops already on the ground.

“That is a key shift – the extra layer of capability in time to be part of the in place force prior to the outbreak of a conflict,” said Brigadier Giles Harris, British commander of the Nato deployment.

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