During one of my recent research trips to Germany, among a small discussion group, a colonel in the German Bundeswehr raised a few eyebrows with an off-the-record observation: If Russian President Putin, he posited, ever unleashed his large and powerful mechanized forces across the North European Plain – through Belarus, Poland, Germany and beyond – nothing would be able to stop them. While such a grim prospect surely centers the mind, it also begs the question: Why would Putin, no matter how aggressive his behavior in recent years has become, ever commit such a staggering and calamitous act?
Setting that question aside for the moment, it is sobering to acknowledge that the Bundeswehr colonel was on the mark – given Western Europe’s alarmingly poor state of military preparedness, it would be unable to mount a meaningful challenge to a major Russian conventional attack, short of escalating to nuclear weapons. And since the latter option is, well, no option at all, and considering that any conventional resistance put up by NATO alliance members such as Germany, Belgium and France would amount to little more than token resistance, one wonders: Would these countries, and their countrymen, fight to save Berlin, Brussels and Paris, or simply bow to the inevitable and capitulate?
Of course, if Putin were to send his tanks rumbling westward, U.S. forces in Europe would contribute to its defense, but these forces do not signify the imposing threat they once did, having been reduced to a tiny fraction of their Cold War order of battle. Today (2016), there are barely 65,000 U.S. troops permanently based in Europe, and the value of even this small force was seriously compromised in 2012 and 2013, when the Obama Administration deactivated the U.S. Army’s two heavy brigade combat teams stationed in Germany – effectively eliminating Europe’s primary heavy armored force.
More significantly, due to the troubling state of preparedness of U.S. military forces, in part the result of the Obama Administration’s deep cuts to personnel, equipment and training – cuts which are hard to fathom in our increasingly precarious world – there is reason to doubt that the U.S. could make a serious contribution to the defense of Europe against a future Russian ground attack without resorting to all out nuclear war. In its annual report for 2016 on U.S. military strength, the conservative Heritage Foundation changed its overall assessment of the U.S. Army from “marginal” (2015) to “weak,” largely the result of a “drop in capacity,” for the Army now has fewer brigade combat teams ready for deployment overseas.
In June 2015, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that the U.S. would preposition heavy weapons, including some 250 M1-A2 tanks, in Poland and the Baltic states as a counter to Putin’s aggressive moves. (Implementation of this plan is not to begin until early 2017.) Yet to employ an idiom from the “Cold War,” this proposed force will not be large enough to be anything more than a token “trip wire,” which in 1956, 1962 or 1968, could have triggered a U.S. nuclear response – a response which today would be inconceivable.
In other words, due to the inadequate strength of U.S. personnel and heavy weapons now (or soon to be) stationed in Europe, as well as the burgeoning shortfalls of America’s military in general, the Europeans would be left largely to their own devices to face Russia’s 775,000 active military personnel (two million active reserves), 2600 main battle tanks (MBT) (with 17,500 in storage!), 4200 artillery pieces (self-propelled, towed and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS); with thousands more in storage), 11,000 armored personnel carriers (APC) and infantry fighting vehicles (IFV), 1200 combat-capable aircraft (including 140 bombers and about 1000 fighter, interceptor and ground attack planes), several hundred attack helicopters, and naval assets including 35 major surface combatants and 59 submarines. Given this grim reality, what conventional military forces could the strongest Western European “powers” – Germany, France and England – muster for a major war against Russia’s conspicuously superior military might?
The answer to this query is troubling at best. Germany’s post-war Bundeswehr, once one of the largest and best-equipped armed forces in the world, was reduced to simulating heavy machine guns with broomsticks in a recent NATO exercise; since the end of the Cold War it has axed 90 percent of its armor and now possesses slightly more than 200 main battle tanks, while in recent years many of its fighter planes have been grounded for the want of spare parts. Germany’s NATO ally, France, Western Europe’s sole strategic military power (with its own nuclear arsenal), has a professional army that is tough and capable, but with only 100,000+ troops and 200 tanks it is no match for the much larger forces Russia could field, even if its forces are combined with those of Germany. As for Great Britain, the disgraceful dismantling of its military power has reduced its once formidable blue-water navy to a mere 19 major surface combatants; until completion of two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, it possesses no operational aircraft carriers. The British Army is small (less than 100,000 regulars), much smaller than in Operation DESERT STORM (1991), when it contributed to the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In other words, the force structures of these once great European powers are not keeping President Putin awake at night.
But just what would a conventional ground war in Europe against Putin’s Russia look like? To answer this question we need look no further than Russia’s two Chechen wars (1994-96 and 1999-2000). In late 1999, Russian forces entered Chechnya and laid siege to its capital of Grozny. Russian artillery and missiles meted out indiscriminate destruction on the city; in general, observers were shocked by the brutality of the Second Chechen War and, in 2003, the United Nations called Grozny the most destroyed city on earth. Anyone viewing photographs of Grozny from that period will be struck by its resemblance to Stalingrad in 1943, or Berlin in 1945, so thorough was the obliteration of the city. The Russian invasion put an end to Chechnya’s de facto independence, restoring Russian federal control; but the bitter conflict witnessed wide-spread human rights violations by both sides, while a guerrilla war against Chechen insurgents went on for years.
Russia’s recent intervention in the Syrian civil war – following an official request from the Syrian government for military support against rebel and jihadist groups – has witnessed the same brutal and deadly pattern of indiscriminate bombing and civilian deaths. Indeed, the Russians, it seems, never got the post-modern message that “War is Never the Answer” and no longer a legitimate tool of national policy, as revealed not only by their behavior in Chechnya and Syria but by their aggression in Georgia (2008), the annexation of the Crimea (2014), and the stealth invasion of the Donbas region of Ukraine (2014).
It can be argued that Vladimir Putin is the most successful Russian leader since Joseph Stalin; he is also one of the most dangerous. He views the break up of the Soviet Union as the most catastrophic geo-political event of the past century and is determined to reestablish as much of that empire as his growing strength, and Western weakness, will permit. So he pokes and probes along the periphery of the NATO alliance, thumbs his nose at a distracted and weakened America, and threatens his neighbors with potential military or economic sanctions. Angered by the expansion of NATO up to the very borders of Russia, Putin could risk precipitating a major crisis in an effort to divide, or even dismantle, the NATO alliance.
Which leads us back to my query about President Putin himself – to wit, would he ever risk loosing the “dogs of war” on Western Europe? Perhaps simply revealing his contempt for his adversaries Putin, in September 2014, boasted that “he could, at will, occupy any Eastern European capital in two days.” The implication being that his greatly superior mechanized forces could seize Berlin, Brussels or Paris in just a few more days’ time? And yet, given the collective weakness and lack of will he acutely senses in Obama’s America and NATO in general, one can only surmise that Putin remains confident he can reach his geo-political and military objectives without having to resort to all-out war. He will simply continue to ratchet up the pressure (military and economic), intimidation, and the bullying behavior to achieve his goals. In short, a massive Russian offensive across the North European Plain is out of the question.
Thus, even if this article signifies little more than an “academic” exercise – inspired by the deliberations of an anonymous Bundeswehr colonel – it remains a sobering thought indeed that, given the existing “correlation of forces” between Russia and Western Europe, the latter, in a very real sense, remains captive to the mind and machinations of one Vladimir Putin.