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What is NATO's 'tripwire' strategy and is it still relevant today?

NATO soldier.
NATO soldier. Copyright Andreea Alexandru/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Andreea Alexandru/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Euronews with AP
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Has reinforcing troops on Europe's eastern flank helped scare off enemies? Russia doesn't seem to be intimidated.

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NATO's deterrence strategy has evolved considerably since its creation in 1949. The limited military units deployed in the past, serving as a "tripwire", have been replaced by reinforced battalions and heavy weapons in territories exposed to external risks. 

Faced with the Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and threats to security in Europe, the Atlantic Alliance has clearly chosen to flex its muscles.

The "tripwire" strategy

During the Cold War and in the decades that followed, NATO marked its presence by deploying limited armed forces to areas of geopolitical tension.

These military units, rather than representing an "offensive threat," given their size, were primarily intended to deter any potential aggressor. In other words, the Alliance warns that it will respond collectively if one of its soldiers is attacked on NATO territory. This is the "tripwire" strategy.

A few historical examples: during the Cold War, the US Army had a brigade in West Berlin to dissuade Soviet troops from entering that territory, even though the number of troops present would not have been able to defend the territory in the event of a Warsaw Pact offensive. Also,  in the Falklands in the 1980s, the British army relied on a small defence force, but this did not prevent the Argentine army from landing on the island and starting a war. Similarly, the United States deployed military personnel to South Korea to send a message to the regime in Pyongyang.

2014: the Russian annexation of Crimea prompts NATO action

After Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, NATO relied on this strategy of deterrence at the New Port Summit. On its eastern flank, especially in the Baltic countries, it deployed advanced logistical bases equipped with weapons and ammunition, capable of accommodating troops if necessary.

At the same time, the Alliance set up a "spearhead", a very rapid reaction force that can mobilise 800 men in two days and up to 7,000 men in a week. Moscow was warned.

2016: in Warsaw, the Alliance takes a further step

In the wake of the NATO summit in Warsaw in 2016, the Atlantic Alliance accelerated its pace by establishing "multinational battle groups" in several countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, but also Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria.

On top of the deployment of additional men (4,000 soldiers), this military reinforcement also meant a greater number of ships and aircraft in vulnerable areas. "This is the direct result of Russia's recurrent aggressive behaviour towards its neighbours and towards the transatlantic community at large," was NATO's justification. Moscow was furious.

Is the "tripwire" an obsolete strategy?

In 2022, the advanced presence of NATO forces on the eastern flank of Europe did not dissuade Vladimir Putin from sending his troops into Ukraine.

"The threadbare strategy is no longer suitable after what Russia has done in Ukraine. This means that the first battle must be the most important one," acknowledged a senior Alliance official.

Germany's foreign minister agreed: "The previous tripwire logic, which signals through minimum presences in the Baltic States and Poland that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on us all, will no longer suffice in its current form."

In July 2022, the NATO summit in Madrid adopted a new model that expanded the range of "high readiness" forces: more equipment and pre-positioned weapons stocks, and more integrated air and missile defence systems. The number of troops increased to 300,000.

The number of NATO troops on Europe's eastern flank in June 2022:

NATO
NATO forces on the eastern flank in June 2022.NATO

The new transatlantic doctrine calls Russia "the most significant and direct threat to the security of the allies [...] We cannot rule out the possibility of an attack on the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the allies."

For the first time, this new roadmap also targets China which, according to NATO, represents a "challenge to its security."

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