The foreign policy priorities of President Joe Biden suggest greater commitment to NATO Allies and decisive steps to counter Russian subversion in Europe. Optimistically, a reaffirmation "that America is strongest when it works with its allies," and that America’s alliances are its greatest asset, could considerably benefit NATO’s Eastern Flank, and in particular, its Black Sea members. These countries are today highly exposed to Russia’s hybrid warfare toolkit, with Moscow exploiting any opportunity to weaken NATO by subverting its Eastern members. Russian hybrid activity is also a daily challenge for aspirant members Ukraine and Georgia.
In contrast to his predecessor, President Biden will likely shift America’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Transatlantic relations and countering Russian revanchist actions in Europe. Nevertheless, it should be noted that while the previous administration did not prioritize the NATO Alliance, it took important steps to support America’s Eastern European allies in facing the Russian threat. But prioritizing NATO does not mean the new administration will be inclined to strengthen commitments without ensuring the same from its allies. The U.S. is expected to invest more in European security, but Washington will likely require greater defense and security commitment from the Europeans. This would be especially true concerning the NATO Eastern European member states that are most exposed to the Kremlin’s revanchist agenda and, at the same time, have the most to gain from a stronger Transatlantic bond. Western European allies will also be asked to increase their commitment to the security and defense of the NATO Eastern Flank.
There are several ways the new U.S. administration could assist Eastern Flank members and Black Sea allies in the years to come, all of which would benefit both sides and increase security, especially in the Black Sea.
Defense assistance on the Eastern Flank
First, the Biden Administration should work to strengthen NATO presence along the entire Eastern Flank – from the Baltics to the Black Sea. Referred to as the Achilles’ heel of the Alliance, NATO’s Eastern Flank is most vulnerable to Russian and Chinese subversion. NATO must therefore invest in enhancing the defense capabilities, interoperability, and readiness of its allies bordering Russia. Currently, NATO recognizes these member states as two separate groups – the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) and the tailored Forward Presence (tFP). With Moscow viewing its Western border as a single front, there is no logic in NATO continuing to split its focus on the Eastern Flank. Greater investment is needed in the tFP in the Black Sea, with the aim of one day establishing a NATO Single Forward Presence (sFP). In other words, NATO should consider transitioning from two Forward presences into one single presence to its East.
There is a strong need to improve Eastern European members’ defense institutions, so as to increase capacity to deliver enough interoperability and readiness, while contributing to both Article 5 and non-Article 5 operations. The Biden Administration and Department of Defense should prioritize defense transformation across NATO’s Eastern European members, where reforms to defense institutions have been slow. Defense transformation is unfinished business, and the best results could be seen in the coming years. This would bring enormous benefit to the region, the Alliance, and to the U.S.
Earlier this year, President Biden remarked, “To counter Russian aggression, we must keep the alliance’s military capabilities sharp while also expanding its capacity to take on nontraditional threats, such as weaponized corruption, disinformation, and cybertheft.” “Weaponized corruption” is a perfect definition for the long-neglected tool of Russian subversion in Eastern Europe. More emphasis is needed on building NATO Eastern members’ resilience and institutional capacity to counter Russian hybrid attacks. This is their greatest vulnerability today, with the impacts also felt by NATO as a whole.
Defense assistance in capability build-up is of little value if NATO Eastern Flank member states are not resilient enough to counter Russia’s hybrid influence. The new administration should encourage NATO countries to adopt their own national strategies to counter hybrid warfare as the next step in developing NATO capacity to respond to hybrid threats.
Burden sharing will be at the top of Transatlantic agenda under President Biden. Although this has not been as bluntly stated as was by Trump, the issue of meeting the NATO Defense Investment Pledge will unquestionably be a priority for this administration's NATO policy.
A minimum of 2 percent GDP spent on defense, with more than 20 percent of defense budgets allocated to acquiring major equipment, including research and development, are critical targets for NATO members. These targets have so far had the positive impact of more equitable burden sharing and, most importantly, on reversing the defense spending decline. But quantitative metrics do not necessarily measure quality. Spending targets measure investment rather than outcomes, such as critically needed capabilities to counter security threats, readiness levels, or the ability to deploy in operations. New principles for burden sharing could be established, necessitating more objective indicators to measure results. NATO’s Eastern Flank members could very well benefit from such principles, which would allow them to focus not solely on spending targets – which at some point could lead to complacency – but also on real capabilities and the ability to use these effectively in operations.
Rearmament and modernization
Rearmament and modernization are the next priorities for Eastern Flank members, all of which are still managing (to varying degrees) with the heavy burden of old, obsolescent Soviet equipment inherited during the Warsaw Pact. However, if the previously mentioned challenges are not addressed, the acquisition of new equipment will not bring much value. For example, if the strategic level system of command and control is still burdened with a communist legacy, acquiring state-of-the-art equipment will not increase capabilities. When success is measured only in terms of budget, while ignoring how or where money is spent, results will be mediocre.
Undeniably, NATO’s Eastern Allies will need to make enormous investments in rearmament in the years to come. The key is to spend more wisely, ensuring the highest return for every dollar earmarked for defense.
A true game changer along the Eastern Flank would be prioritizing investment in capabilities that can be integrated into the NATO framework. In other words, prioritize the acquisition of weapon systems and military equipment that can contribute to NATO joint operations. In the Black Sea, for example, this would mean investment in developing joint land, air, and maritime capabilities in the tFP framework, thus enabling a faster and more effective build-up. These could mean joint acquisition and operating of air and missile defense systems, land bases anti-ship missiles, maritime patrol aircraft, and UAVs. Joint capability projects mean sharing the burden of buying and using expensive equipment, much of which Eastern Flank members will find difficult to acquire on their own.
Regional cooperation in capability build-up
Collectively developing and employing capabilities under a NATO umbrella is the right approach to managing the risks and threats of an unstable and increasingly unpredictable environment like the Black Sea.
Solutions that adequately respond to the Capability Targets of NATO’s Defense Planning Process could be developed by a group of regional allies. Regional cooperation and joint capability building projects under NATO – using Alliance agencies for acquisitions in order to maximize spending efficiencies and reduce corruption at a national level – would help build the necessary capabilities to meet future security challenges.
Following the brilliant example of U.S. F-16s carrying out a NATO air policing mission with the Bulgarian Air Force, more joint air policing missions under the Alliance umbrella are needed. This mission was part of NATO’s enhanced air policing measures in the Black Sea in response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and ongoing destabilization of Eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, Romania has regularly benefited from NATO air policing missions since 2014, relying on different allies to patrol and train alongside the Romanian Air Force. Bulgaria and Romania have both chosen the F-16 as their fighter aircraft for decades to come. With the support of the U.S. and other allies, these two countries could form the pillar of future enhanced air policing over the Black Sea. However, it should be noted that Romania and Bulgaria will both need substantial U.S. support in getting their F-16 fleets operating to NATO standards. One step further, a NATO air force base could be established in Bulgaria, given the country’s central location.
A joint NATO maritime capability in the region is badly missing. The idea was proposed in 2016 but due largely to hostile Russian pressure, has not seen enough political support to progress. This is another reason for President Biden to initiate a progress review of the ongoing build-up of NATO presence in the region. The Maritime Coordination Center in Varna, Bulgaria is one promising achievement in terms of building a stronger NATO presence. Through this structure, Bulgaria will provide a maritime coordination function to support NATO's tFP, with its true potential still to come. The Center will also support maritime domain awareness in the Black Sea, another area where U.S. assistance would be welcome.
Another important step taken by the new president, with the support of Congress, would be to launch a debate within NATO on the significance of Article 8 of the North Atlantic Treaty as part of the NATO 2030 reflection process. Article 8 stipulates that member states agree “not to enter into any international engagement in conflict with this Treaty.” The legal interpretation might sound broader in scope, but the question is whether signing contracts with Russian military companies constitutes a failure to meet Article 8 obligations. In its Military Doctrine, the Russian Federation now considers NATO as an enemy. Moreover, it has unquestionably waged a hybrid war campaign against NATO, the EU, and member states of both organizations. Therefore, there is no logic in relying on Moscow’s defense industry for procurements or services. Doing so undermines the Article 3 commitment of Allies to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack,” in addition to compromising Allied solidarity in the face of the Kremlin’s aggressive policy. It is worth remembering that today, “Russia is deploying a broader hybrid toolkit including offensive cyber, state-sanctioned assassinations, and poisonings.” Contracts with the Russian defense industry should be seen as contradictory to both the spirit and the letter of the North Atlantic Treaty. It is time to place this discussion high on the NATO agenda.
The same logic could be said with respect to the build-up of 5G networks and the possible involvement of Chinese companies. 5G networks will be key to any country’s critical infrastructure. Compromising their security through contracts with Chinese companies, given that China’s National Intelligence Law requires organizations and citizens to cooperate with Beijing’s intelligence services, jeopardizes critical infrastructure and, ultimately, national security and resilience. If resilience of any NATO member is compromised, it would be impossible to meet Article 3 or Article 5 obligations. This means risking national and Allied resilience and security. As outlined in NATO 2030: United for a New Era, “Over the coming decade, China will likely also challenge NATO’s ability to build collective resilience, safeguard critical infrastructure, address new and emerging technologies such as 5G, and protect sensitive sectors of the economy including supply chains.”
Open door policy
Finally, President Biden could exploit opportunities around NATO’s open door policy. Georgia and Ukraine should be kept on a path of Euro-Atlantic integration. Setting a clear path on how to achieve membership would undoubtedly help ensure progress on reforms in both countries. Failure by the Alliance to prevent reform fatigue in Georgia and Ukraine will inevitably facilitate Russian hybrid influence operations against Kiev and Tbilisi, as the Kremlin will do anything in its power to reassert dominance and prevent their Euro-Atlantic integratio. President Biden should insist NATO takes steps to show these two states their importance to the Alliance, while at the same time encouraging reforms. A summit declaration on keeping NATO’s doors open could also be useful. Another possible option would be, in the context of the NATO 2030 reflection process, to develop an analysis or a study dedicated to the future of the Alliance’s open door policy, and why it still matters. The focus of this should be two-fold: ensuring lasting reforms in Georgia and Ukraine while encouraging and valuing their contribution to NATO operations and initiatives, especially in the Black Sea.
These efforts could support the new U.S. president’s vision of America leading again. At the very least, they would be beneficial to NATO and especially to its Eastern members, all of which are highly vulnerable to Russian destabilization. Strengthening these NATO allies also means ensuring the alliance is able to meet the challenges of the strategic environment until at least 2030, and even beyond. This, in turn, guarantees to all the member states more security in an increasingly uncertain world.
Mihail Naydenov is a defense, national, and international security expert and has been a civilian expert at the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense since 2001. Mihail also serves as a member of the Governing Board of the Atlantic Council of Bulgaria. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of MEI or the Bulgarian Government.
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