- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
With NATO-Russia relations at their lowest point in decades, the two former Cold War adversaries are in a tense stand-off over missile defense. In recent years, Russia established a dense thicket of overlapping missile and missile defense systems with ranges that jut into NATO territory.
Those systems could hinder NATO’s access to the territory in which it operates — akin to a 21st century moat around a castle. In defense jargon, it’s a strategy known as anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD. And it’s a top worry for NATO commanders.
“The proliferation and the density of that kind of A2/AD environment is something that we’re going to have to take into account,” Gen. Frank Gorenc, the top U.S. Air Force commander in Europe, said of Russia’s missile build-up near Eastern Europe in an interview with the New York Times last year. “It is very serious,” he said.
To visualize the NATO-Russia missile defense stand-off, experts at the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) put together an interactive map showing what each side has in its arsenal — from missile defense to land-based and naval-based strike capabilities. Take a look here:
As the map shows, Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic coast sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, boasts one of Russia’s thickest A2/AD “bubbles.” Kaliningrad is a major thorn in the side of NATO as it bulks up the alliance’s military footprint on its eastern flank, said Thomas Karako, a missile defense expert with CSIS who created the interactive map. “When Air Force One flew [President Barack Obama] into Warsaw, it had to fly through Russia’s air defense bubble,” Karako told Foreign Policy, referring to Obama’s participation in the NATO summit in Poland in July 2016. “That illustrates just how deep Russia’s missiles can reach into NATO territory,” he said.
The map also conveys how vulnerable NATO sea and airports in the Baltic states are to Russia’s blanket of missile threats. Russia could cut the Baltic states off from the rest of NATO in a crisis scenario, U.S. Army Europe Commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges told FP in 2015. Those ports, a military lifeline for NATO reinforcements in the unlikely event of a Russian attack, aren’t very well defended, said Karako. “It’s a real concern.”
This week, the United States began the largest deployment of troops and tanks to Europe since the end of the Cold War, as part of its efforts to shore up deterrence against Russia. But with President-elect Donald Trump, a critic of NATO, set to take office on Jan. 20, some allies are question the reliability of American security commitments to Europe.
Photo credit: CSIS Missile Defense Project