NATO Plans New Military Outposts to Stop Putin—Just Don’t Call Them Bases

To blunt Russia’s aggression, the Western alliance is considering new bases, new troops, and the economic equivalent of a nuclear bomb. Will the Obama administration go along?

With Russian forces entering into Ukraine, NATO is putting together a plan to place the alliance’s troops in bases behind the former Iron Curtain. One U.S. official who was not authorized to speak to the press said the presence of U.S. troops inside these bases in Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia would act as a “tripwire for Russia. If Putin considers any military action in these countries, they will know that they will be involving U.S. forces too.”

Officially, however, the Obama administration has gone to great pains to explain that the proposed outposts in these Eastern European countries are not bases, per se. “I do not believe we're talking permanent basing,” said Navy Captain Gregory Hicks, who is the spokesman for U.S. European Command. “I believe NATO will be discussing basing for the duration of a level of activity, whether it be an air detachment, ground presence, or port. The discussion is for a persistent rotational presence, it’s not about establishing bases. The concept is to use existing infrastructure to accommodate the training.”

The debate over the bases—or “persistent rotational presence,” if you must—is part of a larger discussion with the NATO alliance and the Washington policy-making establishment over how to deter Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Also on the table: a new, NATO quick-reaction force and new legislation, being prepared by a leading U.S. senator, that would amount to an economic nuclear bomb against the Russian federation.

The Daily Beast has obtained a draft of proposed legislation from Sen. Mark Kirk, the Republican lawmaker who co-authored the crippling sanctions against Iran. In short, Kirk proposes to do to Russia what he and his Democratic colleague, Sen. Robert Menendez, did to Iran: make it all-but-impossible for any Western bank to do business with the state. If passed, the draft legislation would essentially make Moscow a pariah economy.

Specifically, Kirk’s legislation, still circulating among his colleagues, would impose strict limits on any bank that does business with Russia’s central bank to participating in the U.S. banking system. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Kirk also said he supported moves to compel President Obama to support kicking Russian banks out of the SWIFT interbank payment system, a move that would stymie the ability of Russian businesses to efficiently pay foreign companies for goods and services.

While the United States and the European Union have issued sanctions against some Russian banks, defense firms and its largest oil company, those sanctions would not ban other banks and persons that do business with the sanctioned entities from participating in the U.S. financial system.

Kirk’s proposed sanctions would, in principle, ban any bank that did business with Russia’s central bank from the U.S. financial system. And while Kirk’s proposed legislation is still in the early stages, the last time he began campaigning for such crippling sanctions he eventually prevailed by partnering with Menendez.

“The best way to avoid war is to come up with effective sanctions against Russia,” he said, echoing an argument he made over and again for his sanctions legislation against Iran.

Kirk’s proposed legislation comes as President Obama is gearing up for a NATO summit in Wales where he will press the alliance’s European militaries to contribute troops for a rapid reaction force that could be deployed within 48 hours if President Putin invades a NATO country on his border.

It’s notable that the proposals being considered now by NATO are aimed at protecting countries already inside the alliance. In Ukraine, a new Russian-led advance into the eastern part of the country has already reversed some gains made by Ukrainian forces over the summer. Over the weekend, Putin himself told the president of the European Commission that his forces could take Kiev within two weeks. And the Kremlin leader not-so-subtly reminded the planet that “Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations.”

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, although its new president will be traveling to the Wales Summit in part to make the case that his country should be allowed into the alliance.

The German press reported this week that part of the NATO plan to deter further Russian aggression would include placing NATO forces in Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. But the Obama administration has been reluctant to call these proposed bases “permanent” because of a 1997 NATO agreement with Russia that prohibits deployments of combat troops in former Warsaw Pact countries. The five countries being considered for these NATO deployments are all former members of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet-led cold war treaty established to counter NATO.

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It’s not the first seemingly odd semantic move the Obama administration has made since Russia became moving its forces in earnest into mainland Ukraine. President Obama and the State Department have resisted calling Russia’s actions an invasion, even as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine has come very close to labeling it that. A little past midnight on August 28, Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted, “So now an increasing number of Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory.” He followed that tweet with: “Russia has also sent its newest air defense systems including the SA-22 into eastern Ukraine & is now directly involved in the fighting.”

On Friday, Charles Kupchan, the National Security Council’s senior director for European Affairs, told reporters that the bases under consideration would violate NATO’s 1997 agreement with Russia if they were considered “permanent bases.”

“There is something called the NATO-Russia Founding Act,” he said. “And that act addressed the question of the setting up of permanent bases, and NATO is in a situation right now in which it is refraining from moving in that direction.”

Such sensitivities about a 17-year old agreement, however, are not playing well among some Democrats. In an August 30 letter to President Obama, Menendez, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the president that to “unilaterally reaffirm the agreement in the face of a breach of the same agreement by Russia makes no national security or foreign policy sense.”

Philip Karber, a former senior U.S. defense official who has provided assessments of Ukraine’s military to Congress, said, “Russia occupies and incorporates Crimea, shoots down civilian aircraft, then violently invades and is destroying Ukrainian army—and we are supposed to honor a non-treaty, 15-year-old commitment? If the U.S. is playing by those kind of rules we are in much bigger trouble than we admit and our allies are doomed.”

There are also potential problems at the summit with regards to a rapid reaction force. One congressional staffer who works closely on NATO issues told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that NATO members had yet to decide what countries would contribute to such a force and the conditions under which NATO’s supreme allied commander would have the authority to deploy the forces. “NATO has been talking about this for the last 10 years and up to now all it has been is talk,” this staffer said.

For now, Kirk’s sanctions legislation against Russia isn”t all that much more than talk, either. Kirk said he had reached out to Menendez and hoped to work with his colleague on the Russia sanctions this time around. “I will work with the Republicans and he will work with the Democrats,” Kirk said. But so far Menendez has not publicly endorsed any of Kirk’s ideas. Instead, Menendez has endorsed more defense arms shipments to Ukraine and a harder diplomatic line on Russia at the NATO summit.

And while Kirk acknowledged that sanctioning the Russian central bank would likely provoke Russia to undermine the financial isolation of Iran, not all analysts necessarily agree. Mark Dubowitz, who pushed for the Iran sanctions in recent years and is the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said, “The administration has maintained for many months now that the crisis in Ukraine and the Iran negotiations are completely separate and they are not concerned Russia will retaliate. The Russians have continued to play footsy with the Iranians over a proposed $20 billion oil-for-goods deal, it seems to be on again and off again. Clearly Putin is keeping his options open.”

However, Jeremy Shapiro, an expert on NATO at the Brookings Institution and a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, said new crippling sanctions on Russia would be risky. “Russia is bigger than all of our previous sanction targets put together,” he said. “It has a lot more links with the world economy than any other country in the past. There is almost nothing to learn from the Iranian experience, the U.S. government cannot know what the meaning of these sanctions really are.”