Roughly 4,500 soldiers with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division are in the process of deploying to Poland and the Baltic states as part of an ongoing U.S.-led effort to reinforce NATO’s “eastern flank,” which runs from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, Army officials have announced.
The soldiers come from the 3rd Infantry Division Headquarters, 3rd Infantry Division Artillery Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division Sustainment Brigade, and the division’s 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, an Army news release says.
“The 3rd Infantry Division mission is to support NATO allies, deter further aggression against NATO member states, and train with host-nation forces to build readiness and interoperability,” Army Lt. Col. Matt Fontaine, a division spokesman, told Task & Purpose on Monday.
On Sept. 9, the 3rd Infantry Division officially assumed control of the Army task force in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
That region includes the Suwalki Gap, a roughly 40-mile strip of land that connects Poland to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. NATO planners have long feared that Russia could send forces from its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus to close the gap, thus separating the Baltic states from the rest of the alliance.
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Should deterrence fail, U.S. troops in Poland would be tasked with keeping the gap open, said retired Marine Col. Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“That’s the only way you can get overland to the Baltic states,” Cancian told Task & Purpose. “Most of NATO’s combat power is in Poland and the west, so you have to push it through there.”
He added that it might be slightly easier for NATO to send support to the Baltic states by ship now that Finland has joined the alliance and Sweden is expected to do so as well. But the Russians have weapons deployed to Kaliningrad that could make it difficult to reach Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia by ship.
The Suwalki gap would be a difficult area to defend, said Marta Kepe, a senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation. With rolling farmlands and gentle hills, the region could easily be used by tracked vehicles.
Both Polish and Lithuanian leaders have also expressed concern that Russia’s Wagner Private Military Group – until recently led by Yevgeny Prigozhin – might launch attacks on them from Belarus, Kepe told Task & Purpose.
“However, Russia does not necessarily have to put boots on Lithuanian or Polish ground to restrict U.S. and allied military transport of the Suwalki gap,” Kepe said. “Indeed, Kaliningrad’s air, naval, and missile capabilities in Kaliningrad remain largely untouched, compared to its infantry capabilities. Moreover, Russia’s electronic warfare capabilities and attempts to disrupt U.S. and allied communications should not be underestimated. Russian A2AD [anti-access/area denial] capabilities remain a threat to the Suwalki gap.”
To Poland and the Baltic States, having U.S. troops on the ground strengthens NATO’s commitment to defend the alliance’s eastern flank, said retired Army Maj. Ray Finch, a former Russian foreign area officer in the Army.
“There were some polls in 2019, 2020, when they asked NATO members: If Russia were to attack, let’s say, Estonia, do you think all of Europe or NATO should respond?” Finch told Task & Purpose. “The responses were not encouraging. Countries like Germany and Spain said: Hmm, maybe not.”
By conducting military exercises with allies and taking other steps to increase readiness in the region, the United States is demonstrating that it is prepared to defend NATO territory if Russia makes “another terrible miscalculation,” said retired Army. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe.
“If the Russians attack, I would expect U.S. forces in the region to respond quickly, first in a bilateral way and then, as NATO quickly responds, within a NATO context,” Hodges told Task & Purpose.
The Army first announced in March that the 3rd Infantry Division units would deploy to Eastern Europe.
Another 2,000 soldiers with the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade have been deployed to Europe since April on a nine-month rotation. They will eventually be replaced by the 1st Infantry Division Combat Aviation Brigade.
The deployments of U.S. troops to Europe have been an important signal to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko that NATO will not tolerate any infringement on its territory, said Evelyn Farkas who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia from 2012 to 2015.
If Putin decides to take on NATO, it would mark the end of Russia’s military, said Farkas, who is currently executive director of the McCain Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., that is part of Arizona State University.
“The temptation may have been higher for the Wagner Group to try to test our boundaries,” Farkas told Task & Purpose. “This is a display of our resolve and whether it’s Wagner, Russian forces, Belarusian forces – if they stray into NATO territory, the consequences will be quite high.”
Currently, about 85,000 U.S. troops are in Europe, said Chuck Prichard, a spokesman for U.S. European Command. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the U.S. military had about 65,000 troops in Europe. The number of U.S. forces in Europe since then has fluctuated between 80,000 and 105,000 service members due to military exercises and the rotations of units in and out of the continent. About 300,000 U.S. troops were deployed to Europe toward the end of the Cold War.
However, most of NATO’s combat power is still deployed in Western or Central Europe, far from the front lines, said Luke Coffey, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, D.C.
“We don’t even defend on the goal line – we’re back in the end zone when it comes to our European defense posture,” Coffey told Task & Purpose.
The U.S. and NATO forces on the alliance’s eastern flank mostly rotate into the region temporarily, said Coffey, who also said that NATO needs to establish a larger permanent presence in Eastern Europe.
Coffey suggested that U.S. and NATO troops spend three years based in Eastern Europe as a duty assignment so that they will have more time to train with partners and become better accustomed to the region.
“When you’re there for a long period of time, you learn about the local communities where you’re serving; you learn the local culture; you dabble in the language you get to know the region; you develop a connection to it; and I think that in a time of combat, that matters,” Coffey said.
CORRECTION: 09/11/2023; this story was corrected to make clear that Finland has already joined NATO and Sweden is expected to do so as well.