NATO's real problem
NATO's predicament is easily illustrated: the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army moved from Moscow to its western border region during exercises in 2017. The unit had 50,000 soldiers, 500 tanks, 600 armored vehicles, and 300 artillery pieces. NATO member Latvia, across the border, has an active-duty land combat force 1,500 strong. It has no tanks. It has no fighter aircraft. Instead, it relies on a total of four NATO fighters based in Lithuania. In other words, if seriously attacked, Latvia's active brigade would be lucky to survive the first day, and there would likely be no original surviving fighter aircraft in the Baltics within hours of the start of conflict.
This weakness is spread throughout NATO: Lithuania and Estonia are equally weak. The Netherlands sold its last tank in 2012. Of Germany's once vast tank fleet, only 105 are operational, while zero submarines are ready for action, and only 39 Eurofighter jets are airworthy. Only Poland bucks the tide, with 99 fighter jets, 1,000 tanks, and 100,000 men under arms.
A recent poll showed that 59% of Russians would fight for their country, as opposed to 18% of Germans. If a majority of the people of virtually every NATO country is not willing to fight (including Latvia with 59% against self-defense), why should the Baltic countries put much faith in NATO coming to their aid?
This explains the deep sensitivity regarding President Trump's support for NATO and the growing engagement among the U.S., Russia, and Germany. Just as the U.S. is seen as almost the only member of the alliance willing to fight, Germany is vital to any NATO action or lack thereof. If Germany wanted to slow-roll NATO action or not allow airspace or land transit usage, then Russia would have a free hand.
The way forward is fairly simple: 1) peace through strength and 2) conflict resolution. The Baltics need to make themselves hard targets. They should adopt the Finnish defense model: everyone serves. The Baltic states will probably not be able to afford the increased defense spending for immediately buying needed equipment, but perhaps some form of a NATO Lend-Lease program could be made to quickly get the much needed large numbers of anti-tank and air defense weapons into service. Serious planning and agreements among the allies needs to be made to base and supply the aircraft necessary to quickly defend the Baltics against serious air attack. Once that is done, then we will have deterrence – not before.
As for conflict resolution, that is where the Trump-Putin summit was a good start. There are many minor issues to resolve, and improved communication can help. I think Putin's recommendation of a panel of experts to look at areas of cooperation is an excellent idea. As trust is built up, the threat of conflict may dwindle. However, the main problem with Putin is that he has proven repeatedly that he is willing to use all levers of power, ranging from paying off leaders to cyber-attack to military force to accomplish his goals – thus, we may find that we can clearly communicate with Putin, but we still may not avoid conflict. Still, as President Teddy Roosevelt said, "speak softly, and carry a big stick." We need to build both our deterrence and our lines of communication with Russia.