President Obama’s budget request to invest an additional $3.5 billion in the US military presence in Europe is a strong expression of the American commitment to deter Russia and to defend NATO allies, Commander of US Army in Europe, Gen. Ben Hodges, said at GLOBSEC Chat in Bratislava on 14 March 2016. However, the effective defence of the NATO territory faces serious national procedural hurdles that only member states can remove.

General Hodges stressed that the mobility of allied forces was crucial: While you might have only a week to recognise an eventual Russian attack against a NATO ally, Slovak law requires that an allied transit of military equipment be announced at least 30 days in advance. Given the geographic position of Slovakia on the route between the southern and northern allies on the Eastern flank, this needs to be addressed in Bratislava.

The GLOBSEC Chat with General Hodges was organised by Slovak Atlantic Commission (SAC), partnered by Central European Policy Institute (CEPI) and chaired by CEPI’s director Milan Nič. Attended by newly elected members of the Slovak parliament, government officials, academics and experts on defence and security, this closed-door session was followed by a briefing for the media.

As General Hodges put it, it is better to be prepared to defend borders than to fight an expensive liberation campaign: What we have forward is critical as it provides politicians with some options. By establishing NATO Force Integration Units (NFIU) in the frontier countries, the Alliance will identify deficiencies and improve its territorial defence capability.

General Hodges does not underestimate Russia, as they can organise a large-scale snap exercise – as they have done repeatedly in the past two years – and start a war by denying access to the Baltic states from Kaliningrad, a potentially highly militarised hot spot equipped with Iskander missiles, anti-ship missiles, and advanced air defence systems. Another possibility is that Russians try to deny access to the Black Sea (even from the Danube river) by using the illegally annexed Crimea as a foothold.

“Strength is what Russia respects and our strength is the unity within the Alliance,“ Gen. Hodges said. This is what the potential opponent would try to disrupt by spreading disinformation and creating confusion, employing cyber-attacks, provoking domestic tensions, and sending in the “little green men“. Therefore, the speed of recognition and decision-making without perfect information by NATO member countries would be essential. He stressed that this would not be a provoked attack as the annexation of Crimea was not either.

The US Army Commander in Europe confirmed that it is irrefutable that Russians are in the Donbass (even at the leadership level), providing the militants with arms and ammunition. Concerning their campaign in Syria, he sees the Russian motives threefold: first, to preserve their foothold in the region; second, to demonstrate to their own population and the World their military capabilities (such as cruise missiles); third, to detract target audiences from Ukraine, where more than 400 soldiers died since the Minsk agreement and the violence has been increasing.

For a TV report (in Slovak) covering the briefing, see here (from 20 min).