NATO pledges 300K troops, then leaves everyone guessing

EuroActiv Politico News

MADRID — NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg caught the public’s attention Monday when he declared the military alliance would soon place 300,000 troops on high readiness in response to Russia’s warmongering.

He caught the attention of some members of the alliance too. 

As hundreds of officials, diplomats and journalists gathered in Madrid on Tuesday for this week’s NATO summit, many reacted with surprise to the figure, which would amount to a more than seven-fold increase of NATO’s existing response force. People were puzzled over what, exactly, the secretary-general meant. They wondered how the number had been calculated and what kind of troops would be involved. It was unclear whether it would entail extra costs.

While NATO members are united in wanting to place more weapons along the alliance’s eastern flank, and even agree there should be more forces put on standby to quickly head east if needed, the specificity of the number still left even the experts with questions.

Thus far, officials have interpreted the figure as a redesignation of forces that already exist — essentially making more troops available to move on short notice — as opposed to sourcing thousands of new troops.

The number is derived from “forces in various tiers of readiness,” said one senior diplomat, who called it a “game-changer” and a return to the approach used during the Cold War.

NATO itself cautioned that the plan was not meant to be fully formed at this point. 

“The details of the NATO force model, including its precise scale and composition, continue to be developed,” said one NATO official. “The transition to the model is planned to be completed in 2023.”

The situation illustrates the balance NATO has had to strike since Russia launched its assault on Ukraine. The alliance wants to project that it is moving with alacrity to prevent Moscow’s war from spreading onto NATO turf. But it also must wrangle over the specifics with 30 allies that don’t always see eye-to-eye on how to use limited resources.

So while no one expressed serious reservations about Monday’s 300,000 figure, numerous officials were quick to note that it did not represent a completed plan. And, they stressed, it did not necessarily indicate a large-scale expansion of armed forces, but rather an attempt to make better use of existing forces. 

While there is support for a new model, the number is “not something that is signed off by nations,” said one western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. These troops, according to the diplomat, “are not new.”

The shift is part of a broader restructuring allies are set to endorse at this week’s summit. The goal is to place weapons along the eastern flank and then designate more forces to both train in the region and be ready to deploy there from their home countries if needed.

Currently, the NATO official said, allies can make roughly 40,000 troops available with 15-days notice. The plan is to expand that figure to “well over 300,000 troops,” the official added. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose government has committed to assigning troops to defend Lithuania if called upon, said on Tuesday that Germany would make an “appropriate” contribution to these plans. 

“We will be able to support NATO’s joint decision with our appropriate German contribution,” Scholz said in response to a question on the 300,000 number. “Decisions of this kind should only be possible if we have considered in advance whether we can also participate.”

Later in the day, Berlin said it will designate 15,000 troops for the high readiness force.

In addition, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said Germany is ready to provide “about 65 aircraft and 20 ships.”

The NATO official emphasized that Stoltenberg is in sync with all the alliance’s capitals. 

“The secretary-general consults closely with all Allies as chair of the North Atlantic Council,” the official said. “He is also the principal spokesperson for the organization and makes many announcements in this capacity.”

Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting.