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This paper discusses how and where NATO has established and increased its military presence along its eastern flank in response to Russian activity since 2014. 

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompted NATO to initiate what Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has described as the “most significant strengthening” of its collective defence in decades.

Up until this point, for much of the 21st century NATO was focused on leading the international coalition in Afghanistan.

NATO responded to Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2014 by establishing a continuous air, land and maritime presence in the eastern part of the Alliance – its eastern flank. These measures, the Alliance says, are part of its deterrence and defence posture, intended to deter any potential aggression against Allies. 

A continuous presence in the eastern part of the Alliance

Initially, this involved increasing the number of air policing and surveillance aircraft in NATO airspace, a more prominent naval presence in the Baltics and Black Sea, and more frequent and larger military exercises.

The land element came later, with the creation in 2017 of four multinational battlegroups of 1,000 troops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

In early 2022, NATO countries began to increase their military forces in the eastern part of the Alliance, both under the NATO umbrella and on a bilateral basis.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO decided to add four further battlegroups in its eastern flank, in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.

A bigger Response Force

In 2014 NATO also decided to adapt its military posture. New commands and logistics units were established to help facilitate the movement of troops and equipment across the Atlantic Ocean and European territory. NATO significantly increased the size of its Response Force, from 13,000 to 40,000 personnel. Within that, a new 5,000 strong very high readiness force was established. Elements of the Response Force were activated for the first time in a deterrence and defence role following the 2022 invasion.

As of 16 March 2022, NATO says it has:

  • 40,000 troops under direct NATO command
  • 130 Allied aircraft at high alert
  • 140 Allied ships at sea

A new Strategic Concept

Meeting in Brussels on 24 March, NATO leaders described Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as “the gravest threat to Euro-Atlantic security in decades” that has “shattered peace in Europe”.

NATO has been working on a new Strategic Concept before the Ukraine crisis, the first for 12 years. This document will identify the threats facing the Alliance and how it intends to address them. The Concept will be adopted at NATO’s next summit in Madrid at the end of June 2022.

About this paper and further reading

This paper focuses exclusively on the measures undertaken by NATO to increase its military presence along its eastern flank since Russia took Crimea in 2014. It does not discuss political decisions nor Russian activity during this time.

Further papers, including a Ukraine timeline and information on countries providing military assistance to Ukraine, including NATO Allies, are collated on the Commons Library Ukraine crisis page.

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