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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems
'Tripwire' deterrence and NATO's posture in the Baltics

By Dr. Steven Ward

On Thursday, June 30, a group of academics and policy practitioners met to discuss 'tripwire' deterrence, with a special focus on NATO’s military posture in the Baltics. This was an especially timely event, as NATO’s posture on its Eastern Flank continues to evolve in light of the heightened threat of Russian aggression.

The discussion began with the policy practitioners sharing their thoughts. The balance of opinion was that NATO needs to do more to bolster its military footprint inside its most vulnerable members, and its ability to fight a war against Russia. Importantly, this implied that more attention had to be paid to preparing various publics to bear the costs and risks associated with that effort.

The next session was devoted to a discussion of emerging scholarship on the dynamics of tripwire deterrence and forward deployment. Academic participants shared ongoing or recently-published work on how the US public would respond to a Russian attack on troops deployed inside the Baltic states; how the US public would respond to a Russian cyberattack on a security partner; on the determinants of variation in US deployments overseas; and on the effect of contact with US military personnel on the attitudes of foreign publics toward the United States.

On balance, this research suggests that while forward deployment may have a range of benefits, the common idea that troops stationed in threatened areas can serve as a 'tripwire' – deterring on the cheap by assuring escalation in case of an attack by an adversary – is likely exaggerated. Interestingly, these findings coincided with the policy practitioners’ scepticism of the 'tripwire' concept as an adequate deterrent against Russian aggression on NATO’s Eastern Flank, and with their emphasis on the importance of public opinion.

The event concluded with a roundtable discussion among all participants, highlighting two areas in which further exchanges between academics and policy practitioners would be especially fruitful. The first of these involves the nature and sources of reputation and credibility; the second involves the role of nuclear weapons and doctrine in grand strategy and foreign policy.