Red tape, potholes and politics hamper NATO’s defence efforts as the Russia threat rises
Europe is waking up to a new need to defend itself since Russia invaded Ukraine.
As children in Lithuania headed back to class this autumn, some of their schools were marked with new stickers: Hundreds have been designated as bomb shelters. In Finland, defence forces have been assembling modular military fortifications and practising landing jets on the highways.
Planners from the Baltics in the north to Romania in the south are scrutinising potential military reinforcement routes, planning to fortify bridges and adding military transport functions to civilian airports, more than three dozen military and civilian officials across eight European states told Reuters.
After 25 years of fighting conflicts abroad, the NATO alliance suddenly needs to show the enemy it can respond to a threat anywhere along its border, its top military adviser told Reuters.
It is not ready, he said.
“In many, many nations – not only the eastern flank – but in many, many nations, there are shortfalls in infrastructure,” said Rob Bauer, a Dutch admiral who chairs NATO’s Military Committee.
The European Union said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the urgency of making Europe’s transport infrastructure fit for dual civil and defence use, and it is speeding up funding for projects that support military mobility.
Brussels has allocated 1.6 billion euros ($1.67 billion) to military mobility projects in the bloc for the 2021-2027 period, part of a wider budget of 33.7 billion euros, known as the Connecting Europe Facility, to support key infrastructure projects. The military mobility project is coordinated by the Netherlands.
The budget was cut in negotiations from an initial EU Commission proposal of 6.5 billion euros. Bauer called the available sum “almost nothing” and Raoul Bessems, the top Dutch government official for military mobility, said it will “never be enough.”
In response, a European Commission spokesperson told Reuters a new military mobility plan presented in November will “help European armed forces to respond better, more rapidly and at sufficient scale” to crises at the EU’s external borders.
“We have made an important progress in the last months, but let’s recognise that bottlenecks remain,” said EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell.
Europe’s geopolitical situation has changed drastically since NATO enlarged to the east after the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1991. During the Cold War, Germany was the front line - the country where a battle between east and west would have been fought out.
Today, the scenarios are more complicated, planners say. NATO’s territory has increased dramatically, meaning there is a longer border to protect, more space for potential Russian attacks to happen, a longer distance for military reinforcements to cover, and a wider range of potential attacks – including cyber attacks on infrastructure.
“We do not have enough transport capacity, or infrastructure that enables the rapid movement of NATO forces across Europe.”
Military planners say that while the war has led to more awareness, the funding shortfall reflects a greater concern: Europe’s political mindset, which Bessems said lags behind the reality of all-out war on European soil, and which has not come to terms with the hybrid nature of modern warfare.
“It's peacetime conditions that apply. And that’s the whole problem,” he told Reuters.
If heavy reinforcements were to arrive from the Atlantic needing to move swiftly east, the obstacles would include a lack of rail capacity, roads that are too narrow and steep, insufficient information about roads and bridges, misaligned rail gauges, and paralysing bureaucracy, said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general who was commander of the U.S. Army in Europe until 2017 and has been campaigning for better infrastructure for many years.
“We do not have enough transport capacity, or infrastructure that enables the rapid movement of NATO forces across Europe,” he said in an interview. For instance, German railway Deutsche Bahn has enough rail cars to move one and a half armoured brigades simultaneously at one time, “that's it.”
One armoured brigade comprises around 4,000 soldiers, 90 Abrams tanks, 15 self-propelled, tracked Paladin howitzers (155mm), 150 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles, 500 tracked vehicles and 600 wheeled vehicles and other equipment.
In military terms, planners need ‘redundancy’ – multiple routes to give alternatives if some are taken out. But building roads is the responsibility of national governments, who face competing claims for expensive projects.
“What we have learned from Russia's war against Ukraine is, we’ve been reminded actually that war is a test of will, and it’s a test of logistics,” Hodges said.
Adomas Buzinskas, deputy chief operating officer at Vilnius municipality, said it took images of people hiding from bombs in Ukraine to focus minds in Lithuania’s capital – once ruled by Moscow but now part of both the European Union and NATO – on its own need for shelters.
The city had redeveloped Soviet-era shelters and nothing was built to replace them. “No one was thinking about that,” he said. “Now it’s obvious - this was not smart.”
The basement of Jeruzales progymnasium, a school on a residential Vilnius street, is a cloakroom where children clamour for coats and shoes at break. It’s also one of 370 locations the city has marked as shelters. Together they could house up to 210,000 people, one third of the city’s population, said Buzinskas.
The cloakroom is designated as a shelter for the neighbourhood, but headmaster Linas Vasarevicius said it would hardly have space for all the school's 700 pupils.
Finland, which the Soviet Union tried to invade in World War Two and which applied to join NATO earlier this year, has long been honing its independent military readiness. It has set aside an initial 145 million euros ($141 million) to begin fencing critical parts of its border with Russia – until now just a conceptual line in vast forests.
To rehearse for the possibility of another attempted invasion by Russia, it’s building different types of fortifications around the country using sandbags filled with rock dust and modular elements in concrete and wood, designed by the defence forces to be built and moved quickly.
“We build them strong, ugly and fast,” said Jouko Viitala, head of special projects at infrastructure builder GRK.
Helsinki fears retaliation for its NATO application could come in the form of Russia sending masses of migrants to the border, as the EU accused Belarus of doing in 2021, when Minsk distributed Belarusian visas in the Middle East and thousands of migrants got stuck on the Polish-Belarussian border.
Finland’s Air Forces, which ordered a new fleet of F-35s for $9.4 billion last December, practise landing and take-off on a dozen reserve road runways every year. The Air Force has a strategy of dispersing and hiding them across the country in case of a threat, Colonel Vesa Mantyla, Commander of the Airforce Academy, told Reuters.
Highway landings may work in sparsely populated Finland, but in a crisis, fighter jets landing on highways elsewhere in Europe would compete with other traffic. Once a crisis begins, Hodges said, the roads are needed for heavy trucks, tracked vehicles carrying ammunition and fuel – and potentially millions of people heading in the opposite direction.
Physically transporting tanks, trucks and soldiers to reinforce a frontline further east is a challenge.
On a foggy October morning, a Czech army train of 18 railroad cars, loaded with tanks, trucks and 730 personnel, stopped for more than 18 hours at the small Sestokai rural station in Lithuania, next to the Polish border, on the way to a military exercise.
The stop was needed to load the equipment and personnel onto a different train, because the railway tracks in the Baltic nations were laid by Russia and are 8.5 cm (3.35 inches) wider than the standard gauge in most of continental Europe.
A crane transferred the tanks and trucks. A dozen railway workers spent more than two hours securing the vehicles to the rail cars.
A 5.8 billion euro high-speed rail track financed by the European Union, RailBaltica, is slated to connect Warsaw with the Baltic capitals Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn by 2030. But only 1.2 billion euros has been allocated so far.
Russia’s military is using broad-gauge railway in Ukraine to supply its troops there: having the same gauge as Russia is a security concern for the Baltics, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis argued in August.
Eesti Raudtee, the state-owned rail track operator in Estonia, has already advised its government against rebuilding its railway track, saying the switch would cost 8.7 billion euros and cause major disruptions of rail traffic.
"The only way to switch to the European track gauge would be to construct a parallel railroad system next to the existing one,” Kaido Zimmermann, CEO of the company, told public broadcaster ERR. “And then tear up the existing one."
Mind the Gap
On the highway map of Europe, the western zone is dense with roads. At the former border between West and East Germany, these thin out to three or four highways – and there’s just one highway going to the Baltics.
That connection between the Baltics and the rest of Europe is a 100 km-long stretch of land along the Polish-Lithuanian border known as the Suwalki Gap.
The sparsely populated area, covered by farmland and low hills, is a strategic site in case of war. Its takeover by Russia would isolate the Baltic states from the rest of NATO.
The Suwalki Gap “is one of the things we seriously look at,” said Bauer, the NATO Military Committee head; NATO has plans to get forces there quickly.
That will be easier with investments already underway, including expanding Via Baltica – a road connecting Warsaw and Tallinn – into a four-lane highway. The project, priced over a billion euros, is envisaged for 2035 but most of financing has not been lined up yet.
Eight months into Russia’s Ukraine campaign, the site where the borders of Russia, Lithuania and Poland meet was quiet – rarely frequented even by border guards, said Mieczysław Ceglarski, a 66-year-old pensioner, pausing as he rode an old bicycle past the dozen farmhouses of the Polish village, Bolcie.
"The thought that someone could cross the border and fight us doesn't even cross my mind," he said.
Even so, in early November, Poland said it would build a new razor-wire fence on the Russian border behind Ceglarski’s house, to prevent a destabilising influx of migrants.
If the West cannot stop Russia in Ukraine, Poland believes it would be the next target, so is working hard to improve its infrastructure. The Baltic connections will be part of a 35 billion euro effort to improve military mobility across central Europe, known as the Solidarity Transport Hub.
According to Marcin Horala, the Polish government’s plenipotentiary responsible for overseeing the hub’s construction, it is one of the most important projects underway in central and eastern Europe for military and civilian use.
“When it comes to the ability to absorb troops and air supplies, the Solidarity Hub is a breakthrough,” he told Reuters. “It will be a place where large tactical connections, large amounts of ammunition, supplies and logistics can be taken to Poland very quickly.”
The hub will include a new Solidarity Airport with an adjacent military base and an integrated rail and road system that will shorten transfer time between Warsaw and the largest Polish cities to less than 2.5 hours. If all goes as planned, the investment will be completed in 2028.
As part of the programme, by 2034 Poland will build 2,000 km (1,200 miles) of railways, plus expressways and structures including bridges to make the transport system more resistant to attacks.
However, a report by Poland’s Supreme Audit Office in January 2022 said that as a result of bad planning, sections of the project might be delayed by up to two and a half years. And the main opposition in Poland, the Civic Platform, argues against the hub, promising an audit of the investment if it wins elections next year.
Plus, there’s paperwork. In principle, peacetime regulations are waived in war, but that is a political decision. Conflict today can be hybrid and politicians may not agree to cut out red tape in time.
In November, a group of French tanks headed through Germany to Romania was not approved because the weight of the tanks exceeded road traffic regulations, a spokesperson for Germany's Territorial Command said.
On a drill involving Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, Hodges said U.S. troops were flown to Bulgaria to practise capturing an airfield. The organisers discovered the Bulgarian government was planning to inspect the passports of paratroopers after they parachuted in.
“We had made the mistake,” he said. “All of our interaction was with the Ministry of Defence, and other ministries have a role to play also.”
“Bureaucracy. That's my biggest concern.”
Brigadier General Henny Bouman, who is heading up a project on military mobility between the EU, US, Canada and Finland, said bureaucracy and local regulations are the main obstacle to rapid military deployment in Europe.
“In every nation you see a lot of regulations," Bouman said. "We can't accept all the … bureaucracy. That's my biggest concern."
At the moment, any effort to speed troops to the east won’t prevent them from getting stuck on the final miles, the potholed roads of Romania.
Gravel and dirt roads account for about 28% of the roads, according to data from the country’s National Statistics Board. Motorways account for only 5.3% of Romania’s road network. Only 11% of roads have four lanes.
“You have troops, that is nice, you have heavy equipment you must transport on roads, but which roads?” said Alina Inayeh, Bucharest adviser to the president of the German Marshall Fund.
With a population of 19 million, the EU’s ninth-largest state by land area had less than 1,000 km of motorway in 2021, compared with 13,192 km in Germany.
“We've discovered through exercises over the last few years that the further east you go, it becomes more difficult because the infrastructure is not as robust or redundant,” said Hodges.
He has argued that countries could be incentivised to invest in infrastructure with military potential if this were deemed to count as a contribution to their overall defence spending. That would help them meet the target agreed by NATO members of defence spending at 2% of Gross Domestic Product. Romania already meets that target.
“The bridges that can hold a modern Abrams tank or Leopard or British Challenger - not many bridges can sustain that sort of weight,” he said.
In the central Romanian county of Brasov, where a new NATO battlegroup spearheaded by French troops has been established at the Cincu military base, access is made harder by a decaying bridge.
The Voila bridge, which is almost seven decades old, cannot handle light traffic, let alone tanks and armoured vehicles. All traffic has been suspended, Voila’s mayor said, and a new bridge won’t be completed until next year.
The French tank convoy that was too heavy for German roads in November had to find an alternative route from the Voila train station to the military base, adding a few hours to the journey, a defence ministry spokesman said.
The defence ministry told Reuters it is aware of infrastructure hampering mobility and has sent its investment priorities to the transport ministry. This year, it has submitted 11 road transport projects with dual military-civilian use for funding under Connecting Europe.
On Europe’s new frontlines
By Sabine Siebold in Brussels and Berlin, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, Tallinn and Sestokai, Lithuania
Additional reporting by Anne Kauranen and Essi Lehto in Helsinki, Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska and Anna WLodarczak-Semczuk in Warsaw, Luiza Ilie in Bucharest and Johan Ahlander in Stockholm
Graphics: Aditi Bhandari
Photo editing: Simon Newman
Video: Janis Laizans, Kacper Pempel, Malgorzata Wojtunik
Art direction: Eve Watling
Edited by Sara Ledwith