LONDON – This week, dignitaries and Western military veterans celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Berlin airlift, the mammoth yearlong effort to break a ground blockade by the Soviet Union. Whether the United States and its allies would go to the same length to support an ally today, however, remains a very open question.
That, at least, appears the growing belief in Moscow and Beijing, both intent on pressuring their neighbors who are also U.S. allies. It’s a perception the U.S. military is going to increasing lengths to counter, despite — or perhaps in some respects because of — questions over where U.S. President Donald Trump himself stands. That uncertainty, however, risks opening the door to ever more dangerous confrontations.
The question goes to the heart of the always messy paradox of deterrence. The readier countries are to band together against an aggressive but powerful state determined to get its way, the less likely such a conflict is to happen. But it also points to a way in which the world has changed. Even the most powerful nations, whether U.S. allies or adversaries, are increasingly tied into a globalized supply chain beyond anyone’s control. That makes Berlin-style blockades much harder to envisage — but it also means nations lack the military or other resources to get around them if they happen.
The Berlin airlift crisis itself arose, of course, from very specific circumstances. Following the end of World War II, West Berlin had been run separately as an enclave within communist East Germany, connected to the West by road and rail links through Soviet-dominated territory. By closing those routes, Moscow hoped to demonstrate the inability of the U.S. and its NATO allies to support West Berlin, potentially as a precursor to annexing it entirely.
The Western effort to get around the blockade by air, meanwhile, was also only possible due to similarly unique circumstances — particularly that it took place so soon after World War II. While the task of flying supplies was already far too great for air forces of the era, a huge stock of war surplus transport aircraft and crew remained. Through a gargantuan effort to tap those resources and a host of private contract firms, the effort was sustained.
Perhaps equally importantly, the Kremlin was persuaded that the U.S. was fundamentally committed to the defense of West Berlin, even at the cost of triggering a wider war in Europe. The Soviet Union would not have the atomic bomb until August 1949, and could not risk an open conflict. Even once it did, Moscow could never risk grabbing West Berlin without triggering atomic Armageddon. The U.S., Britain and its allies maintained just enough troops there — the Berlin Brigade — so that while West Berlin remained militarily indefensible, it still could not be taken without a fight.
Fast-forward seven decades, and the question now preoccupying strategists in Washington and Western European capitals is how to achieve that same effect against an increasingly assertive Moscow and Beijing.
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin, NATO powers have taken their cues from the past. As soon as Moscow moved against Ukraine in 2014, the U.S. sent small detachments of troops to eastern NATO members, particularly the former Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Once part of the Soviet Union but now NATO and European Union members, those states were deemed vulnerable to Russian land grabs, not least because of the presence of significant Russian-speaking populations.
In 2017, those forces were replaced by NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, a rotating selection of battle groups from Britain, Germany, Canada and elsewhere, based in the Baltic states and Poland. While considerably overmatched by the volume of forces Moscow could push across the border at short notice, they are designed to guarantee a fight. The U.S. and NATO allies have also mounted exercises designed to show they can get reinforcements on the ground quickly, including flying paratroopers directly from the U.S. to Latvia in an exercise earlier this year.
Should Russia attempt a Berlin-style blockade, most U.S. allies in Eastern Europe could simply be resupplied by road. Even if Russia cut off the Baltic states by seizing the Suwalki Gap, the thin strip of land between Moscow’s ally, Belarus, and the coastal Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, they would be relatively easy to reach by short Baltic Sea routes from Finland, Sweden and beyond.
Whether private shipping would be prepared to take that risk at a time of armed confrontation is a different matter. In the years since 1949, the global supply chain has become much more the preserve of multinational, often offshore companies. As seen during preparations for Brexit, when British officials tried sometimes unsuccessfully to contract ferry firms to replace highly complex international supply chains, that might be no simple matter.
A much greater question mark, however, lies over the ability of the U.S. and its allies to similarly support Taiwan, which is increasingly nervous about an aggressive China. Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to return the island to mainland rule within a generation. Chinese anti-air and anti-ship systems already dominate the region. U.S. warships and planes have dramatically stepped up their own operations there in response to Chinese posturing, but it is unclear how survivable they would be in a real shooting war.
Any such conflict, however, would risk wrecking the supply chains on which most major economies depend. China needs resources from the rest of the world, the West needs that as well as manufactured goods. Neither really has the ability to assert military control over those global supply routes in the way countries did during World War II.
The greater question, however, is over political will. The Berlin crisis erupted because Moscow wanted to test the West, and America in particular. Moscow and Beijing, some strategists believe, suspect they might be now able to force the U.S. to abandon key allies without firing many shots.
They may well be wrong, but the suspicion alone ratchets up the prospect of dangerous mistakes.
Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist.