The past two years has seen a significant rise in the tension between Russia and NATO. Aggravated by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, the tension surrounding Russia’s belligerent behaviour has caused an upsurge in sabre rattling from Central and Eastern Europe to the Nordic and Baltic Regions.
From predictions by former NATO deputy commander, British General Sir Alexander Richard Sherriff, that NATO will be at war with Russia by 2017, to the pronouncements by Swedish Armed Forces’ Maj. Gen.Anders Brännström that: "we could be at war within a few years”, security is paramount for the countries surrounding Russia.
To this end, there has been a surge in defence spending throughout these regions. Lithuania, for example, has decided to increase defence spending by 32%. Sweden’s decision to also place an extra 1.2 billion dollars into the defence budget over the coming four years indicates that the country is worried by the threat posed by Russia and is determined to protect itself.
NATO’s power play
Encouraging this spending is NATO, who is taking its role as European protector very seriously. Over the past year and a half, NATO has been mobilising its members to engage with the Baltic and GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) countries in an ongoing strategy of reassurance.
After the collapse of the Minsk Agreement and the continuation of the Crimean conflict, many in these regions now fear that they will be next on the Kremlin’s agenda. Capitalising on this fear, NATO has spent the first half of 2016 demonstrating that it will not stand for more of Putin’s revisionist foreign policies. It will do this by engaging countries throughout Russia’s borderlands in military exercises and by integrating military operations.
2016 NATO Northern and Eastern European Maneuvers
|Cold Response||Norway||17-28 March|
|Brilliant Jump Alert 16||Albania, Poland, Spain and United Kingdom||1-4 April|
|Steadfast Alliance Ballistic Missile||Multiple European Locations||18-29 April|
|Flaming Sword||Latvia, Lithuania||1-20 May|
|Brilliant Jump Deploy 16||Poland||17-26 May|
|Sabre Strike||Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania||2-14 June|
|Baltops||Baltic Sea||June 3-26|
|Dynamic Mongoose||North Sea||26 June-4 July|
Two years ago, this would have been seen as an imposition by NATO’s member states, who preferred to leave Russia a buffer of former Soviet states rather than risk further destabilisation of the region. It was understood that Russia saw its former soviet territories as an extension of itself and that it was Russia’s desire to maintain peace and security within its former empire.
This past arrangement is now over and NATO, with its recent declaration of a Russia Policy at the NATO Ministerial Conference, has made a significant change in the NATO-Russia playbook. The specific mention of countries like Georgia, and the decision to provide an increase in the ‘boots on the ground’ along Russia’s northeastern flank, indicates that NATO is worried about the new powerful Russia.
The risk of Russia’s response
NATO’s games do not come without some jeopardy. The biggest risk is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reaction to NATO’s aggressive policies. So far, the response to NATO’s behaviour has been restrained. There have been a series of vague warnings to Sweden and Finland on the cusp of their meetings with NATO and two minor military incidents. The first took place in the Baltic Sea with the Russian flyover of an American aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, the second occurred in Syria, where Russian jets entered into territory overseen by America. Overall, Russia has taken the proverbial high road, with Russian Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova declaring in May that: "Russia has tried to be consistent [in its reaction to NATO’s posture] and present facts when it comes to NATO’s expansion and Russophobic remarks with regard to Russia’s imaginary threat.”
Domestically though, it is a different story. Putin has overseen the restoration of a fractured and weak state and, throughout his tenure, he has pursued an aggressive foreign policy where Russia’s interests are concerned. From Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova to Putin’s recent foray into the Middle East, Russia is not afraid of conflict.
Over the past two years alone, Russia has increased and developed its defence capabilities. The Russian military has taken delivery of a swathe of new weapons which they have been field testing in the Syrian conflict. They have also been restoring and developing the Barguzin (BZhRK) combat railway missile defence system, which is Russia’s answer to NATO’s ballistic missile shield. There is also the extension of the S-300 missile defence system to Iran and Kazakhstan. This expansion will provide protection to Russia’s oil and gas assets from missile attacks originating in the Persian Gulf.
The construction of a ‘Fortress Russia’ is hardly surprising. It is in line with Putin’s formal declaration that NATO is a security threat and his statement that "we are duty-bound to pay special attention to solving the task of strengthening the combat readiness of our country.” The real question now is, will Russia respond to NATO’s brinksmanship?
Domestically, Putin needs to be seen ready to respond. Despite his miraculous ability to remain in power, Putin has faced domestic backlashes. In 2011, when he was re-elected, his approval rating slumped to 69% and there were a number of protests against the state. However, after the annexation of the Crimea and a renewal of tension with the West, Putin’s approval rating has reached 83%. This indicates Russians forgetting their economic troubles and unifying behind their President in a nationalistic pride.
To maintain this support, Putin must develop a new hard-line foreign policy. Russia must meet NATO move for move in the European theatre. An example of this tough, new foreign policy in the domestic Russian arena is the recent removal of 50 senior and mid-level commanders of the Baltic fleet. This occurred after they failed to confront NATO during its recent Baltic operations. The risk with this policy is that removing large portions of the military will create a backlash against Putin in upper echelons of the military and state.
The risk of choosing NATO
For the states which border Russia, NATO’s posturing may be leading them down a perilous path. Firstly, by choosing to side with the west they run the risk of Russia seeing them as a threat and taking steps to neutralise that threat. Secondly, they may suffer an economic backlash or other destabilising tactics used by Russia. These governments risk their stability by joining NATO.
Nevertheless, many of these countries see this as a risk worth taking and are seeking European partnerships and ties. Countries deep in Russia’s backyard, such as Moldova, have requested at the NATO Summit in Warsaw this week to remove the Russian peacekeepers in Transnistria because the presence of Russian forces exacerbates the military tension between the two nations.