NATO and Russia: In the last couple of years we have witnessed important military manoeuvres that demonstrate the heightened tensions between the two blocs.
Article by Oliver B. Steward, a Doctoral Candidate in International Security at the University of East Anglia. This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal.
The ten day military exercise by NATO termed ‘Anaconda’ involved 31,000 troops and military vehicles from 24 countries. The largest war game in Europe since the End of the Cold War took place in Poland.
This was a show of strength, willingness and determination to use force if necessary against perceived Russian aggression. Also, ironic, is the fact that Poland, now a NATO ally, use to be part of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact forces during the Cold War Communist umbrella, serving the interests of the Soviet Empire.
This year, we have witnessed NATO’s willingness to demonstrate and reinforce deterrence in force commitments in its air policing of the Baltic States. In March, 2017, British troops, around 120 soldiers from the 5th Battalion, The Rifles, landed at the Amari airbase, west of the Estonian capital.
The mission parameters, were clear, 800 British troops are to be stationed in the Baltic to deter Russian aggression and act as a deterrence.
Furthermore, recently we have witnessed US F-15 fighters from RAF Lakenheath. 493rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron on rotation with Šiauliai Air Base, in Lithuania.
Even more worrying, on the Russian side, we have witnessed a massive military exercise in Belarus involving tanks and 100,000 troops. The Ukrainian president has warned that the latest exercise shows that Russia is preparing for War in Eastern Europe. The war game itself, is based on a simulated invasion of a sovereign state. With memories of the annexation of Crimea, and the 2008 Georgian-Russian War which resulted in a Russian victory, it’s understandable that Eastern European neighbours may be nervous.
Furthermore, Russia is now the third largest military spender, as it has increased its military spending to $69.2 billion in 2016 as well as modernising its fleet, as well as creating new tanks such as the T-14 Armata (state of the art tank comparable to its Western counterparts).
The best way to understand these relative military manoeuvres is to conceive it as a sort of geopolitical dance, acting in synchronicity, a demonstration of force and willingness to safeguard its interests. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, does the United Kingdom, the United States and its allies within NATO need to worry about Russian tanks punching through the Fulda gap, like they did during the heightened days of the Cold War?
The short answer is no. Russia does not provide a global strategic threat, but it does potentially signify a threat to its neighbours. However, it is also based on NATO wanting to encourage the Russian bear, that also legitimises its own military manoeuvres.
To be clear, Russia is a regional actor, and has a long history of exercising leverage towards its neighbours, which it possesses cultural, linguistic and political ties. After all Ukraine use to be a part of Russia, and was once a Soviet republic during the days of the Soviet Union. It is only realistic for Russia to want to protect its own self – interest and preserve its power and influence in the region. Russia’s action do not directly threaten the West, and Russia has no designs on Europe as a whole and is only acting defensively to perceived challenges.
NATO is currently undergoing an identity crisis, partly due to its anticipated withdrawal from Afghanistan and is attempting to capitalize on the current crisis in Ukraine. The NATO summit in Wales in 2014, attempted to socially construct the Russian threat to a whole new level. Previous actions by NATO leaders, as well as its rhetoric from the E.U. and United States have attempted to recreate the Cold War between the West and Russia in the 21st century.
Furthermore, NATO expansion into Eastern Europe in recent years has served to deliberately antagonise Russia in an attempt to shift the balance of power towards the West and the Transatlantic alliance. Historically at the end of the Cold War, there was an implicit agreement between George HW Bush, and Gorbachev that there will be no NATO expansion. Russia at the end of the Cold War wanted a buffer zone in order to protect its own territorial integrity.
However, since the end of the Cold War we have seen NATO membership increase in Eastern Europe to include former Soviet Republics as well as also former Warsaw Pact Communist countries which has further antagonised Russia. The conventional view of the current crisis in Ukraine, put forward by the Western elites and media is that Russia is the main problem. However this could not be further from reality on the ground.
The actions by Western leaders to meddle and interfere in the domestic politics of Ukraine which led to the overthrow of the former pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovych in 2014 caused Russia to act defensively by annexing Crimea to protect its own political and military sphere of influence.
NATO, can actually be considered more of a threat to the region than Russia itself and in fact the West has caused this current crisis. It is only natural for Russia, and Putin to want to act to protect its interests while NATO is pushing ever closer to its borders. The central strategy of both the EU, United States and NATO is to force Ukraine out of Russia’s periphery and into its transatlantic sphere of influence, which can only lead to more conflict and tension.
However, with the advent of the Trump presidency, and questions concerning the role of NATO itself, whether it’s obsolete and the reluctance of member nations including Germany to increase their defence budgets to the minimum NATO standard of 2% has led to wider criticisms about the alliance.
With America’s Grand Strategy leading towards a more nationalistic tone, and a more unilateralist and maybe even protectionist policies, NATO may not be able to guarantee massive American assistance.
Therefore, in summary, Russian military and political strategy is based on rationality, while NATO is based on self-interest and preserving its institutional and political links. Both of which are rational in orientation. This new Cold War is based on power politics, rather than the old ideological conflict between Democratic capitalism versus Marxism-Leninism. This is true power politics at play.