Tensions between NATO and Russia are growing, and especially between the US and Russia in particular. Both sides are accusing each other of building up militarily. The INF is failing, with both sides accusing the other of not complying with it all along.
On NATO’s side, it is simply following through on its enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), aimed at deterring the, at this point mythical, Russian aggression. While Moscow maintains that it is forced to amass forces, in response to the US and Co.
On November 19th, NATO adopted a resolution on “Reinforcing NATO’s Deterrence In The East.” The resolution is due to NATO acknowledging that “NATO’s territories and populations face significant conventional and hybrid threats, particularly in the East.”
Namely, some of the noted threats are:
- Aware that NATO-Russia relations are at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War, cognizant of Russia’s large-scale military aggression against Georgia in 2008;
- Alarmed by Russia’s increasingly escalatory and reckless pattern of behaviour in the form of cyber-attacks, the use of force against its neighbours, the illegal use of chemical nerve agents for attempted murder on Allied territory, as well as its insidious undermining of democratic institutions and principles through its use of election interference and disinformation campaigns;
- Cognizant that Russia’s doctrinal shift from2010 to 2014 has reaffirmed NATO as its de facto competitor and that it views NATO activities in Central and Eastern Europe as direct threats to Russian national interests;
- Concerned by Russia’s deployment of modern anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems along NATO’s eastern flank, which could impede the Alliance’s freedom of movement;
To this end, the eFP in Poland and the Baltics is more important than ever, to protect NATO’s eastern flank from examples of Russian aggression, most, if not all, of which are substantiated by no evidence at all.
Georgia is praised for its engagement in strategic discussion with NATO and efforts to reinforce security in the Black Sea.
At least NATO does recognize that the need for eFP is due to its expansion to the East, but only because Eastern Europe and the Baltics are still somewhat new to the “Russian aggression” narrative and they simply need to “improve” their infrastructure to allow for quick troop deployment:
“Recognising that NATO’s eastward enlargement has resulted in the need for strategic enhancements, specifically concerning outdated infrastructure and bureaucratic regulations, which could delay the quick movement of troops and supplies.”
Many of these issues also stem from the Suwalki Corridor, between Kaliningrad and Belarus, which is a potential chokepoint between the Baltics and the rest of NATO.
Furthermore, the EU Transportation Coordination Committee was praised for its EUR 1.9 billion investment in strategic infrastructure in Eastern Europe and other major improvements. As a result, the impetus must now be on NATO and the EU working together to deliver the shared goal of being able to move NATO forces (both EU-and non-EU Member States) across Europe as quickly as possible.
Because quick troop deployment and the lack of any red tape to do so is exactly what deterrence is all about.
The Trident Juncture 2018 exercise, was praised because the mock Russian invasion of Norway provided a chance for the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) to get some training.
Trident Juncture 2018, featured about 50,000 participants from NATO and partner countries, approximately 250 aircraft, 65 ships, and up to 10,000 vehicles. It took place between October 25th and November 7th, 2018.
“Trident Juncture will show the world that NATO is relevant, united and ready to defend itself in this Article 5 scenario, testing our collective defence,” Admiral James G. Foggo, Commander of Allied Joint Force Command Naples said. Article 5 is an allied country being invaded, and Norway is conveniently snowy, similar to large parts of Russia.
The training also returned to NATO to its core mission.
”NATO needs to hold exercises on a large scale. Only this way are we able to test all the levels in the alliance: From the troops on the ground and all the way up to a strategic level”, says General Denis Mercier, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT) in NATO.
“NATO needs realistic training, where we can combine operations in the air, at sea and on land. In Norway we get everything, this is one of the best places to train in Europe”, says Mercier. “The cold climate also brings extra challenges for the soldiers, that hones their skill.”
In addition, the resolution “Reinforcing NATO’s Deterrence In The East” calls for even further militarization of Eastern Europe.
“To continue to ensure the sustainability and readiness of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States and Poland, and the Black Sea region, VJTF, and enhanced NATO Response Force,”
“To ensure the Alliance has the necessary means to reinforce Allies in an A2/AD environment, potentially through the acquisition of advanced fighter jets, jamming systems, and longer-range precision missile systems.”
Immediately after Trident Juncture ended, between November 7th and 16th, Poland and the Baltic states hosted their largest ever NATO military drills, “Anakonda.”
- Around 17,500 soldiers from 10 NATO member states participated in the military drills. Out of them 12,500 were Polish soldiers. The other 5,000 were from various NATO members in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.
- The exercises included naval maneuvers in the Baltic sea.
Overall, in 2018, NATO conducted 103 exercises with 51 NATO exercises open to partners. In 2019, a total of 102 are planned, with only 39 open to partner nations.
The exercises led by NATO and Allies in 2019 include around 25 exercises primarily focused on the land domain, 27 exercises focused on the air domain, and 12 exercises focused mainly on maritime operations. Many other exercises train specific functions or skills such as cyber defence, crisis response decision-making, Chemical, Biological, Radiological Nuclear defense, logistics, communications and medical.
Most of the “key” exercises take place in: The Black Sea, Georgia, Estonia, the Baltic States, Poland and Norway. Only one, will take place in Bulgaria and Romania, as well as Hungary.
Notable, the “Cyber Coalition” exercise will focus on Cyber Defense, and it will take place in Estonia, which has repeatedly reported that it has proof of Russian hacking activities, but has yet provided none.
Shifting focus to specific countries on Russia’s border, the militarization of the region becomes even more apparent.
On March 8th, the Latvian Ministry of Defense announced that the country, with Estonia and Denmark opened NATO’s Northern Division Headquarters in Adazi, near Riga.
The main task of the Northern Division will be the management of military operations in its area of responsibility. The new headquarters will begin planning and managing military operations, as well as planning and integrating the NATO units’ activities in order to strengthen the security of the region and organize training in accordance with the alliance’s defense plans.
It is to be accepted as part of the NATO structure in June 2019.
On February 8th, 13 UH-60 and HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters arrived in Latvia, as well as 150 soldiers from the 3rd battalion of the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade to support the Latvian military.
This was part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, which is described as a demonstration of US commitment to collective security in the region.
As of March 31st, there were around 1,400 NATO soldiers stationed in Latvia.
In April, Latvia’s security service, the Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB), released its annual public overview of its activities in 2018.
Much of the report focuses on Russia’s domestic situation and consequences of the Kremlin’s policy on Latvia are present only after the midway point of the document.
“Actions against Latvia are carried out by special services of several countries. The aggressive activities of Russian intelligence and security services pose a serious threat to the collective security of NATO and EU, and the national security of Latvia, while the activities conducted by special services of other countries over the past year are assessed by SAB as moderate and not having posed a direct threat to Latvian national security. The activities of the Russian special services against Latvia are within the scope of their general activities aimed against the West,” the SAB report said, using mainstream media as its sources.
“In October 2018, media announced that Roman Tatarka, an employee of the Russian Embassy in Rīga, attended the same Military Academy as Anatoly Chepiga, involved in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. Tatarka was recalled from Latvia in the beginning of 2019,” SAB says.
“SAB predicted high Russian interest on the 2018 Latvian parliamentary elections. No targeted campaign influencing the election results were observed,” it says, adding that Russian services “were mostly using open sources to collect information on the elections and the subsequent process of forming the government.”
In terms of cyber security, Latvia is under a particular threat from Russia, the report says, but gives few details or numbers.
“According to the information available to the SAB, cyber-attacks on Latvia have been carried out by both GU and FSB over the last few years. The attacks have been espionage related and in most cases have been directed against government institutions or individual officials working in the fields of home affairs, foreign affairs and defense.”
Around the same time, the Rand Corporation, a US-based and government-sponsored think-tank also gave pointers to Latvia and other Baltic states, so they can better counter Russia.
The report said: “These three countries are vulnerable to low-level, hybrid, and full-scale attacks by Russian special operations and regular military forces deployed close to their borders” and that there is an “imbalance between Russian and NATO conventional forces deployed in the Baltic region.”
It mostly focuses on Total Defense and Unconventional Warfare.
“TD and UW capabilities have the potential to delay and disrupt Russian military aggression against the Baltic states, and to make occupation of a Baltic state very costly to the invading forces, thereby enhancing deterrence. These techniques and forces could also support a NATO liberation campaign and ease the transition to a sustainable peace after the end of military operations by supporting stabilization, demobilization, and reconstruction activities,” the report concludes.
In Lithuania, there are 1055 NATO troops positioned in the country.
The NATO battalion in Lithuania is comprised of a headquarters and a headquarters company, logistic support company, and three to four combat companies, and different combat support units. Reinforcement to the NATO forward presence battalion will be deployed when necessary, i.e. when exercises are held or in case of threat.
It’s based in Rukla.
Since the NATO Summit in Warsaw in June 2016, roughly 8,000 allied soldiers from nine NATO allies have served in the unit on a rotational basis.
In February, Germany vowed to invest upwards of EUR 110 million by 2021 to improve the military bases in Lithuania.
“We want to make clear that Lithuania is not alone and will never stand alone. It will never again have to sacrifice its freedom and independence,” Ursula von der Leyen told reporters during a visit to the German forces.
“We will stay here with the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) as long as we’re needed, and as long as the security situation requires it.”
Lithuania feels quite threatened by Russia’s Iskander missile complexes positioned in Kaliningrad, Russia, just across its border.
But Vilnius claims that this is nothing new and simply, nothing out of the ordinary.
Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis emphasized “we are [already] targeted by tactical nuclear weapons with range of up to 500 kilometers,” referring to the Iskanders. “So for us, it’s not a new situation at all,” he added.
The NATO-funded Atlantic Council further alleged that some European diplomats even want more nuclear weapons positioned in Europe by the US to guarantee security.
“Some European governments would like to hear just the opposite: that the West will stop at nothing to combat Russian aggression, including countering Moscow’s INF-busting 9M729 missile system with more nuclear weapons on European territory if necessary. Baltic diplomats have said privately they believe ruling out such a deployment is a strategic mistake.”
Recently, starting from April 17th, the NATO battlegroup began the Eager Leopard exercise in Pabrade. The exercise mobilized close to 650 troops and consisted of three training sequences of 36 hours, testing offensive and defensive tactics.
“This exercise is the perfect chance for the German, Dutch and Czech companies to increase their readiness and capabilities. This is especially important in order to prepare for the Level 3 Field training exercise Iron Wolf, which we will conduct with our Lithuanian partners in June”, said Lt. Col. Peer Papenbroock, Comander of battlegroup in Lithuania.
Estonia hosts a contingent of 1,073 NATO troops, mostly from the UK.
In April 2018, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid called for US Patriot missiles and even more troops to be deployed to Estonia.
“We want to be sure that both NATO’s territory and NATO soldiers are well protected,” she said. “We need to make sure that there is the air defense and the air support for these forces, in case that is necessary. We need our deterrence to be believable.”
We are past the stage in our relations that you come to Washington with an empty goody bag and then you go back with a bag filled with stuff,” she said. “There is a permanent debate and discussion between the governments of the two countries.”
According to the Estonian President, Western countries had paid for mistakes in their dealing with Russia and that they shouldn’t be repeated, pointing out the Georgia issue in 2008 and Crimea.
“We carry part of the responsibility for the current state of play,” she said. “That starts with 2008 in Georgia. Our reaction to the partial occupation of Georgia was weak and it was back to business as usual quite quickly.”
“That is part of the reason Crimea happened, Russia just misread what will happen, what will be reaction. We got our act together and stopped the avalanche.”
Kaljulaid said the West needs to show “strategic patience,” including sustaining economic sanctions on Russia and perhaps expanding upon them.
On May 20th, 2019, the Estonian national news agency said that a Russian military Tu-154 warplane violated its airspace for less than 1 minute.
Between May 6th and 17th, in the north-east of Estonia, the Spring Storm 2019 exercise took place.
It involved over 9,000 troops, among them thousands of Estonian conscripts, reservists, active servicemen and hundreds of vehicles from 15 NATO countries and partners.
“Spring Storm shows NATO is capable to defend against any adversary”, said NATO deputy spokesman Piers Cazalet. “It tests how well our forces work together and it is a strong expression of Allied solidarity”. The exercise will test the readiness of NATO forces in responding to a fictional crisis.
In November 2018, Colonel Riho Uhtegi, the head of Estonia’s special forces claimed that if Russia were to invade, “They would die in Tallinn.”
“There are always these discussions. Like, yeah. The Russians can get to Tallinn in two days. … Maybe. [The Estonian capital is about 125 miles from the Russian border.] But they can’t get all of Estonia in two days. They can get to Tallinn, and behind them, we will cut their communication lines and supplies lines and everything else.” That dead-eyed Baltic stare fixes me again. “They can get to Tallinn in two days. But they will die in Tallinn. And they know this. … They will get fire from every corner, at every step.”
In Uhtegi’s eyes, the new Estonia has already been fighting a conflict with Russia. “All conflicts between Estonia and Russia have been hybrid conflicts—1924 was the same as 2014.”
According to him, all Russia did in Georgia and Ukraine was to stop them from joining NATO. According to some, Russia tried to assassinate Montenegro’s Prime Minister to achieve the same, but failed.
Most recently, on May 16th, The British Royal Air Force detachment at Ämari Air Base, Estonia was scrambled by the Combined Air Operations Command (CAOC) at Uedem, Germany on both May 14th and May 15th.
“The CAOC scrambled the RAF Typhoon fighter aircraft to identify several Russian Federation Air Force aircraft flying through international airspace controlled by the three Baltic States’ Air Traffic Control agencies. Some of the non-NATO aircraft did not transmit a valid transponder signal revealing their position to civilian air traffic controllers and were not in contact with local air traffic control, respectively,” the release said.
The RAF Typhoons were supported by Hungarian Air Force JAS-39 Gripens out of Šiauliai Air Base, Lithuania, who also conducted their second alert scramble within two days. Hungary is the Baltic Air Policing lead nation at present.
In early 2019, Poland was conducting the alert scrambles along the Russian borders.
Poland is most likely the state that is competing to be the US proxy in Europe the most out of any other NATO member state.
It houses a contingent of 1,218 NATO troops.
On March 28th it was reported that NATO officials were preparing to put together the largest construction project in recent times for a storage site for US combat vehicles in Poland.
“The depot is meant to stash U.S. warfighting equipment in the eastern European nation in case a confrontation with nearby Russia becomes a possibility. Pentagon officials consider the future facility in Powidz, western-central Poland, part of a global network of hardware stashes meant to serve as faraway armories for U.S. soldiers when there is fighting to be done.”
It costs $260 million, the funding mechanism for the Powidz site is noteworthy. The money comes from the so-called NATO Security Investment Program, or NSIP, to which all 29 alliance members contribute.
US defense sources said that the Powidz storage site should not be taken to mean that the Trump administration is considering any kind of permanent troop footprint in Poland.
The Trump administration requested $144 million for the NSIP program for fiscal year 2020, compared to a $171 million request for 2019.
“NATO heads of state and governments have acknowledged that the North Atlantic Alliance is at a defining moment for the security of our nations and populations and that the Alliance was ready to respond swiftly and firmly to the new security challenges,” defense officials wrote in the FY-20 budget request. “Russia’s aggressive actions have fundamentally challenged our vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.”
Separately, Poland is nearing a deal with the U.S. to establish an American military base in the former Communist bloc country, according to people familiar with the matter — an outpost the Poles see as a deterrent to Russian aggression and that the Kremlin would likely consider a provocation,” Bloomberg reported.
“If a deal is reached, President Donald Trump is considering traveling to Poland in the fall, in part to commemorate the agreement. But it’s unclear whether he fully supports the idea, even after he said during a September meeting with Polish President Andrzsej Duda that the U.S. was looking ‘very seriously’ at establishing a base. Duda, who joked that it could be named ‘Fort Trump,’ remains committed to contribute $2 billion for its construction.”
The US and Poland are also to discuss the purchase of F-35 joint strike fighters, according to U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.
“They want to deepen their relationship with the United States of America in part by interoperability of advanced equipment,” Wilson said after a Meridian International Center event in Washington. “Those discussions are continuing. We’re providing the information that might be needed for them to make a decision.”
“The Polish government has decided that they want the F-35 and they’re in discussions with the United States,” Wilson said.
Poland, one of the biggest preachers after the US of “Russian aggression,” also receives high praise for spending over 2% of its GDP on defense.
In March 2018, Poland signed a $4.75 billion deal with the US for the purchase of Patriot missile defense systems, which hasn’t yet been delivered.
Poland vowed to defend Lithuania from Russia with its missile defense system if the need arises.
In January Poland signed a contract to be delivered 4 S-70i Black Hawk Helicopters by the end of 2019.
In February, Poland signed a $144 million deal for the purchase the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS.
Around the same time, the US Ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher said that more troops are to be deployed to the country.
The Pentagon wants a “more agile, more rotating, rather than where you have physical hospitals and homes and you bring your families,” Mosbacher told a local newspaper. “But in terms of a presence that is undeniable and a large number of American troops here, that’s a given. And I think [the Poles are] going to get most of what they want.”
No specific numbers were provided, but the 4,000-strong US contingent in Poland would be increased “in the hundreds.”
“The Poles are an important ally. They are investing their 2 per cent without even coaxing. They’re well into a $40bn modernization of their military. We respect that,” she said.
Separately, from the Baltics and Poland there are without a doubt other development.
Norway, plans to double its contingent of US troops in the country, and it hosted Trident Juncture, which was a mock Russian invasion of the country. It even recently claimed that Russia had sent a “spy-whale to the country.”
Romania hosts the Aegis Ashore missile defense system, which can be repurposed to launch Tomahawk missiles. It also recently received THAAD, while the Aegis Ashore undergoes scheduled upgrades.
The US, in March, deployed B-52 bombers to the UK, and they even took part in their first patrols over Europe, the Baltics and the Russian border to familiarize themselves with the theater.
British SAS began officially monitoring the Russian border for the first time since the Cold War, troops from 21 and 23 SAS, the elite regiment’s two reserve battalions, have been mobilized for operations on the Estonian border with Russia.
“The troops are conducting Human Environment, Reconnaissance and Analysis (HERA) operations, where they monitor the movement of a potential enemy and analyze their intentions.
It is understood that in the event of a Russian attack on Estonia, the SAS troops would remain behind enemy lines where they would send back encrypted reports on troop movements.”
Their counterparts from the US have been around the Russian border since 2017. The number of special forces personnel moved to Europe in 2017 quadrupled compared to the previous year. 2016 was the year when the Warsaw Summit took place and the eFP was adopted.
The constant eastward expansion plans of NATO further exacerbate the situation. In late 2017, Montenegro became the 29th country in the Alliance, and Trump alleged that it might actually start “World War 3,” since the Montenegrins are “very aggressive people.”
The New York Times praised the future addition of North Macedonia to NATO, claiming that it “plugs another gap in what was once the former Soviet Union’s backyard.”
The expansion goes completely against verbal promises for NATO not to encircle Russia, made at the USSR fall.
Plans are on-going to incorporate Ukraine and Georgia, but it is still unclear if and how that would take place.
NATO is praised as a bringer of peace, with “occasional exceptions.” Such as the US-led intervention in Yugoslavia, in which Radio Television of Serbia was deliberately bombarded, the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was also targeted.
The militarization is also not yet done, in February, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the Alliance plans to further increase its presence in the Black Sea, since “Russia’s aggression” has led to such a necessity.
In December 2018, Russia accused the UK of testing its psychological warfare capabilities in Ukraine. The Russian embassy said in a statement that at first UK specialists were training Ukrainian personnel to conduct special operations against civilians in Donetsk and Luhansk, but then have deployed their own experts to conduct psychological and information operations.
Finally, the propaganda campaign against Russia is not at all a secret. There are numerous examples in various parts of the world:
- Russian conduct in the Central African Republic, as well as the so-called Wagner Group, and the constant accusations of Yevgeny Prigozhin;
- Russian spy whales, which were so poorly trained that they defected, apparently;
- The Skripal saga and the CIA Director even lying to the US President for him to expel Russian diplomats and the sanctions against the “Putin regime”;
- Also, how dare Russia use their territorial waters in the Arctic according to international law;
- The Integrity Initiative and its creator the Institute for Statecraft, a large-scale project that is completely aimed at “combating Russian disinformation”;
- Mission Essential hiring personnel to fit in with the local populace in Ukraine and support the US military in classified “contingency operations”;
These are some of the notable example, there being so many.
The vicious cycle appears to be turning, with both Russia and NATO accusing each other of provoking the other side to build up arms and troops.
The fact of the matter is that, troops are positioned along the Russian border, and it clearly needs to respond in some way or another. However, it might just be a matter of time until a false flag or an unexpected and unwanted incident starts a chain of events that can’t be recovered from.
Since NATO’s policy that if one member is attacked, it is as if the entirety of the Alliance is under attack, and its constant expansion would make an open conflict much more plausible.
In addition, some of the members have quite a bit of animosity due to historical reality towards Russia and that may, ultimately, be the crack that breaks the floodgates open.