The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has completed its plan, announced last year (July 9, 2016) at the Alliance’s Warsaw Summit, to deploy four multinational battalions to Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania as a counter to the apparent Russian threat on its eastern flank, in the Baltic region. Speaking from Brussels a week ago (June 20), NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced, “NATO has fulfilled its promise to deploy the four battalions to defend our Alliance, deter aggression and keep the peace. The deployment is now complete, and they are fully operational.” A day earlier, the last allied combat contingent—from Canada—arrived in Latvia. Overall more than 4,000 soldiers from 15 countries—Canada, Albania, the United States, Spain, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Norway, the United Kingdom, Denmark, France and Romania—have been deployed (Militarynews.ru, June 20).
Stoltenberg actually prefers to call these new multinational battalions “NATO battlegroups,” even if this seems somewhat grandstanding. In addition to the NATO “battlegroup-battalions” now in place, the US has increased its own combat presence in Europe to three brigades, from previously having two. Of course, not all of these brigades are constantly deployed in the East, facing Russia. Together, the limited NATO and US forces are distributed thinly over a large area, from the Baltics to the Black Sea, and are unprepared for offensive action because they are so spread out geographically and because of the battlegroups’ multinational composition. In the case of each of the multinational battalions, to go into action as a whole unit, all of the contributing NATO governments must give political consent, a highly cumbersome process by definition. Still, the NATO battlegroups are a material demonstration of transatlantic solidarity and essentially a tripwire force—their rules of engagement seem to be purely defensive. Though the checkered multinational composition is a handicap in combat, it nevertheless sends a signal to Moscow that by engaging militarily along the Alliance’s eastern flank, it will face all (or most) NATO countries in armed conflict.
Moscow in turn is beefing up its own military capabilities, using NATO as a pretext. On June 21, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu chaired a special meeting of Russia’s top brass—the collegium of the defense ministry—in Russia’s Baltic province of Kaliningrad. Shoigu flew to Kaliningrad from the St. Petersburg region over water, bypassing the Baltic States in a defense ministry Tu-154 jet, escorted by two armed Su-27 fighters. Over the Baltic Sea, two Polish F-16 fighters, currently on rotation as part of NATO’s mission to patrol the Baltic republics’ skies, intercepted Shoigu’s plane. The Russian defense ministry posted footage of the “NATO intercept” of a Russian defense minister on a legitimate mission to visit an outlying Russian region, while the escorting Su-27 jets intervened “to push the NATO jets away” (Militarynews.ru, June 21).
In Kaliningrad, Shoigu announced the security situation on Russia’s western borders “is deteriorating because of NATO activities—the deployment of four battalion tactical groups [BTG] of some 5,000 servicepersons.” Shoigu cited NATO war games in the region and increased battle readiness, accusing the West of being anti-Russian and “ready to use military force to achieve geopolitical gains.” Russia is forced to response to this presumed threat by deploying more forces, increasing battle readiness and building new military bases “in the Western strategic direction.” Some 20 new military units have been created in Russia’s Western Military District (Zapadniy Voyenniy Okrug—ZVO) and 40 new military bases built, according to Shoigu. The ZVO is receiving new weapons and has more than 30 BTGs ready for immediate action. Battle readiness has increased 2.5 times, compared to 2016. More than a hundred snap exercises in the first half of 2017 have confirmed the ZVO troops are ready to go. Baltic Fleet ships have reestablished their presence in operationally important locations in the Atlantic. Preparations are under way for the strategic military exercise Zapad 2017 next September “that will be defensive in nature,” according to Shoigu (Mil.ru, June 21).
The Russian Armed Forces are deliberately hyping the threat coming from the West and NATO. This presumed threat has helped expand defense spending as well as increase the military’s social prestige and political clout. But it is also dragging Russia into an increasingly vicious and costly standoff. The assumed Russian threat and pressure from Washington have pushed European countries into increasing their defense spending and into considering further increases in battle readiness, while rebuilding Cold War–style heavy forces to take on the Russians with more armor, enhanced air defenses and additional troops. According to the Russian defense ministry daily Red Star, last week some 20 foreign reconnaissance aircraft approached Russian borders in the Baltic, the Barents Sea and in the Far East. Fourteen were intercepted by Russian Su-27 and MiG-31 jets. In turn, Russian jets, including strategic Tu-160 bombers, patrolled the Baltic airspace (Interfax, June 23). Some of the intercepts reportedly resulted in dangerous approaches that could have ended in midair collisions with possible loss of life and planes. Russia and the West exchanged accusation of “provocations” (Interfax, June 20).
Apparently, the Russian military, defense industry and the security establishment accept this growing standoff with the West: The larger the presumed threat, the better. Speaking yesterday (June 28) to military graduates, President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow’s military campaign in Syria demonstrated the improved capabilities of the Russian military. He pledged to continue to spend money to enhance Russia’s military potential “to defend our territorial integrity and sovereignty against any potential aggressor, or pressure, or blackmail by those who dislike an independent and sovereign Russia” (Militarynews.ru, June 28).
But the Russian population seems less convinced NATO is an imminent threat. According to a new survey by the Kremlin-financed pollster VTsIOM, 53 percent of Russians dismiss the existence of any foreign military threat. Of the 38 percent who do perceive one, 63 percent fear the US and 31 percent—Ukraine. The perceived threat from NATO and European countries is low—in the single digits. Apparently, Russia’s propaganda machine has overdone the promotion of the newly found prowess of the Russian military: 36 percent consider the Russian military the best in the world, and 47 percent think it is one of the best. With such a fine military, the majority of Russians believe they are secure and that NATO cannot threaten them. In contrast, in 2015, according to VTsIOM, some 68 percent feared an imminent foreign invasion (Wciom.ru, June 28). One can, therefore, expect the Kremlin’s PR machine to try to bridge the emerging gap between public perceptions of the military threat and the alarmist rhetoric of the leadership.