Tuesday, 1 April 2014

RUSSIA-EUROPE: NATO's Putin Enigma

The conflict surrounding Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia earlier this month, is entering a new phase. Early this week, NATO is expected to send an initial military signal designed to send a stronger message than the rather limited political and economic sanctions the European Union has levied. Many allies view Russia's course of action as an historical turning point and the beginning of a new era for the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.

Steps such as increasing the Baltic states’ air defenses or sending U.S. fighter jets to Poland are reassuring. Talk of NATO reaffirming its commitment to its Article 5 mutual-defense clause is also good news for the organization’s Eastern members. No doubt, the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels today and tomorrow will reveal a new sense of purpose that was much needed after the alliance’s long, difficult, and controversial combat mission in Afghanistan.

One focus of the meeting will be putting a halt to the work of the NATO-Russia Council after suspending "working level cooperation" last week. Furthermore, military cooperation with Ukraine is to be "considerably" expanded, NATO sources say. The alliance is also intent on signaling solidarity with the Baltic states and with Poland, with so-called "air policing" flights -- surveillance missions to guard airspace -- to be at least doubled. Currently, there are two aircraft constantly at the ready or in the air, a number that is expected to be increased to four or six. The airports in Ă„mari, Estonia and Siauliai, Lithuania are the focus of the Baltic Air Policing program.

In addition, there is to be an increase in the number of AWACS surveillance flights. They are to take place "exclusively over NATO territories," sources say, but such aircraft have the technical ability to monitor events deep within Ukraine. Finally, a NATO naval unit is to conduct maneuvers in the eastern Baltic Sea.

Eastern European alliance members have been requesting such demonstrations of solidarity since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. Only now, though, has the US agreed. Washington was initially skeptical but has now become a driving force of the movement.

Britain and France have already offered to take on the additional flights necessary for increased air policing in the Baltics. London has pledged to make four jets available immediately. Norway has offered to send a flagship to lead the Baltic Sea maneuver but Germany is still reluctant to take part in such preparations, arguing that the Ukraine crisis cannot be solved with military means: That can only be done with diplomatic efforts aimed at de-escalation. This is the inconvenient truth.

The United States, meanwhile, is moving ahead. It has stationed six F-15C fighters in Lithuania and plans to send 16 F-16s and four C-130 transport planes to Poland. More is likely to come. At the NATO meeting this week, foreign ministers may agree on language requiring all alliance members to provide such bilateral assistance.

Within NATO, the leitmotif for current preparations is "reassurance," in particular for Eastern European member states, in the hopes that a clear response will be enough to calm frayed nerves in the region. Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is likewise interested in taking a step back in the interests of de-escalation remains unclear.

As for non-NATO countries such as Finland and Sweden, they are already taking a hard look at their own defense capabilities and considering closer ties to the alliance. In 2012, Finland acquired a standoff cruise missile from the United States. That bilateral deal confirmed that Finland needed a strong deterrent weapons system—clearly motivated by the threat from Russia as well as the growing geosecurity importance of the Arctic.

How long additional units might remain in the Baltics or in other Eastern European states is unclear. But their presence sends a decisive message. Following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the Baltic countries, formerly part of the Eastern Bloc, began preparing to join NATO -- and in 2004, they too became formal members enjoying the protection of Article 5, which treats an attack against any member state as one on the alliance as a whole.

Although the three Baltic states only have small militaries, NATO has thus far refrained from maintaining a constant presence there out of consideration for Russian sensibilities. During the Cold War, the permanent stationing of British, French, American, Belgian, Dutch and Canadian troops in West Germany was meant as a forceful message that NATO was serious about Article 5.

It is hard to find a Western European government or public willing to contemplate the use of force, either by Ukraine’s own military or by some sort of NATO mission. Yet most NATO countries, especially the Eastern members, know what is at stake: the post–Cold War consensus on borders, territorial integrity, and international rules. But it stops there. Even if the United States has rediscovered its interest in NATO, U.S. President Barack Obama has no appetite for resorting to force either.

The risk now is that we are returning to that era. It is a situation which could further feed Russian fears of encirclement -- fears that Putin has expertly taken advantage of in the pursuit of his political goals.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP-