About 1,000 of promised 4,000 troops arrived in Poland at the start of the week, and a formal ceremony to welcome them is to be held on Sunday. But their arrival is perceived as a threat by Moscow.
Russia is concerned that these actions threaten its interests, and security. Especially as it concerns a third party building its military presence near Russia borders. However for NATO, a failure to defend Baltic countries’ sovereignty will feed the Kremlin’s appetite for military adventures and jeopardize the geostrategic stability of the European continent.
Russia alarmed Baltic states by moving nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to its naval base at kaliningrad in the autumn. At the time NATO regarded the move as a response to its own deployments. But there are other causes for concern as well. You only have to consider the case of the Russian submarines in Swedish coastal waters, or the latest incident of the Russian bombers spotted above the English Channel that potentially posed a threat to civil air traffic.
Eastern European alliance members have been requesting such demonstrations of solidarity since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. Only now, though, has the US acted. Washington was initially skeptical but has now become a driving force of the movement.
Increasing the Baltic states’ air defenses or sending U.S. troops 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. The alliance also intents 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 Ämari, 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,". Finally, a NATO naval unit is to conduct maneuvers in the eastern Baltic Sea.
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.
The presence of these troops 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 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 Baltic states’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.
Russia may hold back on retaliatory action in the hope that Donald Trump's presidency will herald a rapprochement with Washington. Trump, in remarks during the election campaign and since, has sown seeds of doubt over the deployments by suggesting he would rather work with than confront Putin.
Few at NATO seriously believe that war with Russia is likely but there have been dangerous developments, with escalation on both sides. But 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
International Affairs Expert
Photo Credit: US Troops arriving in Poland