NATO’s Warsaw Summit in July 2016 translated into hard military facts the consequences of the political decisions announced at the alliance’s Wales Summit in September 2014, in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. As a result, politico-military standoff has returned to Europe after a quarter-century-long “holiday period” of security cooperation ushered in by the end of the Cold War. This new-old standoff will probably last a long time, and heavily affect the security of all countries in Europe, whether members of NATO or not. The situation needs to be taken seriously, with a view to, in the first instance, managing the very real immediate risks that flow from it, and, in the second instance, looking for ways to provide stability to Europe’s downgraded security situation.
The current status of US-Russian and NATO-Russian relations is often compared to the Cold War. This is misleading. The confrontation today is not nearly as fundamental as was the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1940s-1980s, with its clash of ideologies, the watertight nature of the Iron Curtain, economic quasi-isolation, and the ever-present fear of a nuclear Armageddon. Today’s situation is different in many ways, but it could be as dangerous. Those who use the Cold War analogy risk looking for the things that will never happen again – and missing new ones that might happen.
Europe: A new division?
In Moscow, NATO is again seen as the main platform for US military presence in Europe and the chief instrument of Washington’s political domination in that part of the world. The Kremlin roundly rejects Western references to Russia’s actions in Crimea and its policies in Ukraine as the main reason for NATO’s reawakening. Rather, it is the process of NATO’s enlargement to the east, which began over two decades ago, that is usually seen in Russia as the central cause of the breakdown of Russian-Western security cooperation in the 1990s and 2000s. President Vladimir Putin publicly described the use of Russian military force in Crimea in 2014 as preventive action against post-Maidan Ukraine’s potential accession to NATO.
The decisions formally taken in Warsaw in 2016 had been openly discussed for some time, and did not come as a surprise to Moscow, which was able to calmly analyze them. Thus, they did not produce a new crisis, in and of themselves. A total of four NATO battalions newly deployed in each of the three Baltic States, and Poland, plus a multinational brigade in Romania are a far cry from the one million-strong contingent of NATO forces long stationed in West Germany. NATO’s Rapid Deployment Force, with six new command posts in the eastern NATO member states, is not an immediate threat to Russia. More frequent NATO exercises close to Russia’s borders command attention, but again they do not look like a covert phase of an imminent invasion.
Yet, the division of Europe is a fact, and its consequences are real. The dividing line on the continent now passes much farther to the east than it used to. The distance from the Estonian border to St Petersburg is less than 200km. The nearest US military base, in Poland’s portion of the former East Prussia, will be just 60km from the Russian border, and 135km from Kaliningrad. Russian military planners highly respect the US military’s capability of transporting large forces across huge distances in short periods of time, and have to consider various contingencies. Russia’s security buffer in the western strategic direction has shrunk considerably. NATO’s current policy toward Russia is routinely described in Moscow as containment. […]
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