Mutual mistrust and suspicion between Russia and NATO over their strategic intentions is increasingly threatening the post-Cold War regional order and security balance.
Mutual mistrust and suspicion between Russia and NATO over their strategic intentions is increasingly threatening the post-Cold War regional order and security balance. President Putin said on 15 June that he plans to put 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles into service this year. This followed a Pentagon announcement that it was ‘poised’ to deploy 5,000 NATO troops in Eastern European countries willing to deter Russian aggression. The US defence secretary has since confirmed that the US will ‘temporarily station’ heavy weaponry in the region. NATO has already staged military exercises in the Baltic States to signal military readiness, and reportedly plans more over the summer.
NATO – or at least some of its members states – is framing such deployments in the context of a growing threat from Russia. It is undertaking, in the words of the NATO Secretary General, the ‘biggest reinforcement of NATO forces since the end of the Cold War’. Such moves reflect growing uncertainty about Russia’s strategic intentions, following its surprise seizure of Crimea and its actions in Ukraine. They also point to a significant reinvigoration – or even reworking – of NATO’s deterrence strategy towards Russia, as well as its capabilities in Eastern Europe.
Highlighting this changing geopolitical landscape, US defence secretary, Ash Carter, was in Europe this week to ‘address the new security environment’. He said on Monday that NATO’s current actions were ‘in anticipation that Russia might not change under Vladimir Putin, or even thereafter’. He outlined concrete steps yesterday in Estonia, saying that the US will temporarily position one armoured brigade with combat vehicles – including tanks, infantry and artillery – on a rotating basis between six Eastern European countries.
Russia clearly views NATO deployments, exercises and military support to its neighbours as threatening and provocative. Russia's new military doctrine identifies NATO’s reinforced capabilities and presence at its borders as the main foreign military threat to Russian security and highlights the need to modernise the army and increase its combat-readiness. It was probably a factor in Russia's annexation of Crimea last year as well as ongoing support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Based on the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s database on states’ yearly military spending, this perception contributed to a 20% increase in Russian defence spending from 2011 to 2014.
It is not clear whether Putin’s announcement last week was intended as a direct response to the Pentagon's plan to bolster NATO forces in Eastern Europe. The timing is strongly suggestive that it was, although replacing intercontinental ballistic missiles is part of Russia’s existing armed forces’ modernisation plan launched in 2011. This plan aims to upgrade 70% of Russian military equipment by 2020. In December 2014, Putin announced that Russia would acquire more than 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2015.
The latest announcement therefore represents a downgrade to Russia’s initial plans. But this is more a measure of the current economic recession in Russia than of Putin's intent or strategic calculations. Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said in April that the Russian economy contracted by 2% in the first quarter of 2015. Fiscal shortfalls appear to have compelled Russia to cut its defence spending for 2015, despite its apparent perception of growing threats from NATO and need to respond. As illustrated on the second attached map, this contrasts with the majority of Eastern European states’ spending plans for 2015, which are rising by as much as 20%.
Russia, like NATO, has also staged military exercises in the Baltic and Black Sea areas this year – most notably an artillery drill involving 8,000 men in Russia's Southern Military District bordering Ukraine and Georgia in March. And since the crisis in Ukraine began, Russia has markedly increased military flights that encroach on NATO member's airspace. Such intensified levels of military activity coupled with mistrust and the risk (if not possibility) of both sides misreading the other’s intent increase the risks of miscalculation, unintended escalation and regional instability in the long term.
Such risks are plainly clear to some NATO members. The US tried to downplay the significance of the Baltic deployments yesterday. Carter said that the brigade will work on a rotating basis and temporarily, implying that there will be no new permanent bases in Eastern Europe, at least for now. The Estonian defence minister said that NATO was not trying to re-engage in a Cold War-type arms race but rather aims to increase its rapid reaction defence capability to counter Russia. The map below shows the current European military balance and highlights the re-shuffle of forces towards the border between Russia and NATO states.
Whatever the intentions of the two sides’ military moves, the strategic landscape is changing. Eastern Europe is becoming more militarised and its future stability much less certain as the doctrines and relations that defined the post-Cold War era appear to be unravelling. Indeed, in our analysis, the 1997 Founding Act between NATO and the Russian Federation, which set out the basis for a European security order, looks increasingly irrelevant. In the Act, NATO and Russia committed themselves ‘to build a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe’. They affirmed that they do not consider each other as adversaries – something that plainly appears to no longer be the case.
This does not mean that we assess Russia and NATO are heading for conflict. The latest measures on both sides appeared aimed more at deterrence than aggression. But Russia is unlikely to let the announced deployments go unanswered in the near term. In terms of ground level risks, based on previous Russian responses and its increased emphasis on ‘hybrid warfare’, we assess this will most probably equate to renewed separatist fighting in eastern Ukraine. We also anticipate a potential new deployment of additional Russian forces in Kaliningrad. Further demonstrations of force such as military drills are almost certain on both sides, and look likely to keep tensions and anxieties running high through summer at least.