The United States’ decision to store heavy weapons in the Baltic states and several Eastern European countries in an attempt to ease their fears stemming from Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea has invited a strong reaction from Moscow. Calling the U.S. move “the most aggressive step by the Pentagon and NATO” since the Cold War, a senior Russian Defense Ministry official, Gen. Yuri Yakubov, said in mid-June that Russia would have no other choice but to upgrade its forces on its western border by adding troops, tanks, artillery, airplanes and missiles there. President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia would add over 40 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of overcoming any missile defense system. The two sides must take concrete steps to restore trust and end this escalating situation that threatens to revive the Cold War.
Tensions between the U.S. and Russia heightened after a June 13 New York Times report quoted U.S. and allied officials as saying that the Pentagon planned to “store battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons for as many as 5,000 American troops in several Baltic states and Eastern European countries.” Russia reacted quickly. Yakubov made the statement two days later, followed by Putin, who, speaking at the opening of a weapons show held near Moscow, announced the plan to beef up Russia’s nuclear arsenal with more than 40 new ICBMs — a move that would doom U.S.-Russia cooperation to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Like Yakubov, he characterized the U.S. move as the most aggressive act since the Cold War and said that Russia “will be forced to aim our armed forces … at those territories from where the threat comes.” Expressing concern, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that no one wants stepping backward “to a kind of a Cold War status.”
The formal announcement by the U.S. government of its plan to pre-position heavy weapons on some of its European allies’ territories for use by an armored brigade came on June 23 when Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in the Estonian capital of Tallinn that “Estonia as well as Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland have agreed to host company to battalion-sized elements of this equipment.” Although Carter said the equipment is for training and exercises, and the U.S. decision falls short of permanently stationing troops, it represents the first time that the U.S. will store heavy weapons in the new NATO member states that were either part of the Soviet Union — the three Baltic states — or belonged the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.
In response, on June 24, the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet announced that a group of Russian warships from the fleet led by the Moskva, a guided missile cruiser, would set sail for the Atlantic Ocean in the latter half of July to conduct a drill in which anti-submarine missiles will be launched. Apparently Russia is thinking of a situation in which its naval vessels would engage NATO submarines — a departure from the Black Sea Fleet’s traditional mission of preventing NATO ships from entering the sea by closing the Bosporus strait during an emergency. That same day, NATO announced that it would triple the size of its Response Force to 40,000 troops. On July 5, a U.S. guided missile destroyer entered the Black Sea to join three other NATO naval ships. On Monday, 18 countries including the U.S., Germany, some other NATO member nations and Ukraine were to start a military drill in western Ukraine, to be followed by a naval exercise involving NATO ships in the Black Sea from late August.
What is happening between NATO and Russia is dangerous. Both Washington and Moscow should be aware that the buildup of conventional weapons and the holding of large-scale military drills will only ratchet up tensions in the region.
The recent development is actually an extension of the military buildup by both the U.S. and Russia that went into full swing in the latter half of 2014. Last fall, NATO created a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force within its Response Force that would enable it to deploy several thousand troops within two days. In March, Putin disclosed that Moscow was ready to put its nuclear forces on alert to cope with a possible intervention by NATO when the pro-Moscow Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych fell and pro-Western elements seized power in Kiev in February 2014. In March, the Russian military also deployed Iskander tactical missiles, which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, in Kaliningrad Oblast, an exclave on the Baltic coast, putting the capitals of Poland and the Baltic states plus eastern Germany within their range.
Putin’s hard-line stance is backed by the Russian public’s growing distrust of the U.S. and Europe. An opinion survey taken in April showed that 59 percent of the pollees regarded the U.S. as a threat, compared with just 47 percent in a 2007 poll. Although Russia’s economy is forecast to shrink by 2 percent this year due to Western sanctions over Ukraine and falling crude oil prices, Putin enjoys a strong popular approval rate of around 80 percent. Many Russians feel that the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Poland and then East Germany has made Russia militarily weak vis-a-vis the NATO powers.
The U.S. and NATO should reconsider the wisdom of making moves that Russia will regard as aimed at cornering it. They would do well to remember the 1997 NATO-Russia agreement in which NATO pledged not to seek “additional permanent stationing of substantial ground combat forces” in the nations close to Russia “in the current and foreseeable security environment.” Both the U.S. and Russia should strive to follow the spirit of the 1975 Helsinki Accords of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which greatly contributed to reducing Cold War tensions thanks to its principles of the inviolability of national frontiers, respect for territorial integrity and refraining from the threat or use of force.