World·Analysis

NATO vs. Putin sabre-rattling raises Cold War concerns: Brian Stewart

An already tense security situation in eastern Europe is about to become even more strained as Poland and its NATO partners prepare to test their ability to mobilize both arms and political will to stand against any Russian provocation in the Baltic region.

Russian president likely to respond to NATO's massive exercise planned for Poland

A massive NATO exercise planned for June in Poland will almost certainly provoke an angry reaction from Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

An already tense security situation in eastern Europe is about to become even more strained as Poland and its NATO partners prepare to test their ability to mobilize both arms and political will to stand against any Russian provocation in the Baltic region.

Poland will look like a war zone June 7-17 as 31,000 ground troops and sailors from 24 NATO and partner countries stage enormous land, sea and air exercises to block a hypothetical Russian incursion from the east.

The land exercise alone, dubbed Anaconda 2016, will be 2 ½ times larger than any previous training in Poland in recent decades and will almost certainly provoke an angry reaction from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Then just weeks later, on July 8, the leaders of NATO will meet in Warsaw for a two-day summit where they'll hear the escalating demands of Poland and other members near the Russian border who want their Western allies to do far more to back them up. 

They mean to insist on a steady rotation of up to 5,000 rapid-reaction troops from the West, including the U.S., U.K., France, and Germany, into Poland and NATO's small Baltic trio of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Canada too was pressed last week by visiting Polish President Andrzej Duda to join this tripwire force to help deter Russian "adventurism."   

The momentum of military buildup has Western diplomats bracing for a stormy June as Russia reacts by launching new exercises of its own along its western border. Some expect a military provocation from Russia before the summit.

There's concern among some NATO members that Poland’s hard line towards Russia contributes to the perception we could be approaching another Cold War.
 

Earlier this year Putin declared the growing military presence of NATO troops in eastern Europe a "threat to Russia's national security" and announced the creation of four new Russian divisions (roughly 50,000 new troops) to join already substantial forces in Russia's western regions.  

When NATO expressed alarm over this further escalation of forces, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed it as sheer hypocrisy: "NATO military infrastructure is inching closer and closer to Russia's borders, but when Russia takes action to ensure its security, we are told that we are engaging in dangerous manoeuvres."

Moscow's view of the rising tension, however, is starkly different from NATO's. The alliance sees Russia acting increasingly aggressively since 2014, following its armed takeover of Crimea and its military backing of separatist rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine.       

Not only does Russia have an enormous land force of highly mobile troops ready to confront NATO, their exercises have dwarfed those of the Western alliance in recent years.

While NATO exercises have been generally in the 6,000 to 14,000-troop range, six Russian exercises since 2013 have each involved 65,000 to 160,000 troops.  Even more troubling for NATO than the size of Russia's forces is the speed with which it can launch so-called "Snap" exercises, with little or no warning to the alliance.

A Russian serviceman aboard an armoured personnel carrier salutes next to the blue-white-red tricolour flag of Crimea, during the Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square on May 9. (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)

This lack of clear communication between the East and West has worsened to the point where influential magazine The Economist warns the careful mechanisms American officers and their Soviet counterparts maintained during the Cold War to avoid military accidents have now "largely vanished."

The 10-day exercise in Poland represents not only a large increase in the size of NATO manoeuvres as a signal to Moscow that the Baltic flank will be defended, it will also test complex new command and control abilities against a broader range of possible Russian actions.

Polish officers on the ground will largely command 25,000 troops from 24 countries, including 14,000 U.S. soldiers and 1,000 British, while 105 aircraft and 49 NATO warships training in the Baltic will combine for an exercise to respond to theoretical crises.

'Hybrid war'      

The complex exercise is chiefly designed to counter an all-out Russian invasion of NATO's Baltic flank, as well as what many military experts call the new "hybrid war" favoured by Russia.

It describes the kind of conflict seen in Crimea and Ukraine in which Russian special forces link up with a paramilitary uprising of ethnic Russian minorities within a target nation to create armed brinkmanship just short of all-out war. NATO planners want to test so-called "pre-conflict procedures" to stabilize its border zones and pour in reinforcements to prevent such incursions or intimidation moves.

Poland's growing influence in NATO is evident in the size of the exercise and the importance of the summit. It boasts one of the largest militaries in NATO and plans to double its military spending in the coming years. It's also located in an important geo-strategic position between the East and West, which has made it a flashpoint for conflicts throughout European history.  

NATO also has internal diplomatic problems to resolve. While Poland is the most stridently anti-Putin member of the alliance, its right-wing government is seen as increasingly oppressive at home and rough-toned abroad. Some in NATO worry Poland's hard line towards Russia contributes to the perception we could be approaching another Cold War.

Of even greater concern is the widespread conviction that neither the U.S., as NATO's leader, nor Russia have anything close to coherent strategies to handle the growing tensions.    

Putin often appears to just push for gains against NATO where he sees opportunities, while President Barack Obama is widely viewed as only reacting to shifting crises, without much strategic planning.

Do Russia and the U.S. have coherent strategies to handle the growing tensions? Chuck Hagel, Obama's former defence secretary, isn't sure. (Reuters)
 

Chuck Hagel, Obama's former defence secretary, warned last week both NATO and Russia are pursuing armed buildups "that make no sense for either side."

"I'm not sure there's some real strategic thinking here," Hagel said when asked about possible NATO reinforcements for Poland. "Then we continue to build up the eastern flank of NATO, with more battalions, more exercises, and more ships, and the Russians will respond.  I'm not sure where this takes you … there's always going to be an increase."

The counter-argument within NATO is that a failure to show enough strength to deter Russian "adventurism" will make a bad situation even more dangerous.

Old veterans of the Cold War remember such arguments all too well. How much is enough deterrence?  When does too much of it towards Russia become a provocation in itself? 

The arguments were never quite settled during the Cold War. But the events planned in Poland this summer will likely raise them anew — and very starkly.   

About the Author

Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

One of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents, Brian Stewart is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He also sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.