In one of the most dramatic moves in recent NATO history, its 28 members, including Canada, approved a plan Wednesday to beef up the alliance’s military presence in central and eastern Europe to deter prospective aggression from Russia.
“We will have as much presence in the East as needed,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters, adding that it would be a mobile, multinational force whose composition would be hammered out before the alliance’s summit in July.
It follows a separate earlier announcement by the Pentagon that the Obama administration would quadruple its spending to defend Eastern Europe. Some $3.4 billion (U.S.) would go toward war-fighting gear, training and exercises involving 3,000 troops deployed to protect countries that include Ukraine, the Baltics, Hungary and Romania.
But even while NATO members mull what they will contribute to the new effort, there is wide disagreement among advocates and critics on where the muscle flexing could lead as the stakes are raised in the increasingly tense power contest with Russia.
“This is brinksmanship, a game played on multiple levels, and it’s hard to know where it’s going,” said Timothy Donais, chair of global studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and backed separatists fighting for independence in eastern Ukraine, there have been escalating tensions with NATO countries, as the West slapped sanctions on Moscow and stepped up military exercises in the region.
The Baltic countries, Poland and other former Soviet satellites fear that Moscow is awaiting a chance to extend its territorial reach.
“I think it’s a recognition of a reality that has existed for some time,” said Stephen Saideman, Paterson chair in international affairs at Carleton University.
“This makes it clear. The Europeans have been very reluctant to talk (about deterrence) because they were afraid of antagonizing Russia. Now they more or less agreed that it is antagonized anyway, and the best way to avoid Russia imposing a fait accompli on us is having troops there to welcome them if they try any aggression.”
Even before the NATO force is boosted on Russia’s frontiers, more than 80,000 American troops are deployed in Europe, a presence Moscow calls provocative.
But the NATO agreement could mark a new and even more negative era in the increasingly bad relations with Russia, says political science Prof. Piotr Dutkiewicz of Carleton University, an expert in Russian politics.
“There is an escalation of the confrontation,” he says. “It is not business as usual.”
Dutkiewicz added that Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to make a dramatic military response, but will score a domestic propaganda victory from the NATO plan.
“Russia will make strong statements that it was only confirmation of NATO’s hideous plan of encircling Russia. Public opinion will be saying that Putin is right: sooner or later they will bring tanks to our borders.”
Russia has been upping its own military game. In the past month, it has carried out military exercises near the border of Ukraine, and it is deploying three divisions of S-300 air defence missile systems to neighbouring Belarus.
However, fighting in Ukraine has diminished, and there is some hope that a peace deal to halt eastern Ukraine’s march to separation may succeed. As Russia focuses its military efforts on Syria, and its economy continues to decline with the price of oil, it appears less likely to advance in Eastern Europe.
Poland, the Baltics and other countries in the region are doubtful.
“If Russia moved into the Baltics it would punch a giant hole in NATO’s Article 5,” says Saideman. “That could lead to the end of NATO. Putin would love to see it fall apart.” The article obliges alliance members to defend any member that is threatened.
But, says Dutkiewicz, Russia’s flagging economy cannot match the costly NATO and U.S. efforts ranged against it. So it could counter with missiles equipped with nuclear warheads instead of a massive Cold War-style troop and armour presence. A strategic psychological threat.
“It’s a mistake to say this is a new Cold War,” he says. “This is different. Then, there were powerful forces on both sides and it was symmetrical. This may create additional risks. If you don’t have the instruments to respond, you may go for the most powerful tool you have.”
Dutkiewicz adds: “We are witnessing a spiral. The biggest problem is that we are not trying to understand each other any more. One step can bring us closer to the brink.”