Looming tension

Print edition : July 08, 2016

Polish troops land at the military compound near Torun, central Poland, on June 7, as part of the NATO's Anaconda-16 military exercise. Photo: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP

The "Saber Strike" NATO military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, on June 13. Eastern Europe has seen a series of military exercises since 2014. Photo: INTS KALNINS/REUTERS

War games, said to be the biggest since the Cold War, have escalated near Russia’s borders ahead of the NATO summit in July.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) staged one of its biggest military exercises in recent times along Russia’s borders. As many as 31,000 troops of the United States and NATO, along with 105 planes and 12 warships, were involved in the exercises codenamed “Operation Anaconda-2016” that were staged in Poland in the second week of June.

U.S. naval ships and planes have been active in the area since the Ukrainian crisis erupted. NATO has effectively used the crisis to further expand eastward. Eastern Europe has seen a series of military exercises since 2014. This year may witness even more intense military exercises conducted by NATO on the periphery of Russia. In the second week of May, U.S. troops held joint military exercises with Romanian and Moldavian troops. Another exercise, “Operation Saber Strike”, involving U.S. troops took place in the Baltic states in the end of May this year.

Under the guiding hand of Washington, NATO has escalated its military posture towards Moscow in recent months. The provocative moves come before the NATO summit scheduled to be held in Warsaw in July. Even at the height of the Cold War, there were not these many military exercises within such a short span of time. The former German Chancellor Gerard Schroeder described the military build-up along Russia’s border as “a serious mistake”. Germany is playing a leading role in the Anaconda-16 war games. The military exercises coincided with the 75th anniversary of the German invasion of Russia in June 1941.

U.S. missile shield

Meanwhile, the U.S. has established a new missile defence system base in Romania and is planning a separate missile shield for Poland. U.S. military officials had originally claimed that the missile shields were to be installed to prevent a missile attack from Iran. U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Robert Work reiterated this explanation recently. “As long as Iran continues to develop and deploy ballistic missiles, the United States will work with its allies to defend NATO,” he said.

North Korean missiles are also cited by U.S. officials as threats to NATO’s security. But now the Barack Obama administration is not shying away from stating the real reasons for the deployment of missile shields and nuclear-capable missiles along Russia’s borders. President Obama recently claimed that the Baltic states and Poland faced an imminent military threat from Russia. Polish President Andrzej Duda said that “the goal of the exercise (Anaconda-16) was clear, that we are preparing for an attack”.

Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, Chairman of the Russian Duma’s Defence Committee, has said that the placement of the missile systems in Romania is a direct threat to his country. Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked last year that “only an insane person, and only in his dream, can imagine that Russia can suddenly attack NATO”.

The real rationale could be the West’s decision to start Cold War II and the U.S. military establishment’s desire to get a bigger slice of the budget by exaggerating the threat posed by a resurgent Russian military. The U.S. spends seven times more money than Russia on defence. It has twice the number of active military personnel than the Russians. The U.S. Army’s strength stands at 1.4 million while the Russian army’s strength stands at 766,000. Yet, top officials in the Pentagon claim that Americans will be outgunned by potential enemies like Russia in a future war.

President Putin has said that the new missile deployments are part of Washington’s nuclear strategy. “This is part of the U.S. nuclear strategic potential brought on to the periphery. In this case, Eastern Europe is the periphery,” Putin said. He warned that Russia would be forced to take countermeasures to neutralise the emerging threats from across its borders. The spokesman for the Kremlin said that “Operation Anaconda” did not contribute to the “creation of trust and security”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear that Russia had a “negative attitude” to the movement of NATO’s “military infrastructure to its borders”.

Aggressive pace

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has expanded at an aggressive pace. Montenegro, a tiny state with a population of 600,000, is the latest entrant into its fold. Moscow had objected to the inclusion of the Balkan republic which was part of the Yugoslav Federation.

NATO’s role in the dismantling of the Yugoslav Federation is well known. It was a precursor to the war in Iraq. Most of the former states that were part of the Yugoslav Federation are now either part of NATO or are queuing up to join it. Serbia is the only country not actively pursuing NATO membership. The Republic of Georgia has been wanting to join NATO for a long time. If it is admitted, Moscow has reasons to be even more upset. Russia and Georgia had fought a brief war over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia.

Before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, Moscow was given to understand that the next steps would include the dismantling of the two military blocs—the Warsaw Pact and NATO. The U.S. Secretary of State at the time, James Baker, pledged in 1990 during a visit to Moscow that the U.S. would cooperate with Russia in the “development of a new Europe”. The Warsaw Pact military alliance was duly dismantled, but within no time NATO started expanding towards Russia’s borders, taking Poland and other former allies of Moscow into the military alliance. Lavrov has called NATO’s open-door admission policy as “irresponsible” and a “provocation”.

Tensions are building up between Moscow and Washington in another region—West Asia. Russia is upset that the U.S. is indirectly supporting the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and its main ally, the Ahrar al Sham. Even as a shaky ceasefire holds in Syria, the Americans are turning a blind eye to sophisticated arms being funnelled to these two groups by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Shoulder-fired missile systems have been used by these two groups to bring down Syrian air force planes and helicopters. The two groups, supported tacitly by the U.S., have launched a three-front military offensive in Syria despite the existence of a truce brokered by the U.S. and Russia.

According to William Perry, a former U.S. Secretary of Defence, the threat of a nuclear war is greater today than it was during the height of the Cold War. The policies of the Obama administration towards Russia after 2014 have led to a renewed arms race. Washington has been quietly adding to its nuclear arsenal while transferring its Aegis defence system from ships to the shores of countries bordering Russia.

Russian response

Moscow is not sitting idle either. It has expanded its missile arsenal with new lethal additions. Russia has brought its S-500 missiles and its nuclear-capable short-range Iskander missiles closer to the European borders in the light of recent events. Many military experts warn of the dangers of things going out of hand as the West steps up its aggressive patrolling and exercises in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea.

In April, a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane flying perilously close to Russian air space over the Baltic Sea was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 jet. The American plane was an RC-135-U, one of the most secretive planes of the U.S. Air Force. It is used to provide strategic electronic reconnaissance information. The plane was flying near a Russian military base with its transponder switched off. Aircraft flying without transponders are not visible to air traffic control radars and can pose a threat to aircraft that are unaware of their presence.

The U.S. said that the interception was done in an “unprofessional and unsafe manner”, flying as close as 15 metres to the plane. The Russian Defence Ministry in a statement warned the U.S. against sending spy planes towards Russia’s borders with their transponders switched off. The statement emphasised that Russia would not send its planes to intercept U.S. or NATO aircraft if they flew with their transponders switched on.

Russian planes have also been reported in recent months to be buzzing U.S. warships plying close to the Russian shoreline in the Baltic and Black Seas. Last year, NATO aircraft conducted more than 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft. This was more than three times the number of intercepts conducted before the Ukrainian crisis erupted. A mid-air accident or shooting down of a U.S. or Russian military plane has the potential of precipitating an international crisis.

The Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has stated on record that the U.S. Air Force should shoot down Russian planes when they intercept American spy planes. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also issued a warning that the U.S. may open fire on Russian planes. He said that under the rules of military engagement, the U.S. Navy could have shot down two unarmed Russian jet fighters buzzing a U.S. ship in the Baltic Sea in April.