As the presidential race heats up in the US, Republicans are set to make foreign policy a major campaign issue with Vladimir Putin serving as the quintessential example of what happens when The White House looks to ‘appease’ a head of state bent on the illegitimate expansion of national borders by violating the sovereignty of his neighbors.
The extent to which that characterization of Russia’s recent actions in Eastern Europe approximates reality almost doesn’t matter. Voters in the US are notoriously naïve and even if they weren’t (i.e. even if the American public adopted a healthy level of skepticism towards Russophobic campaign rhetoric), the idea of Russia as the antithesis of Western democratic values is so deeply rooted in the American conscious that a resurgent Moscow will likely always be viewed as a threat by the majority of ballot box-bound Americans. This means that any US president who seeks to “reset” relations with the Kremlin takes an enormous political risk, because when things go wrong — as they have recently — political rivals will leap at the chance to point to deteriorating US-Russia relations as proof that Washington should forever and always adopt a hardline stance towards Moscow.
Recently, the Obama administration has seemingly given up on the ill-fated Russian “reset.” Whether The White House’s increasingly aggressive stance is an attempt to help pave the way for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid (presumably Clinton could deflect criticism by pointing to Democrats’ toughening stance towards Moscow as evidence that when military realities trump political idealism, the Obama administration was quick to “reset” the “reset,” so to speak) or simply proves that when push comes to shove and post-USSR unipolarity is threatened, US presidents will ultimately abandon all pretenses that American foreign policy isn’t based on the projection of military might, is debatable but one thing is clear: the US and NATO are preparing for a full scale escalation of hostilities in Eastern Europe.
As the NY Times reports, Washington is now looking to store heavy weapons in close proximity to the Russian border in what looks like some of the most aggressive sabre rattling to date. Here’s more:
In a significant move to deter possible Russian aggression in Europe, the Pentagon is poised to store battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons for as many as 5,000 American troops in several Baltic and Eastern European countries, American and allied officials say.
The proposal, if approved, would represent the first time since the end of the Cold War that the United States has stationed heavy military equipment in the newer NATO member nations in Eastern Europe that had once been part of the Soviet sphere of influence. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine have caused alarm and prompted new military planning in NATO capitals.
It would be the most prominent of a series of moves the United States and NATO have taken to bolster forces in the region and send a clear message of resolve to allies and to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, that the United States would defend the alliance’s members closest to the Russian frontier..
(US troops in Poland)
The amount of equipment included in the planning is small compared with what Russia could bring to bear against the NATO nations on or near its borders, but it would serve as a credible sign of American commitment, acting as a deterrent the way that the Berlin Brigade did after the Berlin Wall crisis in 1961.
“It’s like taking NATO back to the future,” said Julianne Smith, a former defense and White House official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a vice president at the consulting firm Beacon Global Strategies.
The “prepositioned” stocks — to be stored on allied bases and enough to equip a brigade of 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers — also would be similar to what the United States maintained in Kuwait for more than a decade after Iraq invaded it in 1990 and was expelled by American and allied forces early the next year.
“We need the prepositioned equipment because if something happens, we’ll need additional armaments, equipment and ammunition,” Raimonds Vejonis, Latvia’s minister of defense, said in an interview at his office here last week.
“If something happens, we can’t wait days or weeks for more equipment,” said Mr. Vejonis, who will become Latvia’s president in July. “We need to react immediately.”
Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who has written extensively on Russia’s military and security services, noted, “Tanks on the ground, even if they haven’t people in them, make for a significant marker”..
We have to transition from what was a series of temporary decisions made last year,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The idea of moving prepositioned weapons and materials to the Baltics and Eastern Europe has been discussed before, but never carried out because it would be viewed by the Kremlin as a violation of the spirit of the 1997 agreement between NATO and Russia that laid the foundation for cooperation.
Here's a look at the military capabilities of regional NATO member states...
...and the following graphic shows where the US has bases and also where NATO and Russian nukes are positioned...
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This most recent NATO escalation comes as Ukraine's fragile ceasefire quickly falls apart amid what Kiev claims are advances by rebel tanks. Ukraine's Russian separatists contend the recent upsurge in violence began when their positions came under artillery fire from Ukrainian troops. As for where the situation is headed, we'll close with a quote from former supreme allied commander of NATO James G. Stavridis:
"This is a very meaningful shift in policy [but] nothing is as good as troops stationed full-time on the ground, of course.”