As Russia pushes on with the biggest naval deployment since the cold war as Russia's only carrier group slowly headed toward Syria in a show of force along Europe's shores, NATO defense ministers are focusing on a ground expansion and aim to make good on a July promise by NATO leaders to send forces to the Baltic states and eastern Poland from early next year. As a result, NATO will press its member allies on Wednesday to "contribute to its biggest military build-up on Russia's borders since the Cold War " as the alliance prepares for a protracted quarrel with Moscow.
According to Reuters, the US hopes for binding commitments from Europe to fill four battle groups of some 4,000 troops, part of NATO's response to Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and concern it could try a similar tactic in Europe's ex-Soviet states. France, Denmark, Italy and other allies are among the nations expected to join the four battle groups led by the United States, Germany, Britain and Canada to go to Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, with forces ranging from armored infantry to drones.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary-General, said the commitments would be "a clear demonstration of our transatlantic bond." They will also send a clear message to Russia that its concerns about NATO build up on its borders were correct. Diplomats added that it would also send a message to Donald Trump, who has complained that European allies do not pay their way in the alliance. The battle groups will be backed by NATO's 40,000-strong rapid-reaction force, and if need be, further follow-on forces, for any potential conflict, which could move into Baltic states and Poland on rotation.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg briefs media during a NATO meeting
in Brussels, Belgium, October 26, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
The strategy, which will surely lead to a proportional response by Russia, is part of an emerging new deterrent that could eventually be combined with missile defenses, air patrols and defenses against cyber attacks.
But while a build up of forces in eastern Europe should be easily achieved, the alliance is still struggling for a similar strategy in the Black Sea region, which Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said is becoming a "Russian lake" because of Moscow's military presence there. Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey are expected to soon come forward with a plan to increase naval and air patrols in the area, as well as a multinational NATO brigade in Romania.
Even without a coordinate Black Sea expansion, the Kremlin will be furious. For Putin, the U.S.-led alliance's plans are already too much given Russia's grievances at NATO's expansion eastwards. Stoltenberg denied going too far. "This is a credible deterrence, not to provoke a conflict but to prevent conflict," he told reporters on Tuesday.
Next year's deployments have taken on greater symbolism since Russia pulled out of several nuclear disarmament agreements in the past two months while moving nuclear-capable missiles into its Baltic exclave in Kaliningrad as we reported several weeks ago. The Iskander-M cruise missiles can hit targets across Poland and the Baltics, although NATO officials declined to say if Russia had moved nuclear warheads to Kaliningrad.
"This deployment, if it becomes permanent, if the presence of nuclear weapons were confirmed, would be a change in (Russia's) security posture," the United States' envoy to NATO, Douglas Lute, said.
The ongoing tensions between Russia and NATO have been building since Crimea and the West's decision to impose retaliatory sanctions, but the breakdown of a U.S-Russia brokered ceasefire in Syria on Oct. 3, followed by U.S. accusations that Russia has used cyber attacks to disrupt the presidential election, signaled the latest sharp worsening of East-West relations. EU leaders met last week to consider fresh sanctions over Russian bombing of civilian areas in Aleppo and NATO's Stoltenberg said he fears the Russian warships heading to the Mediterranean could launch new attacks on the Syrian city.
Even before the break down of the Syrian ceasefire, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended a treaty with Washington on cleaning up weapons-grade plutonium, signaling he was willing to use nuclear disarmament as a new bargaining chip in disputes with the United States over Ukraine and Syria.
And now it will once again be up to Putin to respond again as NATO proceeds with the "biggest military build-up on Russia's borders", a move that will lead to even further military escalation