Over the last few years, Russia and NATO have been caught in something of a security trap, where neither trusts the other’s intentions and thus tries to build up more military power to deter its rival. Although both think of their actions as defensive, their enemy sees pure aggression—and the cycle dangerously repeats. Tensions skyrocketed between NATO and Russia following the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014 and the backing of a separatist uprising in east Ukraine — a move that prompted a military conflict that is still unresolved. Russia’s war games and regular military exercises have struck fear in its neighbors, including Poland and the Baltics.
Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), said that Russia should withdraw all troops from war-torn Eastern Ukraine, where armed conflict between Moscow-backed separatists and Ukrainians has been ongoing for more than five years. “NATO states very clearly that Russia has a special responsibility to withdraw all their troops, all their officers,” Stoltenberg said while visiting Odesa, a port city on the Black Sea in Southern Ukraine.
A report by Atlantic Council Working Group, found irrefutable evidence of direct Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine. It found that Russian training camps along the border are used to send military equipment and Russian soldiers into Ukraine. Further it found that a variety of Russian manufactured arms and munitions—not used by the Ukrainian military—have appeared in the hands of separatists, including shoulder launched surface-to-air missiles (MANPADS), various types of rocket launchers, anti-tank guided missiles, landmines, and various small arms.
Meanwhile, by mid-2018, NATO and the United States had deployed battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons and around 4,500 soldiers in the three Baltic states and Poland, as well as several thousand armored troops in Eastern Europe to prevent Russian aggression. As the media put it, ‘a company’s worth of equipment – enough for about 150 soldiers – would be stored in each of the three Baltic nations: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Enough for a company or possibly a battalion – about 750 soldiers – would be located in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and possibly Hungary’.
That will also raise the stakes for Russia, which would surely see any increased buildup as an act of aggression. “It is going to be the most aggressive step of Pentagon and NATO since the end of the last century’s Cold War,” the Russian media quoted Yuri Yakubov, the Coordinator of the Department of the General Inspectors of the Russian Defense Ministry, as saying. “And there will be nothing left for Russia but to build up its might and means at strategic western locations,” added the senior Defense Ministry official.
Russia reinforced its military along the perimeter of its Western border, including new tank, artillery and aviation units. The Russian Ground Forces’ guided missile brigade stationed in the westernmost Kaliningrad region were reequipped with the Iskander-M ballistic missile systems, Yakubov added, and Russia’s combined forces in Belarus will also be considerably reequipped.
NATO has been the subject of a number of statements from world leaders questioning its effectiveness, with French President Emmanuel Macron claiming the organisation was ‘brain-dead’ and US President Donald Trump criticising European contributions to the organisations. Relations within the organisation have also been strained by Turkey’s growing closeness to Russia and its decision to buy the Russian S-400 Air Defence system, resulting in the country’s expulsion from the F-35 programme.
Sarah Raine, consulting senior fellow for geopolitics and strategy at the the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told CNBC that Russia is still a threat to NATO. “Russia remains a threat both in conventional terms — as evidenced by its annexation of Crimea and its persistent probing of European air space — as well as in more hybrid terms, through, for example, its use of cyber proxies. But threats can and should be handled through a range of policy responses,” she said.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg insisted that a massive transfer of US and allied troops to Eastern Europe as part of a military exercise was not aimed at Russia. About 37,000 soldiers from 18 countries are to participate in the US-run manoeuvre dubbed Defender Europe 2020. This is “the largest deployment of US troops to Europe in more than 25 years,” Stoltenberg told AFP. The exercise “shows the strong US commitment to NATO and to the freedom and security of Europe,” he added. The exercise will take place in May and June, mainly in Germany, Poland and the Baltic States. The US will move 20,000 soldiers to Europe in the coming months
In recent years, European NATO allies have sought to step up their contributions to the organisations in the face of US pressure to share more of the burden. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) report The Military Balance 2020, around two-thirds of allies are aiming to reach the recommended 2% of GDP by 2024. NATO is also funnelling money into research and development to maintain its edge and adapt to new threats, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the past saying that the organisation was pushing for 20% of budgets to be spent on research and development.
Ukraine became a battleground in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and began arming and abetting separatists in the Donbas region in the country’s southeast. Russia’s seizure of Crimea was the first time since World War II that a European state annexed the territory of another. Some fourteen thousand people have died in the conflict, the bloodiest in Europe since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.
Ukraine which was pursuing neutrality in its foreign affairs, had of late under new president Petro Poroshenko ‘s pro-Western government has been trying to pivot away from Russia. It signed an association agreement with the European Union, secured billions in loans and other aid from the West and passed a law calling for the removal of all Soviet symbols from the public sphere. Russia has been endeavoring by coercive methods to keep Ukraine under its area of Influence.
Russia has deep-seated opposition to Ukraine’s alignment with the European Union and NATO expansion. Putin has said he’s never going to desert the people in eastern Ukraine. And he wants a guarantee that Ukraine never joins the NATO alliance. Many western analysts are of the opinion that Putin is assiduously working to bring the collapse and the division of Ukraine and thus altering the existing post-cold war order.
NATO has bolstered its military presence by setting up six bases in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria and establishing a 5,000-strong “spearhead” force. NATO sees it as a defensive action and as a deterrent against any Russian threat to the Baltic States or other bloc members. NATO’s wider actions – it also plans to open a training centre in Georgia and support for the reform of Ukraine’s military – all ring alarm bells in Moscow.
Russia has previously denounced the increasing buildup of NATO forces in Eastern Europe as well as US plans to supply weapons and non-lethal military equipment to Ukraine. It considers it as a threat to the peace process and a direct provocation aimed at Russia.
U.S. Army paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Vicenza, Italy, are training the Ukrainian National Guard as part of a six-month exercise called Fearless Guardian. It has provoked accusations from Russia that the presence of a third party will only fuel the conflict.
However, U.S. training is not focused on preparing Ukrainians to fight a war against Russia. There is, however, some specialized training tailored to the specific threats Ukrainian soldiers face in the ATO from combined Russian-separatist forces.
For example, the U.S. is training Ukrainians in countering IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and how to conceal themselves from drones (which are observed over their front-line positions daily), as well as how to better encrypt their communications.
Stephen Cohen, a Russia expert and professor emeritus at Princeton and New York University , like Putin, believes U.S. policy has been provocative ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, starting with the expansion of NATO into former Soviet republics and Soviet satellite nations in Eastern and Central Europe.
US want to limit the Russia’s regional dominance, leaving American allies of the European Union to assume both political and economic ascendancy in this part of world. The Obama administration’s Russia strategy has come under fire from critics who say that the slate of economic sanctions have failed to slow Moscow’s support for rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine. There are suggestions from within the administration, including from Carter, that U.S. should consider providing lethal weapons to Ukraine to help the fight.
Germany due to its relative military weakness, dislike of military engagements and fear of becoming battlefield between the two superpowers like in Cold War, is trying to move the conflict from the military to the diplomatic and economic levels. German Chancellor Merkel has aptly summarized the feelings of most Europeans by stating “We want to shape this European order together with Russia and not against Russia”
The European response, led by Germany and France and supported by U.K., has primary goal has been to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table. It has resulted in the two Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015. The second, known as Minsk II, now provides the main framework for Western efforts to wind down the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
However it is Ukraine which is most suffering, the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine Russia barred some imports from Ukraine, started tougher customs checks on others and encouraged Russians to buy domestically. That drove the country’s exports to Russia down 61.3% to $1 billion in the first quarter of 2015 compared with last year, while exports to the EU slipped one-third to $3.3 billion, the State Statistics Service said on Friday. Gross domestic product shrank 17.6% in the first quarter, with industrial output down by more than one-fifth, the agency said.
It has become battleground of US-Russia rivalry; it is fighting to preserve its integrity as a nation. According to recent report by U.N., the death toll in eastern Ukraine is more than 6,400 since the start of a separatist rebellion in the east. Many have been left destitute and on the brink of starvation since Kiev cut off the banking system, pensions, and state-sector salaries in November, and the separatists have singularly failed to establish a functioning state to replace such services.