The current crisis in Ukraine has revealed glaring holes in NATO’s readiness and strategic planning, especially with regards to its Eastern Flank. If anything, the events of the last two months should serve as a catalyst for renewed efforts to prepare the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to be the vanguard against future Russian designs on Eastern Europe. The growing importance of the Eastern Flank is not up for debate. The bone of contention is in the lack of commitment to build the infrastructure for a sizeable and permanent military presence on the Eastern Flank.
Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the alliance realized how exposed it truly was in the east. Plans for a permanent military presence in Poland, the Baltics and Romania were drawn up. The United States developed Atlantic Resolve, a series of military activities aimed at enhancing NATO military capabilities in Europe. NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence was also developed along similar lines and guaranteed a semi-permanent alliance military presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Unfortunately, as time went on, the importance initially attached to the Eastern Flank missions waned. Ukraine cooled down to an extent and Russia’s Crimean Anschluss was tacitly accepted. Although Atlantic Resolve and Enhanced Forward Presence continued on through the years, NATO’s attention turned to other areas.
I believe it is imperative for NATO to begin thinking about what it will take to establish a large and permanent military presence on its Eastern Flank for an extended period of time. During the Cold War, the Inner-German Border served as both the physical and psychological frontier between East and West. Central Europe became an armed camp with hundreds of thousands of troops stationed on either side of the border. When the Cold War ended, there was no need for NATO to sustain such a large force. The Soviet threat was gone and governments from Bonn to Washington were eager to reap the benefits of the peace dividends. Now, NATO finds itself needing to make up for lost time, so to speak. The Eastern Flank now requires the necessary military command structure and framework to sustain a multi-division force on the ground. A structure similar to what NATO had in West Germany through much of the Cold War. Specifically, an army group set up along the lines of NORTHAG and CENTAG back in the 1980s.
This morning, I began writing the first of what will be a series of posts on the strategic considerations NATO is now forced to look at carefully in light of what’s happening in eastern Ukraine. After the events earlier today, I planned to set it aside, but decided to post at least the first entry. Provided things quiet down a bit in Ukraine through the rest of the week, I’ll post the second one around Friday. Between now and then, the focus will be on Russia and Ukraine.
The prospect of NATO’s eastern expansion advancing deeper into the Russian sphere of influence remains an undeniable fear for the Russian government. It continues to color the Kremlin’s decision making and forms the foundation of Russia’s defense and foreign policy to a great extent. NATO’s eastern expansion is at the heart of Russia’s growing involvement in Ukraine, Belarus and on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border. It has been, for all intents and purposes, the thorn in Moscow’s side for decades. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s warning at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Sweden made it clear his nation is reaching the point where its actions will not be constrained by Western threats and military maneuvers in close proximity to Russia’s frontiers.
Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met at the conference in Sweden. Whereas Blinken warned of “serious consequences” if Russia sought a military conflict with Ukraine. His Russian counterpart responded with a warning that Europe might be returning to the “nightmare of military confrontation.” He followed up with a proposal to establish a new security pact in Europe to prevent further NATO expansion. Essentially, Lavrov was proposing a return to the Cold War.
Yesterday in a speech, Lavrov accused NATO refusing to consider proposals to lessen tensions and prevent dangerous incidents. “The alliance’s military infrastructure is being irresponsibly brought closer to Russia’s borders in Romania and Poland, deploying an anti-missile defense system that can be used as a strike complex,” he said. “American medium-range missiles are about to appear in Europe, bringing back the nightmare scenario of a military confrontation.” Lavrov then went on to warn the alliance against transforming nations bordering Russian into “bridgeheads of confrontation.”
So, there it is. In the space of a handful of sentences, Lavrov laid out the heart of the matter for Russia: Halting NATO expansion. He also, in a less than surreptitious fashion, listed the issues Russia would be willing to negotiate on in exchange for a solution to the manufactured crisis in Ukraine. There’s no plausible scenario where Washington would agree to a withdrawal of the US military presence from Eastern Europe in exchange for a promise by Russia not to invade Ukraine. On the other side of the coin, Russia will not stand by idle and allow NATO expansion to advance unchecked forever. This crisis may pass without a military confrontation, but the problem is not going to dissolve anytime soon.
High-profile accidents involving warships from First-World nations since 2016 suggest the existence of a readiness crisis in Western navies. The ramming and sinking of the Norwegian frigate KNM Helge Ingstad by a commercial oil tanker earlier this month only highlights the fact that there is an issue. Maritime operations are dangerous, even in the best of times. Accidents happen, and sailors inevitably lose their lives. Yet the number of incidents that have taken place in the past twenty-four months suggest a deeper problem.
The readiness issue has been smoldering for decades in most Western navies. In many cases it goes back to the end of the Cold War in 1991 when the dissolution of the Soviet Union consequently removed the predominant naval threat facing the navies of the West. Thus began a period of force downsizing, and budgetary restrictions. The Global War on Terror relieved some of these pressures temporarily. However, since Islamic terrorist groups, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq failed to mount a legitimate maritime threat, the navies of the United States and her allies have played secondary roles through the duration of the GWOT.
In truth, Western navies continue to move about aimlessly with no clear picture of what their goals need to be, or how to reach them. The main purpose of a navy is to fight and win a war at sea. Sadly, this is the mission that a frighteningly large number of Western navies appear ill-equipped to take on.
Since today is Thanksgiving, my intention was to keep this post limited to 300 words. This topic deserves more attention though. I’m going to come back to it a few times between now and Christmas and delve deeper into the naval readiness issue.
The USS Harry S Truman, and her escort ships entered the Norwegian Sea on Friday, marking the first time a US aircraft carrier has operated above the Arctic Circle in nearly 30 years. The last time was in September, 1991 a few months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. USS America moved north of the Circle while taking part in the NATO exercise Northern Star. Coincidentally, the reason for Truman’s venture north is also to participate in a NATO exercise. Trident Juncture 18 is scheduled to officially begin on 25 October.
In the last decade of the Cold War, US aircraft carriers operated north of the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian Sea on a fairly regular basis. If hostilities had ever broken out between NATO and the Warsaw Pact back then, the Norwegian Sea would’ve been a hotly contested piece of water. The US Navy’s Maritime Strategy had called for multiple carrier battlegroups to operate in the Norwegian Sea, in close proximity to the Soviet mainland. The concept at the time was for the carriers to eventually bring the war to Soviet soil with heavy airstrikes against military targets on the Kola Peninsula. Back then, whenever a US carrier moved north of the Arctic Circle ostensibly to take part in an exercise, it was also there to send a message to Moscow.
The same could very well hold true today. Truman’s journey north serves as a reminder of the US Navy’s global reach, and striking power at a time when tensions between Russia and the West remain high.
It is no secret that relations between the United States and Russia have been tumbling downhill for an extended period of time. Last week’s indictments of 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian groups on charges related to attempted meddling in US elections and political process raises the possibility of even chillier relations, and heightened tensions looming in the weeks and months ahead. The indictments are not the only telltale sign of trouble on the horizon.
In Syria, the convoluted situation on the ground and in the skies has created an environment where a direct confrontation between US and Russian forces could come about with very little warning. There have been a high number of close calls in the air over the last six months, leading military officials in the Pentagon to question whether or not deconfliction channels are working as well as advertised. Added to that are the increasing number of reports surfacing in the media that a US airstrike killed a number of Russian military contractors in northern Syria on 7 February. Moscow has downplayed the reports, possibly to prevent questions rising about just why Russian mercenaries were operating in the area of an oil and natural gas field controlled by a US-supported militia. It’s becoming apparent that a US airstrike in support of the militia forces did take place, resulting in perhaps 20-30 Russian citizens having been killed. How or even if Russia will respond is unknown. Given Moscow’s reluctance to shed light on its Syrian operations, a Russian response will probably happen in the shadows and away from the roving eyes of the media, and other observers.
Circumstances being what they are, conditions are turning ripe for an wholly new cold war to blossom in Syria, and in other places where US and Russian interests are at odds. Whether it comes about by design, or happenstance remains to be seen. Moscow and Washington would prefer to keep the current competition in the shadows for as long as possible. Eventually, the maneuvering will be pushed out into the open, and the intentions and objectives of both sides will become clear. That will be the point when things run the risk of turning into a full blown cold war between the United States and Russia, or becoming something even more dangerous.