We’re moving into military exercise season in the Baltic region. Every year at this time a number of modestly sized exercises crop up in and around NATO nations. Days later, similar exercises sprout up in and around Russia and Belarus. The dueling maneuvers increase in size and complexity, usually culminating on the NATO side with the commencement of BALTOPS, a major exercise held annually that involves ships, aircraft and equipment from over a dozen NATO member-states. This year, the spring exercise season’s stakes are considerably higher than usual given the continuing war in Ukraine, as well as the heightened tensions between Russia and the West. Both NATO and Russia will use the maneuvers to send a message to the other side, as well as work up their respective forces.
Moscow got the jump on NATO by holding wargames in Kaliningrad which included simulated launches of SS-26 Stone (Iskander to the amateurs and social media ‘experts’) short range ballistic missiles. According to statements released by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Russian forces in Kaliningrad practiced multiple strikes against simulated enemy missile batteries, airfields, protected infrastructure, military equipment and command posts belonging to a generic enemy. Russian personnel also roleplayed avoiding “a possible retaliatory strike” and working in areas of radiological and chemical agent contamination.
To put it in basic terms, Russian forces in Kaliningrad just ran a military exercise intended to work up its nuclear-capable forces and demonstrate how capable military personnel in Kaliningrad are when it comes to working amid a tactical nuclear or chemical exchange. The message here is simple; Russia takes the possibility of a limited nuclear war far more seriously than does NATO, and Moscow wants the world to be aware of this.
NATO also has several large-scale maneuvers set for this month and beyond. Arrow 22 is set to begin soon in Finland and will run for two weeks. British, US, Polish and Finnish troops will be taking part, as well as soldiers from other NATO members. The exercise is gaining more attention than usual owing to Finland and Sweden. Both nations are tentatively moving closer to applying for NATO membership as the security situation with regards to Russia continues to deteriorate in the Baltic region.
The origin of catastrophic damage to the Slava class guided missile cruiser Moskva has yet to be confirmed. The Russian Defense Ministry claims the ship suffered a shipboard fire that caused ammunition to explode. The ship was evacuated but remains afloat. Ukraine had a different version of events, unsurprisingly. Ukrainian government officials took to social media and boasted that Moskva had been struck by Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles and this was the cause of the fire and damage. The Russian Defense Ministry claims the fire is now out and efforts are being made to tow the ship back to port. As of now, it’s unclear whether the Russian side of the story or Ukraine’s version contains the most facts. With luck more will be learned today, and the pieces of the puzzle will come together.
As Finland and Sweden move closer than ever to perhaps becoming members of NATO, the Russian government has wasted little time issuing a strong warning to the two nations. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s security council and former president of Russia said that Russia will bolster its Baltic Sea region defenses in the event Finland and Sweden join NATO. The move might include nuclear forces. “There can be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic – the balance must be restored,” Medvedev said. His remarks underscore the unease which Russia has over the situation in the Baltic region. The Lithuanian government dismissed the veiled threat, however. Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas reminded the world that Russia already has nuclear weapons in place in the region. “The current Russian threats look quite strange when we know that, even without the present security situation, they keep the weapon 100 km from Lithuania’s border. Nuclear weapons have always been kept in Kaliningrad. The international community, the countries in the region, are perfectly aware of this. They use it as a threat.”
In May, the United States informed the nations that are parties to the Treaty on Open Skies that it will be withdrawing from treaty. The six-month notification period has come to an end and now the US is officially removed from Open Skies. This marks the second Cold War era treaty with Russia that the US has withdrawn from. The reason given for leaving Open Skies is essentially the same as it was for the INF Treaty: Russian non-compliance.
The Treaty on Open Skies came about in 1992 and has 34 signatories, most being former NATO or Warsaw Pact member-states. The agreement centers on the idea of allowing countries to openly surveil each other is thought to prevent misunderstandings that could heighten tensions and potentially a conflict. Almost since the beginning, Russia has been accused of interfering with US Open Skies flights. The trend has continued off and on throughout the years. But in recent years especially, Russia has been accused of blocking US surveillance flights around certain regions including the Georgian border, and Kaliningrad. Moscow even denied the US permission to conduct Open Skies flights over Russian military exercises, something expressly allowed by the treaty.
There have long been loud voices of protest coming from the Pentagon, and US military services about the disparities between US and Russian observance of Open Skies rules. Over the summer, the US Department of Defense even issued a statement on the matter. “It has become abundantly clear that it is no longer in the United States’ best interest to remain a party to this treaty when Russia does not uphold its commitments.”
To be fair, Open Skies is not similar to the INF Treaty. In fact, they were two entirely different creatures. Nevertheless, there are a considerable number of experts…..and of course self-declared ‘experts’ on social media…..calling the move dangerous and stating their belief that an incoming Biden administration should rejoin the treaty as quickly as possible.
It has taken years to bring to fruition but the largest arms procurement deal in Polish history has become reality. Yesterday, Poland reached an agreement with the United States to purchase the Patriot air defense system for the amount of $4.75 billion. The deal comes as the latest step in Poland’s effort to modernize its armed forces in the face of a growing Russian threat. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Poland stepped up modernization of its aging military equipment and structure. This deal calls for the purchase of 2 batteries of the PAC-3+ variant of the Patriot system, which is the same advanced model fielded by US Army air defense units. They will take the place of the Soviet era SAMs currently in the Polish inventory such as the SA-2 and SA-6.
The deal has come just days after the United States and many Western nations expelled Russian diplomats in response to the use of a nerve agent on a former Russian intelligence officer in Great Britain. Warsaw is already in negotiations with the US to purchase more Patriots, advanced radar systems, and a separate interceptor missile as part of the next phase of its military modernization. The batteries purchased today will be delivered in 2022.
This deal could also potentially lead to the US offering stronger air defenses to the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all been requesting just that in recent years. The Baltic region has become a military focal point since 2014. Russia has deployed SS-26 ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, increased air activity around the Baltics, and held a number of major military exercises. NATO’s response has included strengthening the Baltic Air Police contingent for an extended period of time, rotating troops into the Baltic states on a regular basis, and the pre-positioning of US armor in Eastern Europe.
There has been a great deal of public concern and posturing by NATO over recent Russian military activity in the exclave of Kaliningrad. NATO officials and politicians from member-nations have labeled Russia’s movement of SS-26 Stone (Iskander) short-range ballistic missiles, SA-21 Growler (S-400) surface-to-air missiles, and now SS-C-5 Stooge (K-300P Bastion) land-based anti-ship missiles as ‘destabilizing.’ At first glance, the observation seems accurate. Russia is currently introducing a considerable number of these weapons platforms. The SS-26 Stones are particularly worrisome since they are nuclear capable. All of these platforms can be either offensive or defensive in nature depending on Moscow’s intentions.
Behind closed doors in Brussels, NATO military leaders understand what the motivation behind Russia’s buildup in Kaliningrad. Moscow has initiated it as a counter to the component of the US/NATO ballistic missile defense shield now under construction in Poland. The first site, situated in Romania, became operational in May of this year. That site does not concern Russia as much as the one in Poland does. Geographically, Poland is much closer to Russian territory than Romania. The placement of the Aegis Ashore site in Poland is viewed as a potential offensive threat by Moscow. Aegis Ashore uses the same vertical launch system and magazine that US Navy destroyers and cruisers are equipped with to launch SM-3 surface-to-air missiles. What makes Russia especially anxious is the fact that the VLS can also launch Tomahawk cruise missiles just as easily.
So Moscow’s latest moves are in response to Aegis Ashore coming to Poland, and the recent NATO military buildup in close proximity to Russia’s western border. Eastern Europe has become quite the chessboard in recent years with move and countermove between Russia and NATO continuing at a regular pace. The tension that comes with the situation cannot be discounted or minimized since Moscow’s view of the situation is strikingly different from NATO’s. With that in mind, it also has to be noted that the military buildups by both sides have been, for the most part, gradual and controlled.
The military situation in the Baltics and Eastern Europe could be one of the first challenges the Trump administration finds on its plate in January, 2017. President-elect Trump’s desire for better relations with Russia, Vladimir Putin’s own aspirations, and geopolitical realities will intersect. From that point, we could be looking at anything from a de-escalation of East-West tensions to a sharp rise in them leading to armed conflict.
*Authors Note- Between Thanksgiving and Christmas we will be taking a closer look at some of the foreign policy challenges that await the Trump Administration. Putin and the situation in Eastern Europe will be one of them*