Reacting to this weekend’s announcement by the United States that it was considering positioning equipment for up to 5,000 troops in the Baltics and surrounding countries, Russia unleashed the mouths of its generals. Reuters:
“If heavy U.S. military equipment, including tanks, artillery batteries and other equipment really does turn up in countries in eastern Europe and the Baltics, that will be the most aggressive step by the Pentagon and NATO since the Cold War,” Russian defense ministry official General Yuri Yakubov said.
“Russia will have no option but to build up its forces and resources on the Western strategic front,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
He said the Russian response was likely to include speeding up the deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave bordered by Poland and Lithuania, and beefing up Russian forces in ex-Soviet Belarus.
“Our hands are completely free to organize retaliatory steps to strengthen our Western frontiers,” Yakubov said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said: “We hope that reason will prevail and the situation in Europe will be prevented from sliding into a new military confrontation which may have dangerous consequences.”
This kind of language coming from the Kremlin has two main audiences. One, of course, is domestic. Since the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, Russian media has been incessantly running with the narrative that the United States is hell-bent on thwarting Russia at every turn, and is considering everything from fomenting a fake “color” revolution to using its military to achieve regime change in Moscow. The Pentagon’s announcement offers a freebie “I told you so” for Russia’s propagandists.
But Russia’s strategists also know that setting up rapid-reaction capabilities in the Baltics is far from the most NATO can do. They know that if NATO were to commit more fully by, say, permanently stationing troops in the region as the Balts and Poles so very much want, Russia would have trouble meeting the challenge head-on. Even after years of investment in modernizing its armed services since the brief war in Georgia, the Russians are by some estimates already stretched thin by the fight in Ukraine.
Thus the talk of setting up Iskanders in Kaliningrad, a thinly veiled rattle of the nuclear saber, is actually directed at wavering NATO allies. The Russians saw last week’s Pew poll like everyone else; they know most Europeans wouldn’t want to send troops to aid fellow NATO allies being threatened by Russia. The goal is to try to drive a wedge in the alliance—a game the Soviets loved to play throughout the Cold War.
Will Russia’s gambit work? It might. The Germans have been reliable opponents of permanently stationing NATO troops in Eastern Europe, and Reuters’ report indicates that the Bulgarians and Hungarians, potential hosts for some of the prepositioned equipment, are already hedging when asked about the U.S. proposal.
So what should the White House do? As our own Andrew Michta has pointed out, NATO only properly functions when the United States firmly and unequivocally takes a lead. And leading in this case not only means pressing forward with the proposal now that it has been revealed, but also doing our outmost to win over allies already getting the vapors.
Can the Obama Administration pull this off? We certainly hope so. Pivoting away from Europe cannot be an option, even as the world gets more unpredictable and dangerous with every passing week.