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Panel: Military Tensions in Europe Continue to Run High Between NATO, Moscow

A Danish soldier (left) coaches a U.S. Army Soldier with the 82nd Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, as he uses a Danish M60 Machine Gun during a multinational weapons training session in Tapa, Estonia on March 10, 2018. US Army Photo

The admission of the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia to NATO was the “fattest of red line” warnings to Russia to stay clear of the western European military, a transatlantic expert on foreign policy and security on Wednesday. But that move has not tempered tensions on the continent as both NATO and Moscow have stepped up military operations.

“Our alliance is not just a military one; it’s a political alliance” of like-minded nations who will come to each others’ defense if attacked, German-born Constanze Stelzenmuller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

NATO is showing new resolve in that regard from stepped up security spending, the European Reassurance Initiative investment by the United States and movement of troops and aircraft to “frontline countries” on Russia’s borders.

Before the alliance was formed in 1949 it would have been unthinkable that citizens of the three Baltic nations would welcome German ground troops and its air force, but they do now as part of NATO’s rapid response deterrence to possible Russian invasion.

Looking at the same situation from Moscow’s perspective, Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, said the alliance security blanket would never have to have been put across Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia if the Kremlin had been treated differently after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“The core of the problems was Russia was marginalized in the European security system” from that time on, he said.

Marginalization set in motion of series of events across Europe that is still playing out. One is Russia’s intense focus on what kind of neighbors are on its borders and another has been the expansion of NATO as Russia’s threats turned to aggression.

“The jury is still out,” William Hill, a professor at the National War College, said about NATO expansion making Europe more secure in the long run. The alliance is “still trying to deal with that question” of territorial defense of member states while “while still trying to operate out of area” as it is doing in Afghanistan.

An example of the continuing tensions is occurring in the Balkans where at one time the Soviets maintained a naval base. Newly named North Macedonia is expected to join the alliance over Moscow’s loud protests. This is occurring despite the disappointing turnout on an advisory referendum on pursuing NATO and European Union membership. More than 90 percent of the voters who went to the polls voted to make the moves toward the West.

Danish soldiers with the Vidar Company, Guard Hussars Regiment and U.S. Soldiers with the 82nd Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, fire weapons together during a multinational weapons training session in Tapa, Estonia, March 10, 2018 as part of a rapid response readiness exercise in support of Atlantic Resolve. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Hubert D. Delany III/22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Russian disinformation and false news campaigns are blamed for the low turnout, slightly more than 30 percent of those eligible.

Ivan Timofeev, director of programs at the Russian International Affairs Council, said Moscow’s concern about political leanings of the “near abroad,” referring to former member states in the Soviet Union, like Ukraine, particularly in the last five years when a pro-Moscow regime fell, have risen dramatically.

As the pro-Russian government was falling and in the chaos that followed, President Vladimir Putin seized control of Crimea, saying the turmoil threatened the Russian Black Sea Fleet station in the Ukrainian Province. He then backed separatists in the eastern part of the country with forces, arms and supplies that were opposed to the new government in Kiev.

Michael Kofman, a CNA senior research scientist, said, “Russia made a case [that it] poses a threat” to NATO and countries along its borders with its actions in Ukraine and early moves against Georgia to support Kremlin-leaning forces in two breakaway provinces.

“I think stalemate is the best condition we can hope for” in Ukraine where both the United States and Europe on one side and Russia on the other believe the cost is affordable and predictable. “The risk of miscalculation” and possible wider conflict comes with trying to forcibly breaking the stalemate, Timofeev said.

The questions for Moscow is “how long can they sustain” what they are doing in Ukraine militarily in Russia’s case and for Washington and Brussels how long can they maintain unanimity of sanctions in the West’s case, Kofman said.

Timofeev viewed the analogy of a new Cold War to describe today’s relationship as wrong. “It’s a different military environment” with China a major power, not just two sup powers. There also is “a different generation in power” who are governing in a world, including non-state actors, that is challenging established post World War II assumptions of order.

Stelzenmuller said, “As far as ‘stalemate,’ we should be so lucky” in describing the political environment in Europe. With the rise of “populist” governments in Italy most recently and Hungary almost a decade ago, “the real challenge here is the future of liberal democracies” and the European Union. These government and others like Poland’s share “an illiberal vision of Europe,” favoring autocracy.

In short, “the terrible simplifiers” across Europe and in the United States “are getting the upper hand” in shaping the future away from human rights, rule of law and economic development toward authoritarianism, she added.

The liberal democracies have been slow to defend themselves in the digital age, the panelists agreed. Examples mentioned included the 2016 American presidential election, recent results in Italy and the low voter turnout in North Macedonia.

The manipulation of big data and social media allow authoritarian governments to affect the political environment in their countries and in others that were unknown 20 years ago, Kortunov added.

While the United States’ national defense strategy identifies Russia and China as competitors, Timofeev said he didn’t see that leading to a military alliance between Moscow and Beijing.

  • Pete Novick

    “We who look back today on this phase of American statesmanship can well reproach ourselves, as a nation, for deficiencies of political philosophy and in historical understanding. We have no grounds to accept, and it would only blind us to our true faults if we did, the thesis that was so commonly invoked…that our failures have come from a treacherous conspiracy, operating in our own virtuous midst. The traits that betray us, in this chapter of our diplomacy, were not ones infused into us by internal subversion. They were ones to which respectable American political figures had long been prone, ones by which American statesmanship had been importantly affected…and ones which are by no means wholly eliminated from the outlooks that inspire our policies today.”

    – George F. Kennan, Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin, (1960)

    So prescient, it could have been written yesterday.

  • omegatalon

    There’s tension because most of NATO is a joke and if it wasn’t for US forces, Russia could take the continent in a matter of months and this is without the usage of nuclear weapons.

    • llewellynh

      Oddly though the last thing Russia needs is more land. They have so much of it and a population of around 140,000,000 that it would take serious provocation for them to be all that interested in going to war over places near them. They did and do hope for a sort of buffer zone in Ukraine but seem to accept the coup that took place. They Crimean people did vote to stay with Russia in good part because they all speak Russian and not Ukrainian. Krushchev whether sober or not, “donated” Crimea to Ukraine in part because he himself was Ukrainian.

      Other than that which could be handled diplomatically, they are not seeking land for the sake of it especially if it means war.

      • Hugh

        Didn’t Russia need an all year port clear of ice, viz Crimea?

        • llewellynh

          Yes, that was their warm water port but the people of Crimea were allowed to vote on the issue. Russian troops were OUTSIDE of the buildings but not in where the voting went on. Overwhelmingly and not all that surprisingly given the language and history of Crimea, it wasn’t surprising that they who did not participate in the Maidan uprising wanted to stay where they were more comfortable.

          Turned out to be a wise move because then Russia built them a brand new bridge that enables them to get into old Russia without much fuss at all. And their lives are not wrapped up in the remaining chaos going on in what is now south eastern Ukraine in the Donbas region. Same problem there where the majority of people speak Russian and don’t want to be ruled by people in Kiev.

          There also are political differences where those in Kiev want to join the EU and become part of western Europe. The majority in Donbas seem to prefer to not get involved in the EU. It’s a situation that cries out for diplomacy and the shooting needs to stop.

        • vetww2

          In 2006, I was at the Gidroaviasalon (seaplanes) on the Black Sea (Aneppa). We visited the Crimea (Sevastapol). Everyone spoke Russian and it was evident they thought that way, too.

    • bob

      That’s because like several U.S. Administrations of both parties, combined with a change in military doctrine, decided the Cold War was over, declared victory and started focusing on the irregular threat posed by global terrorism. They all thought Russia was going to be our pal. Problem is, the West ignored the invasion of Georgia, not even a blip, which should have warned the West that Putin had visions of restoring, at least in part, the Soviet Empire. He clearly did not get the memo that we won.

      The West followed us down the primrose path of downsizing and cashing in the “peace dividend”. All heavy brigades came back from Germany and we just started investing in special warfare upgrades, figuring that there would never be a battle in the Fulda Gap.

      Hubris.

      • vetww2

        I think it started even before my trip in 2009

        • bob

          I suspect you’re right. What cinched it for me was the invasion of Georgia in 2008, a smash-and-grab of mostly new American hardware which had been given to Georgia, lasting just over 5 days.. We had a fairly flaccid response, and Russia had the sense to pull mostly back before it prompted a stronger response (they apparently still occupy some parts).

          We were preoccupied with Iraq, and the Congress wasn’t interested. Most Americans know where the state of Georgia is, the nation of Georgia, not so much. So there wasn’t much concern on the domestic front.

    • vetww2

      AGREE. I spent a week there, at HQ, in 2009, and it was like a big Country Club (no pun intended). It is second in uelessness, only to the UN.

  • Ed L

    Over 200,000 Russian Military personnel in Katlingrad alone. The number of Tanks in the polish army (1000) is equal to the Combined total of Germany 400, France 400, Belgium zero and UK 200. Against the Russians 20,000 Tanks Last I heard there were about 200 American Tanks in Europe. If the balloon goes up then Forlorn hope (enfants perdus)
    will be the order of the day

    • Hugh

      And the Ruskies could use nuclear tactical weapons!

      • Ed L

        And the Cold War is back. I remember The Days of USAREUR when it was over 150,000 strong

    • Gary Jacobs

      It’s not just the # of tanks. I understand most of those Russia tanks would be t-72s, and some t-90s – which is just an updated t-72. Russia publicly stated it cant afford to build the Armata in mass #s, and it still has tech issues to work out. FYI: The T-72 has been target practice for A-10s since the first gulf war. Much more concerned about Kaliber missiles & S-400. Though the Russians havent been able to field the latest S-400 missile yet, that’s a major milestone to keep an eye on. That will also make the F-35, F-22, & stealth drones even more important. As well as hypersonics, and Army’s Long Range Precision Fire program. Then using the F-35 to network with everything for stealth ISR to target with precision. US Military has already direct linked an F-35 as the targeting node for a Navy SM-6, and Marines HIMARS precision artillery rockets. I imagine a lot more of that connectivity between systems is on the way.

      • Ed L

        If the weather is in our favor. You forgot the newest tank the T-14 “Armata while having production problems is far better than the T-72. Except the Russians went with an autoloaded

        • Gary Jacobs

          I’m not exactly worried about 100 T-14s… that wont even be delivered for 2 years. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yury Borisov said in August 2017 that he expects the Russian Ground Forces to receive up to a 100 T-14 MBTs by 2020. He made the exact same statement in August 2016. On 29 July, 2018 the Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov said that the Russian armed forces do not aspire to purchase the tanks of “Armata” in large quantities because of their high cost, preferring to increase the combat potential of existing military vehicles due to its modernization.

  • Hugh

    The 1990s looked like Russia could be secure and trust the West, indeed joining NATO.

    • bob

      Suprise!!

    • Secundius

      In 2004, the Russian Federation was approached as to being a Member of NATO. The Russians refused after Putin proposed “Garrisoning” Russian Troops it NATO Countries like the United States. The NATO Countries REFUSED the Russian Federation (i.e. Putin’s) offer. Those Countries that use to be Members of the “Warsaw Pact” from 1955 to 1991, and had Soviet Troops Garrisoned within the borders of their Countries. Accounted ALL the Problems associated with Soviet Occupation, with NO Benefits of Soviet Occupation. Why in “God’s Name” would any “Sane” NATO and/or former Warsaw Pact Country would want Russian Troops “Permanently” Positioned within the Borders of their Respective Countries…

  • Buisness Orc

    “The core of the problems was Russia was marginalized in the European security system”

    So Russia got their feelings hurt? And now they want to take over sovereign county’s to feel better?

    Really Russia’s argument seems to be that the county’s in its “Sphere of influence” are not actually sovereign nations – which imply s that Russia owns them (and therefore they cannot choose to join Nato?)

  • vetww2

    and our phoney “Independant Counsel” still wastes time and money, with no headway.

  • R’ Yitzchak M

    Since Ukraine loss, Georgia and Baltics states “Liberation” – acquisition from Russia as well the NATO’s “expansion” troughout the Eastern Europe and beyond every one of those new acquisitions received a “Nuclear Umbrella” from NATO so thinking of possible “conventional warfare” is IDIOCY. Yuri Andropov failed attempt to start the “Rat in the CORNER response..” was thermonuclear in nature. 3 thermonuclear missiles were into a launch sequence. While captain of the sub failed (sabotaged) launching sequences by failing to open the hatch blew his sub and his crew to prevent the WW3 that happened of the Hawaiian Coast while 2 Chinese subs were in the vicinity implying the Andropov attempt of utility of momentary “plausible” deniability for a critical time as a window of opportunity for all out reckoning. So primarily the first target of opportunity was the US West Coast and beyond

    Now Putin was Yuri Andropov’s student. After the Sub failed to deliver Andropov was removed from power by the Russian “natural” means. Russians weren’t ready to engage into an all out response. Andropov was by far the most intelligent Russian strategists he knew Russian capabilities and the risks involved the fortunate thing was that just recently Russians had bad “trip” just few decades ago a massive loss of life 55 millions and also an extreme “misery FACTOR” that is still in the memory of every Russian.. so most of the Russians didn’t WANT to buy the Andropov plan they instead choose to buy the “time”. With failure to protect the Ukraine Russians are left without ANY CONVENTIONAL means to defend themselves all heavy turbines as well shipping and the aeronautical building assets were in the Ukraine. Reinhard Gelem stratigery of utility of western trained “emigres” worked perfectly.. Andropov knew that.. so does the Putin. The Russians are bluffing to the end.. Today they have nothing to bluff with they even forgo loss of the Ukraine without “Nuclear Umbrella”.. imagine comparatively loss of Texas, and the California without any response to defend them? Unthinkable? So Russians are a waaay over the threshold of “unthinkable” the “rat is in the corner..” it is just the question which “corner” on the East (China’s) or the Western (NATO’s) “corner” Balkanizing the Russians is the only other “peaceful alternative” and the KGB is the perfect instrument of “pacification” of Russians.. perhaps a “Soros Miracle” or two? Logic? Or the “Logic” of a rat in the corner?

    TODAY Russians I don’t think have any conventional options whatsoever