MS Risk Blog

NATO’s Eastern Flank

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Throughout December 2019 there has been some new military developments in Eastern Europe. NATO has increased its presence in the region and Russia has announced that it is the first country to possess hypersonic weapons. There is not much trust between the two, especially as both seek to build more military power to deter the other. While one excuses their actions as defensive, the other considers them aggressive – and respond with what they again consider as defensive measures. Thus, the cycle continues.

Eastern Europe has become the centre of this security dilemma as it is situated between the two. Estonian defence minister Jüri Luik said that Russia’s actions showed it was a serious security threat. Lithuanian defence minister Raimundas Karoblis added that “Russia is the only external existential threat” they have. As such several countries in the region clearly consider Russia the major security concern. Consequently, NATO has sought to strengthen its Eastern flank throughout December. Its efforts in Eastern Europe have included deploying rapid response forces, embedding units under the Baltic states’ forces command, building up equipment arsenals, and conducting increasingly complex exercises. UK troops were sent to Estonia and German troops to Lithuania to reassure their allies on the eastern side of NATO. In addition, Romania’s president said that 120 air defence troops would be sent to Poland to support NATO’s presence there.

This positioning of military forces in Eastern Europe was considered necessary to deter the alleged increased Russian aggression. Defence leaders have said that the deployment of the enhanced forward presence battalions in the Baltics have significantly reduced the risk of military conflict in the region. Looking at the future, using American troops to bolster defence against Russia remains a top priority to strengthen security in Eastern Europe. In addition, strengthening the Baltic states’ air defence has been cited as a priority when considering a situation where they would be faced with Russia’s capability. Defence minister Luik said that NATO is the only organisation that can deter the Russian aggression against its neighbours.

Russia fear the prospect of its neighbours joining NATO as this would leave it surrounded by pro-Western states. Valášek, a researcher focusing on security and defence, said that “Moscow’s general strategy has been to deter what it perceives as challenges to its political order and territory(…) and dominate its immediate neighbourhood…”. The tensions between the two have only increased as Russia revealed that its hypersonic weapon had now become operational. In what was either a move for increased transparency or a show of power, Russia recently demonstrated the weapon for American inspectors. Russia claimed that the Avangard is capable of travelling at 27 times the speed of sound and dodge missile defence systems that tries to block it. Its difference from a regular missile warhead is that the latter follow a predictable path after separation while the Avangard can make maneuvers, thus making it much more difficult to stop.

The US and Russia has been working on these types of weapons for years. The Russian military is the first one to own this new class of nuclear weapon, meaning other militaries can currently not defend themselves against it. As such defence strategies against hypersonic weapons will likely be high on Western countries’ agenda. US officials have already discussed putting sensors in space to ensure fast detection of such weapons. While Western countries are most likely not far from developing these weapons themselves, Russia is currently pulling ahead in the global arms race – and that will no doubt trouble NATO going into 2020.

This development has been viewed by many as a concerning sign for the future of warfare. The concern that an arms race has begun between Russia and the US only rose when the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between Russia and the US broke down earlier in 2019. The relationship between the two has been particularly strained since 2014. The annexation of Crimea and Russia’s backing of separatists in Ukraine means that all civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO are suspended. The alliance has a difficult task as it must encourage dialogue with Russia in order to reduce these tensions while also backing its neighbours, like Ukraine. NATO stated their committal to remain open to dialogue and to create a constructive relationship with Russia in the December 4 Declaration by the Heads of State participating in a NATO Leaders Meeting in London. However, according to NATO this can only happen when Russia’s actions make it possible.

“Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security”, the Declaration said. While the Cold War and the Soviet Union is a long time ago the tensions between the West and Russia continues to be high. It is difficult to see how the security dilemma in Eastern Europe can be solved as this would require agreements on issues such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, arms control, and sanctions. For the moment these appear insolvable.