The Kremlin pretends officially that it does not comprehend the Baltic and Polish “paranoia“ concerning their perceived Russian threat and demand for significantly increased allied presence on their territory and in the Baltic Sea. The Russian leaders claim that Russia is “purposefully“ and “viciously“ demonised. They accuse NATO, and especially the United States, of initiating a „new arms race“ and escalating military build-up and tensions in the Baltic area. Moscow’s narrative seems to suggest that Russia is a peace loving country that cannot possibly menace its neighbours, including in the Baltic region, both in terms of available means and contemplated intentions. However, as it is usually the case, the Kremlin’s words and deeds are light-years apart.
Not only has Russia persistently strengthened its military posture in the Western direction, and in particular within the Baltic Sea environment, but it has repeatedly proven that it stands ready to seize any favourable opportunity and use force by surprise against neighbours that it considers to be weak. In addition, Russia’s recent provocations in the Baltic Sea area that involved USS Donald Cook and a US reconnaissance aircraft RC-135, as well as a reported intrusions of Russian military helicopters from the Kaliningrad oblast into Polish and Lithuanian air space, indicate the Kremlin’s increased aggressiveness towards the Alliance, and possibly its aim to provoke an incident that would have deep political repercussions.
Just after the US President Barrack Obama visited Tallinn and NATO leaders gathered in Newport, Wales, in early September 2014 to adopt assurance measures for strengthening the defence of the Alliance’s eastern flank, the Russian FSB abducted Eston Kohver, an Estonian security police officer, from Estonian territory. That provocation was obviously politically motivated in order to hurt and undermine Estonia and NATO, and to “prove“ that Russia may intrude into NATO territory, achieve its goals and remain unpunished.
We approach NATO’s next summit meeting in Warsaw, in early July 2016. The Alliance’s eastern flank nations that are the closest to the Russian threat, especially the Baltic states and Poland, strongly demand and convincingly argue about the necessity to further reinforce the forward presence of allied ground, air and naval forces in the Baltic region. It seems now that Russia does not only deliver political messages of irritation to the allies, through such extremely provocative actions that even the Soviet Union did not undertake during the Cold War, but it actually seeks to instigate and further exploit a serious incident in the region. The Kremlin would surely be ready to sacrifice a fighter aircraft or two, if that would create a serious escalatory crisis before NATO’s Summit in Warsaw. Imagine that the USS Donald Cook would have shot down those planes, because it could not possibly make sure in good time that the Russian fighter aircraft – which approached it just above the sea level, simulating direct attack – were actually not armed (differently from those Russian aircraft that harassed the same US vessel in the Black Sea). One may only guess the consequences. The Russians would have surely somehow retaliated and immediately started large scale snap „exercises“, including full combat alert in the Kaliningrad oblast and the Western Military District. The Alliance would have sought to de-escalate the situation in a hastily convened NATO-Russia Council meeting, numerous Washington-Moscow-Brussels red-line calls and shuttle diplomacy etc., but the Kremlin would have surely kept the tensions very high, at least until the Warsaw Summit, in order to make sure that the allies become as politically divided as possible, and NATO would not actually increase its forward presence in the Baltic region (or perhaps only symbolically). In that way, a loss of a couple of aircraft would be worth achieving major political goals.
The next four months will be critical in this respect, and one may assume that Russia’s provocations are far from being over. On one hand, NATO should not allow Russia to drag the allies into a situation that would be similar to the hypothetical scenario described above. On the other hand, Turkey, a NATO ally, has gained quite some respect from Russia following the incident in November 2015. There is enough food-for-thought for both sides.
Last but not least, Russia should learn that its aggressive behaviour against NATO is actually futile. There is no more room for illusions suggesting that the Kremlin’s will to implement its military plans in the western direction depends somehow on what NATO does or does not do in the Baltic region. That is why the Alliance should do what it really ought to do, i.e. to strengthen the defence of all allies, and not be distracted or obstructed by Russia’s official lies, provocations and threats of escalation.