NATO has ranked Russia as its greatest threat, according to defence experts, as the alliance announced its plans to staff six new European bases in what its secretary general Jens Stoltenberg is calling “the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War”.
The plan will see NATO’s rapid reaction units grow to 30,000 soldiers from 13,000, and six stations will be set up in the alliance’s easternmost member states - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, all of whom either border Russia or share the Black Sea with annexed Crimea.
According to general Charles Wald, former-deputy commander of U.S. European Command, the move marks the “continuum of a wake-up call that is the threat of Russia in Ukraine”.
“It is a much bigger deal than it appears on paper,” Wald says. “The question for Europe is: is Putin creeping further and further west? Is this a precursor to Russia moving into Moldova? Nagorno Karabakh has been bubbling up and the Georgia issue is still unresolved.”
“NATO has essentially set these bases in its frontline states,” Wald says, referring to the countries’ proximity to Russian territory.
“What they will do is they will have the infrastructure to guide NATO’s forces to where they will have to go, supply them with equipment, intelligence apparatus and whatever they will need for supply chains, in the case of an attack on NATO territory.”
According to Ward, Poland and the Baltic states are the NATO member states “most nervous” of potential pro-Russian violence breaking out on their territories, as it has in Ukraine. The rapid response strategy is intended to prevent a spillover of pro-Russian violence into NATO and possibly deter violence from spreading in Ukraine.
“It is a little different with Ukraine because they are not part of NATO, but they are part of Europe and they are under attack,” Ward explains.
“The Ukrainians are never going to beat the Russians but they can at least fight them off their territory. Our belief is that we need to help the Ukrainians make it a bad trade off for Russia to continue expanding west,” Wald adds.
Yesterday NATO members Poland and Lithuania also agreed to form a joint military battalion with Ukraine, in a bid to further strengthen the military partnership between the West and Kiev.
According to Michael Clarke director general of the Royal United Services Institute which studies global defence and security, the move symbolises the return of Russia as NATO’s biggest security threat.
“The spearhead force is all part of NATO’s infrastructure plan,” Clarke says. “We are not adding any new units or putting any new spending into this, but rather we are reallocating existing units to be ready in eastern Europe from other parts of the world such as Belize,”
“They are there as skeleton staff at this point, but the point is that if they were activated it would enable reinforcements to arrive and act much more quickly as part of the NATO reinforcement plan,” Clarke says.
“NATO ranks Russia as its highest threat,” Clarke adds, but explains that for obvious reasons the governments of some NATO members are more immediately concerned by Russia’s actions than others.
“At this point in time the strategy is to show that NATO is a collective alliance, which shares risks, but if anything kicks off the facilities will be more than capable of dealing with the threat,” adding that Poland and the Baltic countries are among those most worried about a Russian advance.
“It is in the UK’s interest to reinvigorate NATO. Russia is a more fundamental danger, as opposed the Middle East.”
“If you press UK policy makers they will also probably admit that Russia poses the most serious security threat globally, but because it is below the level of open conflict in Ukraine, they are more reluctant to say that,” Clarke says.
According to Clarke’s colleague at RUSI, former Royal Navy officer Michael Codner, security has taken a back seat to the UK government’s agenda as the upcoming election has brought other issues such as the economy, healthcare and the threat of homegrown terrorism.
“It should be a top level issue, but it has been swept under the rug” Codner says.
Charles Wald echoes Clarke and Codner’s words but believes that the UK’s influence in NATO operations is crucial.
“Poland and the Baltic states are the most nervous about Russia, but the UK is the major player in Europe if anything goes down in NATO,” he says.
“They are being cautious with involvement, because they have their own economic issues but with regard to the moral initiative to act, if the US does something the UK will be right behind it.”
The announcement of the new spearhead force has not been received warmly by Russia, with Alexander Lukashevich a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defence holding a special press briefing where he warned NATO’s latest move would “inform Russia's subsequent military planning”.
“This plan is in and of itself very disturbing, because it is about raising NATO capabilities on our borders.”
“The so called plan to reinforce the eastern flank of NATO is nothing other than an increase in the battle readiness of the alliance,” Lukashevich added.
In a speech today Jens Stoltenberg played down speculation NATO’s eastern reinforcement signified concern that Russia will mount a western advance, but highlighted the move did come as a result of the “sharply escalated’ violence in eastern Ukraine, caused by “Russian-backed separatists”.