Russia Is Expanding Its Military, but NATO Isn’t Sure Why

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Russian servicemen march in the Chechen capital of Grozny, Russia, during the Victory Day military parade, marking the 72nd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, May 9, 2017. Like NATO, Russia has expanded its military presence in Europe, where some nations accuse Moscow of increasingly aggressive behavior. Said Tsarnayev/Reuters

Russia’s military capabilities are expanding across Europe, but the top military chief of Western defense pact NATO has said Moscow’s plans remain ambiguous amid a heavily politicized atmosphere between the two leading forces.

General Petr Pavel, a Czech army officer who holds the position of chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, said Monday that Russia was advancing in its nuclear and ballistic capabilities as well as in its capacity to send troops across the region, where Moscow and U.S.-led NATO are competing for influence. The two factions have accused one another of crossing lines both figuratively and literally, by effectively launching an arms race, especially along the increasingly militarized borders of the Baltic States. Amid these dueling accusations, however, Pavel said that NATO could not conclusively consider Russia’s military buildup in recent years an act of aggression against NATO and its Western allies.

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“When it comes to capability, there is no doubt that Russia is developing their capabilities both in conventional and nuclear components,” Pavel told Politico. “When it comes to exercises, their ability to deploy troops for long distance and to use them effectively quite far away from their own territory, there are no doubts.”

“When it comes to intent, it’s not so clear, because we cannot clearly say that Russia has aggressive intents against NATO,” he added.

RTS15U7Q Russian servicemen march in the Chechen capital of Grozny, Russia, during the Victory Day military parade, marking the 72nd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, May 9, 2017. Like NATO, Russia has expanded its military presence in Europe, where some nations accuse Moscow of increasingly aggressive behavior. Said Tsarnayev/Reuters

NATO and Russia have pursued clashing agendas in recent years, especially since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula amid political unrest in Ukraine in 2014. Russia argued that the move was necessary to protect the sizable ethnic Russian community, but NATO viewed the action, as well as Moscow’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, as an unacceptable breach of its neighbor’s sovereignty. The fallout led to the eventual creation of four so-called battle groups in the three Baltic States and Poland, all of which have received extensive personnel and armaments from the U.S., Canada and their European allies. 

Russia has also fortified its side of the border, which includes the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad. Last year, Moscow moved nuclear-capable missiles along with other military assets to the coastal territory, which lies between Lithuania and Poland. Both sides of the conflict have also separately held a number of drills in the strategic region. Russia’s latest drill includes China, and an upcoming exercise with Belarus called Zapad, or “West,” will utilize up to 100,000 troops in a simulated NATO invasion from the Baltics. Defense Secretary James Mattis echoed local allied leaders in calling the massive maneuvers “destabilizing.

While Russia’s moves have been decried by NATO and its regional partners, Pavel maintains that such a military expansion could not alone be considered an act of war. Russia has long argued that its decision to upgrade and increase its arsenal was taken in defense of what it believes to be an aggressive posturing by the U.S., which has deployed military installations on both sides of Russia, including a sophisticated global anti-missile system. Despite Russia’s 5.9 percent increase in military spending, which totaled $69.2 billion last year, NATO’s collective $254 billion—without the U.S. and Canada—still wildly exceeds Moscow’s budget, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.