Sometimes, Europe marches to catastrophe; often, it stumbles there.
“Is Russia preparing for war?” read the headline of an International Business Times article on January 12. The story was about the movement of 4000 US troops, along with 87 American tanks and 144 armoured vehicles, into Poland.
BBC News ran a similar story the previous week, headlined “US tanks arrive in Germany to help NATO defences.” It was about “the largest shipment of US brigades since the fall of the Soviet Union” arriving in Northern Germany, ready to move east.
A welcome ceremony was led by Poland’s Prime Minister, while the Deputy Commander of U.S. Land Forces in Europe labelled the troop build-up a “concrete sign of the continued U.S. commitment to the defence of Poland and the NATO alliance.”
The troops will be stationed at a number of Polish military bases over the next nine months, and also carry out training exercises in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. A Kremlin spokesman, predictably, characterised this as “a threat to us” adding that “this is a third nation that is increasing its military presence near our borders in Europe, and it’s not even a European nation.”
The reasons for jitters in Eastern European and Baltic countries are well-known, stemming mainly from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, as well as the new US president’s willingness to question the purpose and funding of NATO. Russian military exercises and reinforcements add to the anxiety.
The Alliance, however, has not hesitated to engage in what the foreign policy think-tanks like to call “shows of resolve”, “greater allied cooperation,” or “enhanced security.” In 2016 alone, NATO and its partners planned around 150 different military exercises, many of which were obviously aimed at Russia. Here is an incomplete list from NATO’s own record:
- “Brilliant Jump Alert” from April 1-10, which “tested the activation process of NATO’s Spearhead force, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF)”, and involved “numerous military headquarters and units” in Poland and Albania, as well as Spain and the UK.
- “Ramstein Alloy” in Estonia from April 19-20, an “air exercise focused on enhancing interoperability among Allies and with partners, as well as exercising Baltic Air Policing aircraft.”
- “Flaming Sword” from May 1-20 in Lithuania and Latvia: “a multinational exercise testing special operations forces”, which involved “forces from NATO nations and partners, including: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States.”
- “Baltops 16”: “a US-led multinational exercise” in and around the Baltic Sea, “focused on interoperability with regional partner nations in the maritime, air, and land domains.” 2016’s exercise “involved around 5,800 troops from Allied and partner nations.”
- “Flaming Thunder”: An “annual Lithuanian-led live-fire exercise” focusing on “artillery and mortar fire training” from August 1-12.
- And, in June, “the largest Allied exercise” of the year – “Anakonda”. A “Polish-led exercise” which “tested the readiness and interoperability of Polish Armed Forces with participating Allies and partners”, involving around 31,000 troops from 23 different countries.
Although many of these exercises occur regularly, they are clearly escalating. “Anakonda” was the largest war game in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War, “Flaming Thunder” involved Ukrainian troops for the first time, and the Obama Administration’s parting gift to NATO’s European Reassurance Initiative was a quadrupling of funding over 2016 levels to around $3.42 billion in 2017.
This will eventually ensure a “persistent, rotational presence of air, land, and sea forces in Central and Eastern Europe”, an expansion in “the scope of 28 joint and multi-national exercises”, “additional combat vehicles and supplies” and “a continuous presence of three fully equipped Army Brigade Combat Teams” in Europe.
Source: US Department of Defence.
Is there any problem with this? War games are not secretive – in fact, they are announced months in advance. Russia always knows exactly when and where a NATO exercise is taking place; its president also surely knew they would become more frequent and forceful as a result of the annexation of Crimea and the deepening turmoil in Ukraine. The point, say NATO’s supporters, is to simply send the message that an act of aggression will not be tolerated: “deterrence.”
The Russian leadership sees it differently. As US troops march into Poland, they ask how the Americans would react to thousands of Russian soldiers in, say, Cuba. Cuba has had every reason to fear US aggression – regular assassination attempts on their former president, an invasion, the harbouring of exiled plane hijackers, an endless economic war – but 4,000 Russian troops would represent a dangerous escalation, as was the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles on the island in the 60s.
Many Latin American countries share Cuba’s complaints: Nicaragua faced a long and bloody war against a US-trained mercenary army in the 80s; Panama was invaded in 1989; Guatemala suffered irreparable damaged from a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954; Venezuela had to face down a US-backed coup as late as 2002; and a coup in Honduras was lied about and then rubber-stamped by Hillary Clinton’s State Department in 2009.
So, when a Polish militiaman tells Sky News that he is taking up arms because “history shows us what our neighbours can do,” many people in Latin America know exactly what he means. Yet, in both cases, the involvement of foreign forces is perfectly capable of inflaming, rather than reducing fears and tensions.
Militias, autocracy, corruption
A good lesson of European history is that wars can arise not just from expansionist dictators, but also from foolish military posturing and alliances capable of turning the murder of an Austrian Duke into a world war. Sometimes, Europe marches to catastrophe; often, it stumbles there.
With this in mind, is it possible that the Polish government’s encouragement of “pro-defence” armed paramilitary groups – now with around 100,000 members – could backfire? Tens of thousands of angry, patriotic young men with guns and armoured vehicles near the border with Russia’s Kaliningrad territory? Wages paid by a government described by the former president of the Constitutional Court as taking the country down “the road to autocracy” and which has promised to lead a “cultural counter-revolution” in Europe? Apparently, NATO is unconcerned. It was even kind enough to include some of Poland’s paramilitary units in the Anakonda exercise in June.
While Poland is a full NATO member that must be defended in the event of conflict with Russia, Ukraine, a NATO “partner”, is already mired in one. Ukraine is such a good “partner” that it hosted around 2,000 troops from the US and “11 other Allied and partner nations” for Exercise Rapid Trident last year, during which Ukrainian soldiers practiced “setting up roadblocks”, “urban combat”, and “air assaults”, with “equipment from individual rifles to helicopters and tanks.”
In the almost total absence of western media coverage, we could be forgiven for not knowing that there were NATO troops in Ukraine. We could also be forgiven for not knowing that the Speaker of Ukraine’s Parliament co-founded the neo-Nazi Social-National Party, or that its Interior Minister has promoted neo-Nazis to senior positions in the National Police, or that the government renamed a major boulevard “in honour of Stepan Bandera, the leader of partisan groups responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Jews and over 100,000 Poles during WWII.”
Ukraine is also a “corrupt swamp.” In 2015, Joe Biden told Ukraine’s parliament that corruption was “eating” the country “like a cancer” – days after pledging $190 million in extra aid. The Panama Papers revealed how the president, Petro Poroshenko, set up a secret offshore firm in August 2014 “when his troops were being wiped out in eastern Ukraine”, while the Economy Minister resigned in February 2016, citing the presence of “covert corruption” in the government. Since the “Euromaidan Revolution”, President Poroshenko’s approval ratings have even fallen below Viktor Yanukovych’s on the eve of his ouster.
There’s no doubt that Russia has stoked political unrest in Ukraine and breached the 1994 Budapest Memorandum ensuring Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for the dismantling of its nuclear weapons. But to reduce the country’s predicament to Russian adventurism is to ignore the dangers of militarily and politically supporting a regime that we know to be corrupt, at times brutal and too close to the far-right.
What could go wrong?
Recent history gives us some guide of what can go wrong. Georgia – also a NATO partner, rather than member – had its membership bid endorsed in principle by the Alliance in April 2008. By August, it was at war with Russia.
The war, fought over the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was widely presented as a case of Russian aggression; however, the EU’s investigation led by the Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini blamed Georgia for starting it. Georgia’s President, Mikheil Saakashvili, was left disappointed at the lack of support from western allies.
Bizarrely, Mr Saakashvili – whose party lost office in 2012 – was appointed Governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region by Poroshenko in May 2015. He resigned just over a year later, accusing the Ukrainian president of supporting “a criminal bandit clan” of politicians in the region. “Nobody in my life has lied so much or so cynically to me”, he said.
“Knowing him, he tends to exaggerate,” Ukraine's former health minister retorted. These are the men who NATO has trusted and invested in.
The founding goal of NATO, in the words of its first Secretary-General, was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” This has been complicated by the fall of the Soviet Union and the expansion of the Alliance to the east, which has led it into alignment with volatile governments expecting support in the event of conflict with Russia. If that time comes, Crimea will look like a historical footnote.