BALTIC STAREDOWN

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - GPS - MICHAEL BIRNBAUM

VORU, Es­to­nia — When uniden­ti­fied air­craft were speed­ing to­wards north­ern Es­to­nia one re­cent day, Bri­tish fighter jets sta­tioned nearby scram­bled to in­ter­cept them. Scream­ing across the coun­try, they quickly iden­ti­fied the tar­gets: two Rus­sian fight­ers and a spy plane. It was just the lat­est con­fronta­tion be­tween the West and Rus­sia in a re­gion that has fast be­come a trip­wire for con­flict be­tween nu­clear su­per­pow­ers.

In the two years since Rus­sia an­nexed Ukraine’s Crimean Penin­sula, the tiny Baltic na­tions of Es­to­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia have taken an over­sized role in fac­ing down Rus­sia’s chal­lenge to the West. The Krem­lin has been build­ing up its mil­i­tary along its bor­der with the for­mer Soviet satel­lites. West­ern al­lies of the Baltics, wor­ried the re­gion is vul­ner­a­ble, have re­sponded by pour­ing tanks, war­planes and sol­diers into an area slightly larger than Florida.

The Bri­tish de­ci­sion to leave the Euro­pean Union makes NATO even more im­por­tant as an al­liance that binds the West to­gether, NATO lead­ers say, amid con­cerns the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic tur­bu­lence un­leashed by the de­ci­sion will shrink Bri­tain’s out­sized role in global af­fairs.

“Un­cer­tainty and un­pre­dictabil­ity al­ways cre­ates chal­lenges to our se­cu­rity,” NATO sec­re­tary gen­eral Jens Stoltenberg said. “It is a more un­pre­dictable sit­u­a­tion now than be­fore the U.K. de­cided to leave.”

West­ern and Rus­sian war­planes al­ready en­counter each other in the Baltic skies nearly every day. A Rus­sian war­plane buzzed a U.S. de­stroyer in April, com­ing within 10 me­tres and rais­ing fears of an ac­ci­dent that could quickly es­ca­late into a cri­sis. Any at­tack on the Baltics has the po­ten­tial for far more global dan­ger than Rus­sia’s in­ter­ven­tion in Ukraine, since the U.S. and other mem­bers of NATO com­mit­ted to de­fend the re­gion when Es­to­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia joined the mil­i­tary al­liance in 2004.

Adding to the fears, Rus­sian lead­ers now rou­tinely raise their will­ing­ness to use nu­clear weapons, a habit not seen since the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s. West­ern lead­ers shy away from talk of a new Cold War. But both Rus­sian and west­ern of­fi­cials make clear they are set­tling into a con­fronta­tion nei­ther side ex­pects to end quickly.

“There is a much greater sense that we’re deal­ing with a long-term strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion with Rus­sia,” said Alexan­der Ver­sh­bow, deputy sec­re­tary gen­eral of NATO, the west­ern mil­i­tary al­liance formed dur­ing the Cold War to de­fend against the Soviet Union. “It will be a very dan­ger­ous re­la­tion­ship that needs to be man­aged very care­fully go­ing for­ward.”

NATO’s new top mil­i­tary leader, U.S. army Gen. Cur­tis Sca­parrotti, said as he ar­rived in the spring the al­liance had to be ready to “fight tonight” against Rus­sia, if nec­es­sary. And U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama quadru­pled mil­i­tary spend­ing in Europe in his bud­get pro­posal ear­lier this year, to US$3.4 bil­lion.

Rus­sia plans to cre­ate three new di­vi­sions of its mil­i­tary by the end of the year — tens of thou­sands of troops — and sta­tion them in its west­ern­most ter­ri­to­ries, near the Baltics and Poland. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has framed it as a sim­ple re­sponse to NATO ac­tiv­ity.

“We are con­stantly ac­cused of mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity, but where?” Putin said in late June. “Only on our own soil. We are sup­posed to ac­cept as nor­mal the mil­i­tary buildup on our borders.”

The Baltics, which were forcibly in­cor­po­rated into the Soviet Union in 1940 and won in­de­pen­dence only in 1991, fear they could make a tempt­ing tar­get for a Krem­lin that has in re­cent years taken a re­van­chist at­ti­tude to­ward its neigh­bours. If they were at­tacked and NATO failed to come to their aid, it would break the mil­i­tary al­liance, an out­come that would prob­a­bly de­light Putin. He has de­clared NATO to be one of Rus­sia’s big­gest strate­gic threats.

West­ern lead­ers have sought to place enough fire­power in the Baltics to de­ter an at­tack while avoid­ing the per­cep­tion of a mil­i­tary threat to Rus­sia. Many Rus­sian of­fi­cials say they view the ar­rival of west­ern tanks at their fron­tiers as a se­cu­rity risk. NATO mil­i­tary lead­ers re­tort that such fears are ex­ag­ger­ated, and that the roughly 2,500 troops that have been sent to the re­gion could do lit­tle to harm the vastly larger num­ber of Rus­sian forces ar­rayed across the bor­der.

A re­cent Rand Corp. study that sim­u­lated a Rus­sian in­va­sion found Baltic cap­i­tals would be over­run within 60 hours. To change the cal­cu­lus, the au­thors rec­om­mended a sig­nif­i­cantly higher west­ern troop pres­ence in the re­gion than NATO is cur­rently con­tem­plat­ing — seven bri­gades, more than 30,000 troops.

Even without a per­ma­nent pres­ence in the Baltics, NATO troops have been con­duct­ing mil­i­tary ex­er­cises through­out the re­gion since the Crimea mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion. But the Baltics’ flat, open ter­rain means the coun­tries could be over­run faster than NATO could scram­ble a re­sponse from else­where in Europe, lead­ing to the fo­cus on dis­cour­ag­ing Rus­sia from act­ing in the first place, west­ern lead­ers say.

Along Es­to­nia’s forested bor­der with Rus­sia, the only de­mar­ca­tion of the fron­tier is a se­ries of or­ange-and-green poles erected every sev­eral dozen yards. A new chain-link fence won’t be fin­ished for at least an­other year, and it would do lit­tle to stop an in­va­sion.

NATO of­fi­cials plan to send a bat­tal­ion of about a thou­sand troops to each Baltic na­tion and Poland, about 4,000 in to­tal. The U.S. orig­i­nally con­sid­ered com­mit­ting about 2,000 sol­diers to the ef­fort, but it re­cently halved its of­fer, NATO diplo­mats and of­fi­cials say, amid grow­ing po­lit­i­cal pres­sure to push Europe to com­mit more to its own defence. Obama re­cently derided “free rid­ers” on Amer­i­can mil­i­tary might, while Don­ald Trump, the pre­sump­tive Repub­li­can nom­i­nee for pres­i­dent, has de­clared NATO ob­so­lete.

That has left Baltic lead­ers — and NATO mil­i­tary plan­ners — bal­anc­ing what they feel they need with what they think they can get.

“We don’t want to re­turn to the Cold War era, tank for tank, soldier for soldier,” said Es­to­nian Defence Min­is­ter Hannes Hanso. “But in the Baltic Sea, Rus­sia is fly­ing mil­i­tary air­craft al­most daily, some­times five times a day. It would be ir­re­spon­si­ble not to re­spond.”

“What we are do­ing is re­act­ing to what they’re do­ing,” Hanso said.

A drive across the Baltics re­veals a con­stant hum of mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity. Cam­ou­flaged con­voys snake down dim roads late at night. Ar­moured per­son­nel car­ri­ers idle along­side fields. Bel­gian, Bri­tish and Span­ish fighter jets thun­der across the skies. Be­fore the Crimean an­nex­a­tion, it was rare to see a com­bat ve­hi­cle in the Baltics. Now they are om­nipresent, amid a con­stant cy­cle of mil­i­tary ma­noeu­vres and ro­ta­tions. The big­gest mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion in Europe this year is un­der­way in Poland, where 25,000 troops from 24 na­tions are en­gaged in com­bat ex­er­cises that in­clude live fire from tanks.

The sus­tained rhythm can be jar­ring to those who live in the ar­eas seen as most vul­ner­a­ble. Narva, an Es­to­nian bor­der city that is more than 80 per cent Rus­sian-speak­ing, is of­ten de­picted as Rus­sia’s first tar­get if it were to move on the Baltics. But res­i­dents there say they have no in­ter­est in switch­ing al­le­giances.

Narva’s streets are in de­cent shape, un­like the rut­ted roads in Ivan­gorod, the Rus­sian town just across the river. Narva res­i­dents’ salaries and pen­sions are paid ac­cord­ing to Es­to­nian stan­dards, while their Rus­sian neigh­bours’ earn­ings have lost half their value with the col­lapse of the ru­ble since 2014.

“Peo­ple in Narva love Putin. But it’s a pla­tonic love. They don’t want him here,” said Sergei Stepanov, the ed­i­tor of the lo­cal news­pa­per, Narvskaya Gazeta.

“Peo­ple here are not stupid. They can just cross the bor­der and com­pare how things are in Rus­sia.”

Ul­ti­mately, Es­to­nian lead­ers say, the threat from Rus­sia has forced them to unite un­der pres­sure.

“Five or six years ago, we would have had ar­gu­ments” about hold­ing ex­ten­sive mil­i­tary ex­er­cises, said Hanso, the defence min­is­ter. “Putin is our best re­cruiter.”

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