Rus­sia tests re­solve of NATO on ex-Soviet bloc

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY JACQUELINE KLI­MAS

Rus­sia is try­ing to slowly strip away U.S. al­lies in Eastern Europe by play­ing up fears that Wash­ing­ton will not come to their aid, as promised nearly a decade ago, be­cause of a lack of for­eign strat­egy and com­mit­ment to the re­gion, an­a­lysts say.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has au­tho­rized a string of provoca­tive moves from the Arc­tic to the Black Sea in re­cent months in an at­tempt to in­tim­i­date NATO al­lies along the bor­der of the old Soviet Union, in­clud­ing Hun­gary, Ro­ma­nia and Latvia, and boost al­lies of Moscow living in those coun­tries.

Last year, a Rus­sian-friendly party won the largest num­ber of votes in Latvia’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions amid re­ports that a mayor of a city in eastern Latvia voiced con­cerns that ac­tivists were en­gaged in door-to-door cam­paign­ing in sup­port of the com­mu­ni­ties’ se­ces­sion from Latvia to join Rus­sia.

Hungarian Prime Min­is­ter Vic­tor Or­ban, who helped en­gi­neer his coun­try’s suc­cess­ful ap­pli­ca­tion for membership in NATO in 1999, now seems to be cozy­ing up to Rus­sia by mak­ing large deals with Moscow and crit­i­ciz­ing West­ern sanc­tions.

In Novem­ber, Hun­gary au­tho­rized con­struc­tion of the South Stream pipe­line, a Rus­sian-backed project that will by­pass Ukraine to fun­nel nat­u­ral gas ex­ports to Europe and else­where, to the dis­may of the Euro­pean Union. Ukraine is en­gaged in a fierce po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary stand­off with Rus­sian-based sep­a­ratists.

The fact that some coun­tries along the tense bor­der with Rus­sia may be tempted to switch sides sug­gests a broader prob­lem of a lack of trust in the U.S. com­mit­ment to pro­tect them if they are at­tacked, said Matthew Ro­jan­sky, direc­tor of the Ken­nan In­sti­tute at the Woodrow Wil­son In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Schol­ars.

“Why don’t they feel that de­ter­rent ef­fect of Amer­ica’s com­mit­ment to de­fend them?” he said. “They clearly don’t think that we are com­mit­ted to that com­mit­ment. That’s re­ally where the prob­lem is. They’re doubt­ing the Amer­i­can se­cu­rity com­mit­ment.”

NATO’s fa­mous Ar­ti­cle 5 de­clares that an attack against any of the 28 coun­tries in the al­liance will be con­sid­ered an attack against all. As a re­sult, coun­tries that have signed the treaty must come to the de­fense of oth­ers that are threat­ened or at­tacked.

Mr. Ro­jan­sky likened the U.S. com­mit­ment to th­ese coun­tries to life in­sur­ance: A 25-year-old healthy per­son gen­er­ally has no trou­ble get­ting a life in­sur­ance pol­icy be­cause the com­pany knows it likely won’t have to pay up soon. A 67-year-old with a his­tory of heart dis­ease, how­ever, could have trou­ble ob­tain­ing a pol­icy and face high pre­mi­ums.

Seven coun­tries — in­clud­ing Latvia, Lithua­nia and Es­to­nia — be­came NATO mem­bers in 2004. Be­cause the threat of a Rus­sian attack wasn’t a se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion at that time, there was no lengthy de­bate on the wis­dom of let­ting th­ese Baltic states join, Mr. Ro­jan­sky said.

Now that Rus­sia un­der Mr. Putin has taken a far more ag­gres­sive stance in Ukraine, Ge­or­gia and else­where, the sit­u­a­tion has changed, he said.

“We’ve given them the pol­icy cov­er­age, but we gave it to them in a to­tally dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stance, and that’s cre­at­ing doubts on their part about if we’ll honor the pol­icy,” Mr. Ro­jan­sky said.

Saber-rat­tling

Both sides have en­gaged in saber-rat­tling in re­cent weeks, lead­ing to talks on both sides of the Euro­pean divide of a po­ten­tial new cold war.

Rus­sian fighter jets have grown in­creas­ingly brazen in chal­leng­ing U.S. and al­lied sur­veil­lance flights, and Swe­den this fall scram­bled ships and he­li­copters to track a Rus­sian sub­ma­rine that was be­lieved to have sur­rep­ti­tiously en­tered Swedish wa­ters. Planes from Rus­sia’s North­ern Fleet this week have be­gun anti-ship ex­er­cises in the Bar­ents Sea.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials said Thurs­day that they were ask­ing Rus­sia to in­ves­ti­gate an in­ci­dent in early April in which a Rus­sian fighter jet in­ter­cepted a U.S. re­con­nais­sance plane in in­ter­na­tional airspace north of Rus­sia and con­ducted mul­ti­ple “un­pro­fes­sional and reck­less and fool­ish” ma­neu­vers in prox­im­ity to the Amer­i­can plane.

An­a­lysts in Moscow say the West has been just as provoca­tive, with the U.S. hold­ing joint ex­er­cises with Ukraine’s mil­i­tary, ac­cel­er­at­ing talks with Poland on a sta­teof-the-art mis­sile de­fense sys­tem, stag­ing a high-pro­file mil­i­tary con­voy trip through six Eastern Euro­pean na­tions, and de­ploy­ing 12 A-10 Warthog planes to Ro­ma­nia as part of a theater-se­cu­rity ef­fort to counter Rus­sian moves in the re­gion.

“The unit will con­duct train­ing along­side our NATO al­lies to strengthen in­ter­op­er­abil­ity and demon­strate U.S. com­mit­ment to the se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity of Europe,” Pen­tagon spokesman Maj. James Brindle said this month in a state­ment about the ac­tion to Mil­i­tary.com.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials told the web­site that the de­ploy­ment of the A-10s was part of NATO’s Op­er­a­tion At­lantic Re­solve. The mission ob­jec­tive is, in part, to send a mes­sage to Rus­sia about the U.S. com­mit­ment to NATO al­lies.

“Op­er­a­tion At­lantic Re­solve will re­main in place as long as the need ex­ists to re­as­sure our al­lies and de­ter Rus­sia from re­gional hege­mony,” Maj. Brindle said.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials strongly con­tested crit­i­cism that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was hav­ing sec­ond thoughts about ful­fill­ing the U.S. com­mit­ment to its al­lies in Eastern Europe now that Rus­sia poses a sig­nif­i­cant threat.

“The U.S. thor­oughly con­sid­ered all as­pects as­so­ci­ated with es­tab­lish­ing and join­ing NATO,” the of­fi­cial said. “The prin­ci­ples con­tained in open­ing para­graphs of the Wash­ing­ton Treaty re­main as rel­e­vant to­day as they were 66 years ago.”

The U.S. needs to do more to re­as­sure NATO al­lies of its com­mit­ment, in­clud­ing per­ma­nently bas­ing troops in Eastern Europe, as well as more fre­quent and larger-scale de­ploy­ments, said Boris Zil­ber­man, deputy direc­tor of con­gres­sional re­la­tions at the Foun­da­tion for the De­fense of Democ­ra­cies.

The ul­ti­mate goal, he said, is to en­sure that coun­tries that have been al­lies re­main on the side of the U.S.

At the same time, the U.S. must walk a fine line by in­creas­ing its pres­ence enough to re­assert its com­mit­ment to al­lies but not so much so as to give Mr. Putin po­lit­i­cal ammunition to es­ca­late Rus­sian ag­gres­sion, Mr. Zil­ber­man said.

“How much do we want to mir­ror im­age what they’re do­ing and give Putin a rea­son to keep do­ing it?” he said.

The U.S. is de­ploy­ing small groups of ser­vice mem­bers to con­duct drills in Baltic part­ner coun­tries and has im­posed sanc­tions on Rus­sia, a pol­icy that De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter said is work­ing.

“My ob­ser­va­tion is that this is hav­ing a real ef­fect on the Rus­sian econ­omy and at some point the Rus­sian peo­ple are go­ing to ask them­selves whether th­ese kinds of ad­ven­tures are worth the price,” Mr. Carter told re­porters in a brief­ing Thurs­day.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Peo­ple leave af­ter a rally mark­ing the one year an­niver­sary of an­nex­a­tion of Ukraine’s Crimea penin­sula, out­side the Krem­lin in Moscow. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has au­tho­rized a string of provoca­tive moves from the Arc­tic to the Black Sea in re­cent months in an at­tempt to in­tim­i­date NATO al­lies along the bor­der of the old Soviet Union, in­clud­ing Hun­gary, Ro­ma­nia and Latvia.

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