Despite increasingly aggressive rhetoric, there is little willingness to fight.
The Russian annexation of Crimea in early 2014, as well as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, has raised fears of a conflict with Moscow in Eastern Europe. The area has seen a surge in military activity, and the local population has been reminded of the dark days of Soviet rule now that Russia is an increasingly aggressive presence on the border, write Henry Foy, Kathrin Hille and Richard Milne for the Financial Times.
Historic suspicions evident on both sides
Students are taught about centuries of aggression from Moscow, and suspicions of Russia run deep in the national psyche of Eastern European nations. For its part, Russia feels threatened from the west due to a history of military invasions.
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Recent events in Ukraine have influenced calls from NATO members Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for a greater military presence along the Eastern front. NATO military exercises undertaken as a show of strength have become increasingly common as the conflict in Ukraine continues to escalate.
The creation of rapid reaction forces in the region has sparked controversy, with Russia calling the move confrontational. 20,000 NATO troops have taken part in exercises in Eastern Europe this year and another 30,000 have been placed on standby, while Russia has undertaken its own counter-exercises.
Russians and Eastern Europeans fear war
Russian state media exerts a powerful influence over public opinion, and portrays NATO as an antagonistic presence. A recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) reveals that over 50% of the Russian population believes that war with NATO is a genuine threat. Two of the largest military exercises took place just last week, involving 11,000 troops, 49 warship and 40 aircraft, including nuclear bombers.
Fear of conflict is rising within Russia due to a number of factors. The conflict in Ukraine, the increasingly cold political relationship with the West, aggressive rhetoric and the media portrayal of the West as an enemy all combine to make fear of conflict important in the eyes of the Russian public.
President Vladimir Putin is driving aggressive rhetoric, which analysts believe has helped him to maintain high popularity ratings despite poor economic performance.
Neither NATO nor Moscow accepts responsibility for deteriorating situation
In Eastern Europe, political leaders are handling a trickier situation. Officials are caught between a desire to calm the fears of the population, and the need to make sure that NATO allies like the U.S. properly understand the threat that Russia poses to their security.
The deployment of Iskander missile launchers in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad caused panic in Eastern Europe in March, and NATO allies accused Russia of raising tensions. In response, the Polish government announced plans to build a series of watchtowers along its border with Kaliningrad.
In Russia, the expansion of NATO has caused fears of conflict to increase. A recent poll showing that 59% of respondents felt that the U.S. constituted a threat to Russia, a figure which has increased from 47% in 2007.
Elsewhere in the Baltics the proximity of Russia is felt heavily, and some states are worried about the threat of separatist movements among their ethnic Russian populations. Around 25% of the population of Estonia and Latvia speak Russian, and a small number of Russian speakers live in Lithuania. Military forces in Latvia have simulated attacks on “separatists” in the area near its border with Russia, while Lithuania has undertaken similar drills near its border with Kaliningrad.
However, some Polish citizens have a more positive view of Russians. In the border town of Braniewo, residents prefer to appreciate the economic benefits of cross-border trade, which is vital to the local economy.
Conflicting political rhetoric confuses situation
Elsewhere in the Baltics, preparations are being made for a potential conflict. Conscription has been reintroduced in Lithuania, and the chief of defense in Estonia has claimed that “little green men” would be shot on sight if they appear in the country as they did previously in Crimea.
However other government figures call for calm. Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the defence committee in Estonia’s parliament, has criticized comments by other Western politicians who claim that the Baltics will soon suffer the same fate as Ukraine. “If we would like to de-escalate then we shouldn’t talk that loudly about scenarios that one day could become self-fulfilling prophecies,” said Mr Mihkelson.
Ordinary Russians have also spoken of their desire to avoid war. “We Russians know the horrors of war more than anybody else, and that’s why peace is so important for us,” said Boris Fyodorov, 35, from Pskov, a Russian town just 30km from the Estonian border. “But of course we are ready to defend our motherland.”
A poll shows that older generations of Russians are more fearful of war than those of working age, although Russians young and old believe that NATO is responsible for the deteriorating situation. Official rhetoric may suggest a willingness to wage war, but the view on the ground is very different.