The past year has seen a marked worsening of relations between the Russia and the West.
Aggressive rhetoric and military drills have become increasingly common as the West struggles to find a way to contain Russia’s desire for greater influence in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and punish Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, writes Fred Weir for The Christian Science Monitor.
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Russia and NATO’s military drills growing in size
Moscow and NATO have both engaged in a number of increasingly large military drills, and military activity raises the possibility of an accident which could provoke conflict, or at least a further increase in tensions.
The progression towards larger military drills shows no sign of slowing down, with NATO currently preparing for the Trident Juncture 2015, christened “the biggest NATO exercise since the end of the Cold War.”
Over 35,000 troops, 200 aircraft and 50 warships from 33 countries will take part in exercises across Italy, Spain and Portugal from September 28 to November 6, with the aim of testing the NATO Response Force, and especially the rapid response Point Force.
Aggressive rhetoric increasingly common
As well as military drills, the rhetoric stepped up a notch this week as both sides moved closer to permanently deploying troops in border zones, breathing new life into the specter of the Cold War. Not only does there exist the threat of conventional weapons, but long-standing treaties on the deployment of nuclear weapons are also being strained.
“This confrontation so far has been mostly just for show, with each side trying to demonstrate to its own people and the other guy that they are determined not to back down. Leaders on both sides are sure they can control it,” and roll it back whenever they decide to, says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.
Deployments only add to tensions
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would be forced to react to such a plan. “If someone threatens our territories, it means that we will have to aim our armed forces accordingly at the territories from where the threat is coming. How else could it be? It is NATO that approaching our borders, it’s not like we are moving anywhere,” he said.
This week, Putin announced that 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles would be added to Russia’s arsenal this year, provoking criticism from Western leaders. However bad the headlines may read, both sides are in fact modernizing their arsenals and the situation appears to be largely under control.
Medium- and short-range nuclear missiles are an area of greater concern for some experts. NATO’s missile defense system seems likely to provoke the deployment of Iskander-M missile in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
Accusations of treaty violations have been flying from both sides. Washington has said that Moscow has violated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) accord, and then threatened to deploy nuclear-capable missiles in Europe. Such a move would spell the end for the INF.
“We are seeing a very serious turn,” says Alexander Golts, an independent expert on the Russian military. “We had a stable status quo, based mainly on treaties and mutual trust. When you transition from that to a situation where security is based on mutual military deterrence, that’s a very different world. But that’s where we are headed, quite rapidly.”
Treaty violations only encourage return to Cold War-style standoff
The cancellation of the INF could see the return of the nuclear standoff which weighed heavily on Europe in the mid-1980s, when the population of almost all European capitals knew that they were within 8 minutes of Soviet and U.S. missiles.
“It’s in no one’s interests to scrap this treaty, but it’s clearly become a target for people on both sides who think words must be backed up by resolute actions,” says Kremeniuk.
“We have all these people who never left the cold war mentality behind, who seem to think their moment has arrived. The logic of escalating rhetoric, followed by confirming actions, is already in full swing. Unless leaders on both sides call a halt to this deterioration, the basic pillars of European security – which people worked so hard to put in place – could get knocked away.”
Politicians on both sides need to arrest the slide towards Cold War 2.0 before it is too late. Hawkish elements in Washington and Moscow appear to be winning the public relations battle at the moment, but the situation must be changed before the battle turns into a full-blown international war.