This Tuesday NATO announced that it had activated command units in 6 eastern European member countries.
The move comes at a time of increased regional tensions due to Russian aggression in Ukraine, according to Lithuania’s defense ministry. Politicians in Eastern Europe are finding it hard to assuage the fears of populations who vividly remember decades of Russian occupation during the Cold War, according to AFP.
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New command units demonstrate NATO commitment to Eastern Europe
“NATO today officially activated NATO force integration units in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania,” ministry spokeswoman Asta Galdikaite told AFP.
Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevicius hailed the move as “a clear sign that NATO takes it’s commitments very seriously.” Although he did not mention Russia by name, Linkevicius did say that “it is a clear message both to allies and, of course, opponents who have recently increased the tensions.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will inaugurate the units during ceremonies to be held in Vilnius this Thursday, according to a statement from the alliance. Approximately 40 officers will serve at the six multinational units, which are designed to improve deployment of NATO’s newly formed rapid reaction force, and will also coordinate military drills.
Russian aggression evokes memories of Cold War
Since Russia annexed the Crimea last year, significant moves have been made to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank. Large numbers of military exercises have been taking place, while planes and ships have been deployed further East. The United States has also promised to keep heavy weapons in the region, although such a move would risk escalation with Russia.
In another signal of its commitment to protecting Eastern Europe, the U.S. has deployed two Predator surveillance drones and 70 airmen to Latvia’s Lielvarde Air Base.
“They are here… they will be staying for two weeks for training purposes — it is not a permanent deployment,” Latvian Defence Ministry spokesperson Anete Gneze told AFP.
Training sessions will involve two intelligence officers from Poland, along with one from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Two weeks ago, NATO opened a Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in the Latvian capital, Riga, in another move designed to counter Russian influence.
Officials have purposely not described it as a counter-propaganda center, but it will work to analyze the aggressive messages propagated by Russian media.
NATO treading carefully to avoid provoking Russia
Unease at a period of renewed aggression from Moscow has led to calls from the Baltic states and Poland for a permanent NATO deployment to the region. So far the alliance has refused, perhaps in order to avoid provoking Russia, and has instead relied on continuous troop rotations.
A permanent deployment could break a 1997 agreement reached with Moscow, and provoke a dangerous game of military brinkmanship as Moscow feels increasingly hemmed in by NATO forces.
Although NATO appears to be attempting to avoid military solutions to the Russian problem, Linkevicius told the press that Russia is carrying out increasingly large military drills near to its border with the Baltic states. He maintains that NATO is not provoking Russian aggression
“We’ve repeatedly said our steps are not directed against anybody. We are only meeting the commitments to secure NATO countries and citizens,” he said.
Russia accuses NATO of breaking agreements
While Eastern European politicians worry about Russian intentions, their counterparts in Moscow are equally concerned by the creep of NATO forces closer to its western borders. Russian officials claim that the presence of NATO troops and weapons in the Baltic states breaks a previous agreement that a buffer zone would be maintained between alliance forces and Russian territory.
Both sides accuse the other of raising tensions with large-scale military exercises. It could be argued that NATO’s increasing presence in Eastern Europe only contributes to Russian fears of encirclement, but the alliance has also had to prove its commitment to protecting Eastern Europe in the face of increasing public paranoia.
Lack of trust in Vladimir Putin’s government means that meaningful dialogue aimed at reducing tensions has not taken place. Skeptics argue that Putin’s word cannot be trusted given Russia’s consistent denial of its involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, in spite of a huge body of evidence which suggests Moscow funded separatist rebels and sent its own troops across the Ukrainian border.
Russia is suffering economic hardship due to low world oil prices, Western economic sanctions and a weak ruble. While it may appear that the best option is to grind Putin down with an economic war, such a course of action could also encourage an increasingly desperate Putin to consider military action as a solution to his woes.