So, Russia is the biggest “threat” to European security? And this is what the West, which has done nothing to provoke Moscow, is concerned about? Moscow is to blame for the erosion of arms control, the military deployments in Europe, the close calls during military exercises, and much else that is undermining European security? This view is supported by the recent annual Munich Security Report, titled “To The Brink – And Back?” released on Feb. 8. That paper warns that the security situation will further deteriorate, possibly leading to a military clash.
The annual Munich Security Conference (MSC) will take place on February 16-18. No doubt the participants will paint Russia as a bully who is responsible for each and every thing that is going wrong, while the “innocent” West is calling for restraint and is ready to go to any length to preserve peace on earth.
The West is innocent? Russia is a bully and a threat? This is the right time to look at recent events to see what’s really happening. The US 2019 draft budget released on Feb. 12 asks Congress to approve over $6.3 billion for the US-led NATO European Reassurance Initiative (ERI). In other words, this money is to be spent on a military build-up near Russia’s borders. The ERI was launched in 2014 as a symbolic gesture to assuage East European fears. It has turned into a large-scale deployment that just keeps growing. The cost totaled $3.4 billion in FY 2017, and $4.8 billion in 2018. President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal also envisages $250 million in military aid to Ukraine, which Russia views as an openly provocative move.
The US budget allocates a total of $716 billion for national defense, including $24 billion to modernize its existing arsenal and create new offensive nuclear weapons. For comparison, the Russian 2017 defense budget was roughly $70 billion – about 1/10th of the size of the American appropriations. And the American budget isn’t just paying for weapons. It also includes $661.4 million for broadcasting purposes (the Broadcasting Board of Governors) or, to call a spade a spade, the information war against Russia.
On Feb. 12, a group of Democratic senators introduced a resolution pushing President Donald Trump to authorize new sanctions against Russia, in accordance with the Сountering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, CAATSA). They are infuriated by what they call the “lack of seriousness shown by the administration in the face of a clear national security threat.”
NATO is quietly beefing up its logistics infrastructure, preparing for a war with Russia. Norway is hosting US Marines, who are deployed near the Norwegian-Russian border. Oslo is to join the NATO missile defense system. The US military presence in Europe has been growing for two years. NATO has recently deployed four battle groups in Poland and the Baltic states and is stepping up its presence in the Black Sea.
There are events that are kept out of the spotlight, but that illustrate how NATO keeps on expanding, in order to undermine Russia’s security and interests. On Feb. 5, Romania, a NATO member, reached an agreement with Moldova to form a joint battalion to familiarize Moldovan military personnel with NATO's standards. Officially, the unit is to be deployed only under “extraordinary circumstances.” This is the first time that the two countries’ militaries have ever created a joint unit. More than 800 Moldovan officers have undergone military training in Romania. The two countries plan to hold more joint military exercises.
Romania has expressed its strong support of the idea of having Russian peacekeepers withdrawn from Transnistria, with an OSCE mission to take their place. No doubt Bucharest plans to take part in such a mission. Romania has always supported the concept of unification with Moldova. That unification would include Transnistria, where Russian peacekeeping forces are deployed. Once the joint battalion has been created, NATO forces will be facing Russian troops eyeball to eyeball.
The Moldovan government has banned Russian broadcasting. It is striving to integrate with the EU and is sending its military to take part in NATO drills, including in Ukraine. Transnistria favors Russia and wants to join the Moscow-led Eurasian project. Its people reject the idea of integration with Romania. With the Russian peacekeepers gone, the probability of armed conflict will be high.
2018 is the year the NATO Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system is to be deployed in Poland. The system can fire Tomahawk surface-to-surface intermediate-range cruise missiles. It constitutes a flagrant violation of the INF Treaty. In the summer of 2018, Poland will host Anaconda 2018 – the largest NATO military exercise since the end of the Cold War. Roughly 100,000 troops, including 20,000 Polish soldiers, 5,000 armored vehicles, 150 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, and 45 ships will take part in the drills.
One of the issues being discussed at the NATO defense ministers’ meeting (Feb.14-15) is the establishment of two new headquarters – the first upgrade of the command structure since the breakup of the Soviet Union. A command responsible for maritime security will be hosted by the US. A command responsible for ground forces operations in Europe will be set up in Germany. The formal decision is to be made in July at the NATO summit.
The majority of the speakers at the upcoming Munich conference will blame Russia for everything that has gone awry. The “Russia is at it again” approach will prevail. The deployment of Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad region will be cited as an example of Russian “aggressiveness.” Few speakers will remember who provoked Moscow into taking action to ensure its own security, or the violations of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act banning the deployment of substantial combat forces, or the breach of the INF Treaty that occurred with the positioning of the Aegis Ashore Mk-41 launchers capable of firing intermediate-range missiles. Few will make any attempt to empathize or to brainstorm ideas for finding common ground with Moscow. But hope dies last. In theory, the Munich conference is the right forum for sharing fresh ideas and making new proposals. It would be much more fruitful for NATO and Russia to steer the conversation toward something constructive instead of merely hurling mutual recriminations.