Espreso. Global

Clock is ticking. Which country may Russia attack, and are NATO allies preparing for war?

7 February, 2024 Wednesday

The Kremlin does its most to divert the West’s attention from helping Ukraine. Putin might probe and provoke. The more European countries fear, the more likely it is that they will focus on their own defense rather than providing Kyiv with crucial weapons

Putin’s tanks on NATO doorstep

The annexation of Crimea by Russia and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 was not a wake-up call for NATO. Countries of Eastern Europe realized what happened, while others mainly underestimated Moscow's actions. 

NATO's warfighting change was prompted by the subsequent large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which was too serious to be disregarded. 

Russia was finally referred to as a “significant and direct” threat rather than a partner in its 2022 Strategic Concept, which also pledged to defend "every inch of NATO territory." 

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Allies reinforced the existing battlegroups and agreed to establish four more multinational battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. 

This has brought the total number of multinational battlegroups to eight, effectively doubled the number of troops on the ground, and extended NATO’s forward presence along the Alliance’s eastern flank – from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.

It became clear that a NATO strategy of recapturing lost allied territories would result in heavy costs for occupied territories. So after its Madrid summit in 2022, NATO declared that the alliance would move toward a strategy of “deterrence by denial” aimed at preventing future aggression by potential adversaries.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has also prompted Germany’s first permanent foreign deployment since World War II — about 100 kilometers from the border with Russia. In December 2023, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and his Lithuanian counterpart Arvydas Anušauskas signed an agreement to deploy 4,800 German troops in the Baltic country. 

West must be ready for “anything” and “expect the unexpected”

The war in Ukraine has changed military thinking in European capitals.

Last month, Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee and the Alliance’s most senior military officer, said in Brussels that the alliance needs to be on high alert for war.

"We have to realize it's not a given that we are in peace. And that's why we [NATO forces] are preparing for a conflict with Russia," the top NATO military official warned ahead of the start of the alliance's largest drills since the end of the Cold War.

"We need public and private actors to change their mindset from an era in which everything was plannable, foreseeable ... to an era in which anything can happen at any time. An era in which we need to expect the unexpected," Bauer added, citing Ukraine's war as a critical conflict that "will determine the fate of the world."

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius also warned that Russia may attack NATO countries in five to eight years.

“We have to take into account that Vladimir Putin will one day even attack a NATO country. We hear threats from the Kremlin almost every day – most recently against our friends in the Baltics,” he told Der Tagesspiegel, a German newspaper, on January 19.

Concerns among European nations are growing with the rise of former President Donald J. Trump, who has previously threatened to withdraw from NATO and has vowed to never support his alliance allies. Eastern European countries think that Putin may invade a NATO nation over the next few years, and that they may have to confront his forces without US assistance. 

“The past few years have also made it very, very clear that NATO as a military alliance, a lot of countries, are not ready to conduct large-scale operations — meaning, in simple human language, a lot of NATO militaries are not ready to fight Russia,” Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm, the commander of the Estonian Army’s main land combat division, was cited by The New York Times as saying. “So it’s not very comforting.”

The concerns were echoed by Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who said Europe as a whole must be militarily stronger than Russia.

“We will use all available diplomatic means and persuasion to make the entire EU understand that without a radically increased military effort, we will be left far behind, and this means one thing: Europe will be exposed to a direct Russian attack in the next few years,” Tusk said according to the Polish news outlet Rzeczpospolita.

A similar warning has been voiced by Romania’s top general. "If he (Putin -ed.) wins in Ukraine, the main target will be the Republic of Moldova. We will witness tensions in the Western Balkans," Gheorghiță Vlad, chief of defense of Romania, said in an interview with Europa Liberă România on February 1. Vlad called on Romania and Europe to properly prepare for a potential war with Russia.

War games as readiness test and fresh show of strength

To step up its readiness, NATO has launched the Steadfast Defender 2024 military drills that will run until May 31 and will involve some 90,000 troops.

“This effort aims to demonstrate NATO’s commitment to collective defense and send a robust message about its readiness to protect all Allies in the face of emerging threats. Exercises serve the dual purpose of refining defense plans as well as acting as a deterrent against potential aggression from near-peer adversaries,” the 31-nation organization said in a statement.

More than 50 ships from aircraft carriers to destroyers will take part, as well as over 80 fighter jets, helicopters and at least 1,100 combat vehicles, NATO said.

According to Reuters, a special focus will be on the deployment of NATO's quick reaction force to Poland on the alliance's eastern flank. The Baltic States, which are most vulnerable to a possible Russian invasion, Germany, and countries on the fringes of the alliance such as Norway and Romania will also be key locations for the exercises.

Within the framework of the large exercise, there will also be 16 smaller ones at different times and in different regions. One of them is the Suwałki Gap, running 100 km along the border between Poland and Lithuania, connecting Belarus and the Russian military enclave of Kaliningrad.

This corridor is called NATO’s “Achilles heel” because if Putin moved his forces from Belarus across the gap to Kaliningrad, he could cut off Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from their allies in Europe. So the drill includes this scenario.

Aid for Ukraine and preparations on domestic fronts

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week, Ukraine should continue to get the support it needs to fight Russia off its land; otherwise, if Russian leader Vladimir Putin gets what “he wants from Ukraine, Europe will be more vulnerable.”

Moreover, such a scenario would embolden other authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world to grab land by force, Stoltenberg said.

However, senior NATO officials are increasingly concerned that governments and private arms manufacturers are falling behind in preparations on the domestic front and helping Ukraine to defend its territories and people.

The EU promised to send one million 155 mm artillery shells to Kyiv by spring, but it hasn't done so, which has caused the Ukrainian artillery's rate of firing to decrease. 

"A shortage of ammunition is a very pressing problem that our armed forces are facing at present," Ukraine’s Defense Minister Rustem Umerov said as his country’s battle against Russia nears its two-year mark.

Joe Biden has also been unable to convince Republican leaders to support further aid packages for Ukraine, as they claim the funds should be spent on domestic needs, such as border security, instead.

Two years of full-scale war against Ukraine have shown how dangerous the Kremlin is. The West requires new security concepts, while the Kremlin's further actions against NATO countries depend on how the war in Ukraine unfolds, experts say.

The Kremlin has not dismissed the fight as a stalemate, in contrast to many in the West. As Kyiv asks for artillery shells and air defense missiles from its allies, Russia is searching the world for drones and munitions from every rogue state. 

“Nobody with any understanding of the Kremlin believes that it is a certainty that Putin will stop his westwards march,” writes in his article for The Telegraph Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, formerly commanding officer of the UK's Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment.

“The drift towards militarization of the Russian state and the surging calls for a greater offensive must serve as a warning that the West needs to wake up before he acts. We must fully support and arm Ukraine,” he concludes.

Providing Kyiv with essential weapons in order to defeat Putin’s army on the ground in Ukraine and reinforcing NATO’s flanks are the alliance’s main tasks.

While Ukraine has become NATO’s ‘informal eastern flank’, discussions are ongoing in the West whether allies should first arm Ukraine or themselves. And how to do both, thus minimizing Russia’s chance to re-arm in preparation for another attack on a democratic nation later. 

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