Vadim Kuznetsov says his excursion-boat business along Russias border with Poland has been torpedoed by a new Cold War.
Theyre scared, Kuznetsov said of the Poles, once his main customers, who no longer venture across the border for fishing trips. What have they got to be afraid of? he asked, his idle boat moored at a jetty.
Some of the explain is anchored merely a few hundred meters away at the main base for Russias Baltic Fleet. A minesweeper and a guided-missile cruiser give a hint of the biggest Russian military build-up of the states of the region since Communism collapsed.
For most of that period, Kaliningrad, an enclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania, tried to turn itself into a gateway for European investment. But amid Russias recent rearmament, the region has increasingly returned to its Soviet-era role as a garrison on the strategic Baltic Sea coast.
This time, however, the countries simply to Kaliningrads east — the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization , not part of the Soviet Union. How to protect them, which was a largely hypothetical question for the alliance until Russias 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, has now become a central challenge for NATO.
Impossible to Defend
Their location, all but cut off from the rest of the alliance by Kaliningrad, has turned them into an oversized version of West Berlin, which had to rely on Western airlifts during a Soviet siege during 1948 -4 9. Largely surrounded by Russia, the Baltics are too exposed to defend effectively but too important for the alliance not to protect.
NATO could not have militarily prevented a determined Soviet great efforts to overrun West Berlin , nor is possible to militarily prevent a determined Russian effort to overrun the Baltic nations. But if the Soviets had overrun West Berlin, that would have meant war with NATO, said Thomas Graham, a senior White House aide at the time the three countries joined the alliance more than ten years ago. In hypothesi, the same thing should hold true if the Russians been attempting to overrun any Baltic state.
To help dispel doubts about its commitment, NATO this week will approve plans to deploy four battalions to rotate through the region. But though bigger than what the military bloc has ever placed there before, the units will still be dwarfed by Russias forces-out on the other side of the border.
The Kremlin, which is spending 20 trillion rubles( about $313 billion) on an ambitious defense upgrade through 2020, argues that its simply responding to NATOs encroachment toward Russian perimeters. In May, Russia announced plans to put two new divisions in the Western region and the other in the south. That could be about 30,000 troops, compared to 4,000 in NATOs plan.
Countries like Sweden and Finland that remained neutral through the Cold War are now considering joining NATO.
Russia Is Feared
In the Baltic States and elsewhere Russia is dreaded, Finnish President Sauli Niinistoe said last week after a meeting with Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader responded that NATOs buildup was a risk to his countrys security. All this creates an obvious menace for us that no one wants to notification, ” he told, suggesting that if Finland joined the alliance, Russia could answer by moving troops closer to its border.
Russia already has contingency plans for an attack on the Baltic countries, as they belong to a hostile military confederation, according to a person close to the Russian Defense Ministry. The Kremlin could intervene militarily to defend ethnic Russia minorities there, for example, though this scenario is very unlikely, the person said.
Even short of a full-scale attack, uncertainties about NATOs ability to defend our own member cast a shadow across the entire region. In 2007, for example, Estonia suffered a cyber-attack that crippled its highly computerized government and economy over a period of several weeks. Western officials blamed Russia, though the Kremlin denied any role.
What the Russians would like to do politically is to undermine the confidence the Baltic nations have in NATOs Article Five guarantee, said Steven Pifer, who served as U.S. deputy deputy of state from 2001 -2 004, referring to the treaty provision on mutual defense.
Some say the Kremlin has succeeded in creating a climate of insecurity without actually needing to fight.
Putin wants to divide Europe, divide NATO, and hes got a multitude of public policies that he keeps seeking to achieve those ends, told Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2011 -2 014. Raising the specter of conflict in the Baltic states increases the debate in other capitals in Europe, is this such a good idea for us?
At the same time, major additional NATO deployments of the states of the region could elicit a further Russian buildup as the Kremlin seeks to protect St. Petersburg, the countrys second-largest city. Its a vicious cycle, Finnish President Niinistoe alerted in his appearance with Putin last week.
Kaliningrads isolation from the rest of Russia also creates dangers, as the Kremlin might try to confiscate the 100 -kilometer broad strip on the Polish-Lithuanian border known as the Suwalki gap that separates the enclave from Belarus, a Russian friend. In the Cold War, NATO defense endeavours focused on the Fulda gap, a strip of the border with Eastern germany through which invading Soviet tanks were expected to move.
Risks to the Baltic countries security seemed remote when they were brought into NATO in 2004.
Russia was seen as a potential, even if problematic, partner and no one was thinking about it as a military menace, said Pifer.
Fears in the region grew after the 2008 war in Georgia, on Russias southern perimeter, the Kremlins first major use of forces outside the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But by the next year, the U.S. was in the midst of its reset policy aimed at improving relations with Russia and had little appetite for confrontation.
The conflict in Ukraine changed everything, as leaders in the U.S. and Europe warned that Russias annexation of Crimea was a threat to security across the whole region.
NATO began debates that led to the deployment to be announced at the Warsaw summit. Still, NATO officials admit those forces would barely be enough to stop a Russian assault.
Current NATO plans arent enough, told retired general Ants Laaneots, who commanded Estonias forces from 2006 -2 011. Together, the three Baltic countries, whose combined sizing and population equals the U.S. country of Missouri, have about 28,000 troops, largely softly armed and with very little air or sea fighting capability.
A Russian lightning ten-strike would be able to reach the capitals of Estonia and Latvia in 36 to 60 hours, told a report by the RAND Corporation think tank, which was based on a series of war game staged between summer 2014 and springtime 2015.
The balance of forces-out in the region is such that Russia has the potential to present NATO with something of a fait accompli in the Baltics, told RANDs David Shlapak.
Forces stationed in the region, including more than 50 ships and two submarines and advanced S-4 00 air-defense systems, together with other land, naval and air assets on Russias western flank, would allow it to effectively close off the Baltic Sea and skies to NATO reinforcements, defense experts say.
Air space is going to be contested in a way the U.S. and its friends havent had to deal with for over two decades, told Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Seized from Germany at the end of World War II, when it was known as Koenigsberg, Kaliningrad would be a key base in any Russian operation in the region.
Before the U.S. takes any aggressive actions against Russia, they should think very carefully what theyll get in response, said Boris Kosenkov, head of the Kaliningrad veteran association and a former general who served in East Germany in the 1980 s.
— With assistance from Ott Ummelas and Aaron Eglitis .