Are we headed for a new war in Europe? In light of a resurgent Russia, this is the serious question that many diplomats and military officers are asking today.
On 16 February 2019, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko declared that Belarus was ready to unite with Russia anytime, as agreed to in the 1999 Union Treaty. It is worth remembering that Lukashenko was the leader of Belarus in 1999 who signed the 1999 Union Treaty and remains the undisputed dictator-for-life to this day. Lukashenko’s announcement may move both countries closer to a possible new Russian–Belarusian confederation. Such a union would most likely be led by Vladimir Putin. Since such an arrangement would trump the Russian constitution, which precludes Putin from assuming the presidency of the Russian Federation in 2024, Putin could place himself in power as the leader of the newly declared Russian–Belarusian Union and fulfil his desire to be leader-for-life like his friend Lukashenko.
A Russian–Belarusian Union
If the two countries join, the Union of Russia and Belarus would create a powerful new geopolitical calculus. While this possible amalgamation looms, Russia remains active, planning several steps ahead. In the strategic Russian military exclave in Kaliningrad, the Russians have reinforced, upgraded, and hardened key facilities. Situated on the Baltic Sea coast, a leftover from the Cold War, Kaliningrad is a vital position for Putin, as it is Russia’s last foothold in formerly Soviet lands, and its vital naval base is the home of the Russian Baltic Fleet, which consists of 56 warships. The exclave also includes a strong Russian Army garrison and a robust and sophisticated A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) missile complex. Reports that Russia has moved the 500 km-range ISKANDER-M missiles to Kaliningrad have increased tensions. The ISKANDER-M, designated as the SS-26 STONE by NATO, can carry a variety of conventional warheads, including cluster munitions, fuel-air explosives, high explosive-fragmentation, a bunker-busting earth penetrator munition, an anti-radar electromagnetic pulse device, a cruise missile, and most importantly, a nuclear warhead. Russia has also deployed advanced Russian S-400 air defence systems and the BAL and BASTION coastal defence missile systems. Even more threatening, satellite images of the exclave in late 2018 confirmed that the existing nuclear weapons storage bunkers from the Cold War have been modernised. With such an arsenal, the Russian Kaliningrad military complex will be able to influence a vast area including much of Poland, all the Baltic States, and most of the Baltic Sea.
Another Cuban Missile Crisis?
Kaliningrad has a population of nearly a million Russian citizens and a total area of 15,100 sq km. It was formerly the city of Koenigsberg and the capital of the old German State of Prussia. It has now become the world’s newest flashpoint. As an exclave, it is further isolated from Belarus and Russia by NATO nations. To move supplies overland to Kaliningrad, Russia must transit the NATO countries of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Poland, or Poland and Belarus, depending on the route. Russia yearns for a land bridge and to have complete control of the territory from Kaliningrad to Belarus. In 1991, Russia and Lithuania agreed to access rights for Russia to transit Lithuanian territory at regulated times from Belarus to Kaliningrad. This transit takes place along a narrow strip of land called the Suwalki Corridor, a 65-mile stretch from Belarus to Kaliningrad along the Poland-Lithuania border. Only an hour’s drive halts Kaliningrad’s physical reunification with Russia.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, tensions have risen and NATO has suspended all practical military and civilian cooperation with Russia. Alarmed by Russia’s aggressive moves, the Baltic States have increased their defence spending and readiness. Lithuania and Poland have pledged to raise their defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030. In March 2018, Poland made an agreement with the US Government to purchase two PATRIOT Configuration 3+ batteries for deliveries in 2022 for US$4.75Bn. In April 2018, Russian officials warned that NATO had crossed a ‘Red Line’ with the expansion of NATO and what they perceive as the “growing militarisation of Poland”. Russia’s deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko stated: “Not only in politics, but also in the field of military development, NATO began resorting to Cold War schemes that should have been left in the past”. According to the Moscow Times on 19 October 2018, Putin has “unveiled an array of new nuclear weapons in one of his most bellicose speeches in years, saying they could hit almost any point in the world and not be intercepted”. To emphasise Putin’s power, the Moscow Times headlines for 21 February 2019, read: “I’m Ready for Another Cuban Missile Crisis if You Want One, Putin Tells US.”
The US and its Allies are listening and have been monitoring this situation carefully. The US has argued that the cruise missile version of the ISKANDER, the SSC-8 R-500 ISKANDER-K, violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as its estimated range is beyond 500 km. This, along with the deployment of other short-range Russian missiles, was one of the reasons the US backed out of the INF treaty on 2 February 2019, following an announcement the day before by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
A Resurgent Russia
These developments in Belarus, Russia, and Kaliningrad are a primary concern for NATO. As the Soviet Union collapsed, many countries of the former Soviet Union sought independence. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia gained their freedom and NATO added these Baltic States to the Alliance in 1999. A succession of East-West crises – Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the continuing Russian-led proxy war in Ukraine, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) on 17 July 2014 (in May 2018 the BBC reported that the Joint Investigation Team reported: “All the vehicles in a convoy carrying the missile were part of the Russian armed forces”) – the chances of a military clash between NATO and the Russian Federation have increased. From a resurgent Russia’s point of view in 2019, the status quo of NATO moving ever closer to Russia is unacceptable. Breaking NATO, then, would be a significant gain for Moscow. If Russia were to seize the Suwalki Corridor in a quick stab-and-grab operation, for example, the Baltic NATO states would be cut off from the rest of NATO. In Article 5 of the NATO Alliance Treaty, each member has pledged that an attack on one is an attack on all. If NATO did not or could not respond, and Russia was to prove Article 5 a hollow promise, then the independence of the Baltic States and the future of the NATO Alliance would be in jeopardy.
The US and NATO are alert to this threat. If NATO is to deter war, it must continue to improve its presence and capabilities to defend the Suwalki Corridor. The US, regardless of what you read in some of the American press reports, is fully committed to the NATO Alliance. President Donald Trump recognises the danger and wants NATO members to step up their defence spending to the levels they have previously pledged. As Kori Schake wrote in his article “NATO Without America”, some European NATO members have responded to President Donald Trump’s exhortation that each member meet their 2% spending obligation as “How dare they?” not “How dare we?” It is far past time for every member of the Alliance to get serious, pull their own weight, and pay their pledged amount. Arguing over military budgets aside, the Alliance members pledged on 7 June 2018, to the NATO Readiness Initiative where each member state committed, by 2020, to support a force of 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 naval combat vessels ready to use within 30 days, to move within Europe and across the Atlantic – to respond to a security emergency in Europe. This is a major step toward creating a credible deterrent force, but it is not enough. If you want peace, you must prepare for war, and NATO’s defences are currently inadequate to deter a determined Russian attempt to seize the corridor, declare a ceasefire and wait and see if NATO will respond.
On 22 February 2019, the US Secretary of State Mike R. Pompeo visited Poland and watched NATO forces training at the Bemowo Piskie Training Area. His words reinforced the purpose of the NATO Alliance and emphasised America’s commitment to its allies to deter war and maintain the peace. “As we enter the fifth year of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, a war he launched on European soil, we take seriously those concerns that Russia may one day try to open a front along a line right here. In light of this threat, the NATO alliance remains indispensable for the protection of the free peoples of Europe….Now, it is every ally’s responsibility to keep Europe free. Russia has grand designs of dominating Europe and reasserting its influence on the world stage. Vladimir Putin seeks to splinter the NATO alliance, weaken the United States, and disrupt Western democracies. Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, its unprovoked attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea this past November, and its ongoing hybrid warfare against us and our allies are direct challenges to our security and to our way of life…. Those threats must be met with similarly strong commitments from each and every NATO ally”.
Fear is a reaction, courage is a decision. The Cold War may be over, but a new, equally dangerous situation has emerged. It seems clear that NATO will be tested in the months and years ahead. The reality facing all members of the Alliance is that Europe and America need NATO. We share democratic values, military standards, a unified command structure, and NATO can put together effective multinational forces better than any other alliance in the world. The seventy-year Alliance is, by far, the most successful political and military alliance in history and every member nation should consider this fact. As for the US, America has consistently shown its commitment to the Alliance and to NATO’s founding ideals of preserving the peace in Europe. As Secretary Pompeo emphasised in Poland in February 2019, “the men who set NATO’s foundation were determined that Europe would never again face tyranny and war.” As the fears of the old Cold War have been replaced by a resurgent Russia that might take military action in Eastern Europe, there is much to consider. Is NATO ready for what lies ahead? Can NATO still deter war and, if deterrence fails, fight and win as a unified Alliance? It can, but only if every member nation plays its part, leads by example to pay its pledged share, and acts with courage. NATO members have overcome disagreements before. In the face of these new challenges, every member of the NATO Alliance must stand together and decide on courage.
John Antal is an expert on military affairs. He has published 14 books on military and leadership subjects and over 500 articles in military professional journals. He served 30 years as a soldier in the US Army, retiring as a colonel, having commanded combat arms units from platoon to brigade.