Are NATO and Russia setting the fuse for a hot war?

NATO's plans for a 'rapid response' force, in combination with the Kremlin's intention to declare NATO an 'adversary' of Russia, could inadvertently spur open conflict.

Virginia Mayo/AP
Scale models of missiles and of the F-35 jet form part of an exhibit on the grounds of the Celtic Manor Resort prior to a NATO summit in Newport, Wales, on Wednesday. Lashing out at Russia, President Barack Obama vigorously vowed to come to the defense of NATO allies that fear they could be Vladimir Putin's next target.

As NATO moves to install a symbolic "rapid deployment" force near Russia's border and the Kremlin plans to rewrite its official military policy to explicitly define NATO as an adversary, the potential for a wider war may be looming.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday visited Estonia, a tiny Baltic member of NATO whose population is one-third ethnic Russian. He drove home the message that any further attempts by Moscow to destabilize neighboring countries on grounds of "protecting compatriots" would not be allowed.

In practical terms, Obama pledged to send more US air force personnel and aircraft to the Baltics, possibly to be stationed at Estonia's Amari Air Base. At the NATO summit in Wales later this week, the US will promote the idea of a 4,000-person "rapid response" force for Eastern Europe, to be deployed in several permanent "reception centers" scattered around the three NATO Baltic states and Poland.

Dangerous symbolism

Though these measures appear largely symbolic, they would have the impact of putting substantial numbers of US troops on the front line between NATO and Russia. Should any kind of unrest break out, US troops would be first in harm's way. Experts say that's needed to calm the heightened anxieties among Russia-adjacent alliance members over Moscow's heavy-handed methods of "protecting" Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.

But the Russians claim these deployments would be a violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, which stressed that Russia and NATO do not consider each other to be adversaries, and NATO pledged not to forward-deploy significant Western forces into new NATO states that border on Russia.

"The US and NATO have changed a lot of facts in the past few years, and Russia has to react," argues Viktor Litovkin, a military expert with the official TASS news agency. "The US continues to sponsor [anti-Moscow] 'colored revolutions,'" in the post-Soviet neighborhood, "and NATO forces are drawing closer to our border."

The Kremlin's likely answer will be to make sweeping revisions to the country's official military policy, to clearly identify NATO as an adversary. That would likely be followed by redeployments of troops and air defenses from Russia's interior closer to Europe. It might also station greater numbers of Iskander short range missiles and other offensive weaponry in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.

Russia's "military doctrine" is an actual document that identifies who Moscow sees as its potential foes, what future strategic challenges it perceives, and what methods the country's security forces will adopt to counter threats, or fight a war if necessary. The doctrine, last updated in 2010, called for major increases in defense spending. It warned about attempts by hostile powers to promote regime change in neighboring post-Soviet countries like Ukraine, worried that NATO might deploy more troops near Russia's borders, but stopped short of identifying the Western alliance as an adversary of Russia.

'A classic escalation spiral'

On Tuesday the deputy head of the Kremlin's Security Council, Mikhail Popov, promised that a rewrite would occur by year's end. He hinted that the key change would concern Russia's attitude to NATO in light of recent eastward movements of US and allied forces. "We consider that the defining factor in [Moscow’s] relations with NATO will remain the unacceptability for Russia of the expansion plans of NATO’s military infrastructure to our borders," he said.

"Everybody is using this situation in a classic escalation spiral," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "The Baltic countries want NATO deployments on their soil. Even if it's just a small, symbolic number, it's a guarantee that NATO will become immediately involved if Russia attacks them. The US wants NATO to become stronger, and for European countries to spend more on defense, so this situation works well for Washington. And Russian nationalists love it, because it provides 'proof' of NATO's aggressive intentions."

"Hardliners on all sides are profiting from this crisis, and using it to change realities we all thought would be permanent. Even if the Ukraine crisis goes away tomorrow, it will leave a very different world behind," he adds.

Cold war dynamics are rushing back, and the danger is that heated rhetoric and symbolic gestures of today can become tripwires for disaster tomorrow, experts say.

"The idea of revising of our military doctrine [to explicitly identify NATO as an adversary] reflects a deeply changing world reality," says Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the independent Institute of National Strategy and a frequent Kremlin critic. "Putin has given up on any hopes of reconciling with the West. So, we're making this turn to self-isolation and a tense new cold war situation, which at any point could erupt into hot war."

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