The big international news item at the moment is the continuing tension between Ukraine and Russia, which has now moved beyond the Crimea – that’s probably a done deal – into the mainly Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine. There are arguments to be made about Russia’s claim on these areas, some of which were historically part of Russia until border changes under the USSR, but the way President Putin is going about it has caused a lot of alarm among his neighbors.
The Russian military isn’t the old Soviet one, but in recent years it’s been undergoing a massive modernization program funded by oil revenue. Many of its units are still old-style conscript ones with poor morale and aging equipment, but things are changing. The annexation of the Crimea showcased a lot of modern gear and far more professional-looking troops. After the 2008 incursion into Georgia and the events of the last months, it’s clear that Russia has a formidable military and the willingness to project it into neighboring countries without much provocation.
Where does that leave the USA and its NATO allies? Some new NATO members, like the Baltic states, feel directly threatened. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have unhappy Russian minorities of their own and they’re worried. If unrest kicks off over language rights or old Soviet memorials, could “pro-Russian paramilitaries” materialize to impose order? That’s unlikely; Putin has to know that NATO couldn’t take an invasion of one of its members lying down. The chances of Russian armor rolling into Tallinn are slim. That’s no comfort to Ukraine though – it isn’t a member of the alliance and neither the USA nor any European country has an obligation to help defend it.
Of course just because there’s no obligation doesn’t mean nothing can be done. The European NATO members are wary of provoking the Kremlin, and in any case, their most capable militaries are mostly exhausted from the operation in Afghanistan. The USA, however, runs an active program of exercises with Eastern European forces and that can serve two functions.
- Firstly, it puts US troops on the ground. Right now there are company groups from the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team deployed in Poland and Latvia, with more heading to Lithuania and Estonia. Each company has around 150 men, so that’s not enough to hold back a serious Russian move, but their presence is a tripwire. Putin knows that engaging US forces (except in self defense) is a line he can’t cross without inviting military retaliation, and even with the recent modernization, his forces aren’t strong enough to survive that.
- Second, the pattern of deployments also sends a political message. Since the 1990s, there have been regular joint exercises scheduled between US and Russian forces. This year’s was Atlas Vision, a planned joint peacekeeping exercise near Chelyabinsk. It’s been cancelled, but its partner exercise in Ukraine – Rapid Trident – is going ahead. That will put over a thousand US troops in western Ukraine sometime in July.
The Cold War probably isn’t coming back any time soon, but the situation could head in that direction if nobody takes action. By deploying to Ukraine, the USA is drawing a line Putin can’t cross.