“Next year, Russia will invade the Baltic States. And that invasion will be preceded by artificial mass demonstrations in the Baltic cities.” That is what Richard Shirreff predicts in his fictional book ‘2017, War with Russia’, based on his knowledge as former deputy commander of NATO.
A harsh statement, which is not well received by Russia. “This kind of thinking controls Western politics. It’s no longer appropriate these days. What is the purpose of an invasion?”, says Alexander Grushko, Russian Ambassador for NATO in Brussels to EenVandaag. Who is telling the truth, if there even is a truth, and where did the tension between NATO and Russia, in fact, start?
After the Cold War, the relaxation between the former Soviet Union and NATO seems to lead to full normalization, even in military terms. In some fields, the two even gradually start working together and more than a few people even talk about Russian accession to NATO. But Russia’s dissatisfaction with Western interference in former Yugoslavia and the expansion of NATO in the years following the Cold War until Russia’s national borders show a gap between two irreconcilable worlds.
Furthermore, Russia is gradually recovering from the huge crisis that occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union, and recapturing its national pride, particularly in the military field. The fact that Putin makes short work of Islamists in Chechnya is not what alarms NATO, but the Russian support of the Abkhaz rebels in Georgia is the first thing to put the relations on edge. The relation is no longer ‘business as usual’, as former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer puts it. The conflict eventually leads to discontinuation of the military cooperation between Russia and NATO.
The relations remain troubled, but the old enemy image does not seem to be returning. ‘Seem’ being the operative word here, for when Russia decides to annex Crimea and Flight MH17 is downed over Ukraine, the traditional opposites are back. The Cold War seems to have completely returned, say both Russian and Western government officials. But this situation is more dangerous, because this time there is no Warsaw Pact to separate NATO from Russia. The power blocks are now directly border on each other and there have been several incidents between military aircraft and ships. Incidents that, when incorrectly assessed, could lead to a huge conflict.
“This situation is highly dangerous”, says Ambassador Grushko.
Ever since Russia invaded Crimea, he has been shunned from the Atlantic organization. Military and diplomatic consultations between Russia and NATO have come to a complete stop. Russia fears the presence of military forces immediately on its national borders, whereas NATO distrusts Russia’s agenda in relation to the Baltic States. According to the Ambassador, however, NATO is using this as a means to rekindle the alliance. “Crimea is a closed chapter”, says Grushko.
The countries bordering on Russia are increasingly concerned about a more assertive Kremlin. The Baltic States have certainly not forgotten about the Soviet occupation during the Cold War, and fear that they may share the fate of Crimea, NATO membership or no NATO membership. Russia’s annexation of Crimea with its modern army sends a shock wave through the three countries on the Baltic Sea. For the first time since World War II a European sovereign country is being annexed by a foreign power. President Putin’s words in his address following the annexation of Crimea on 18 March 2014 are not exactly comforting. Former four-star NATO General Richard Shirreff interprets Putin’s words as a mandate for interference in countries with a Russian minority.
Last week NATO met in Warsaw to discuss the future of the alliance. The summit addressed the current threats to the West and the steps that the countries want to take to counter those threats. Russia is one of the threats identified by NATO. And, so, the military alliance made the decision on sending thousands of soldiers to the Baltic States to deter Russia and to send a collective signal to the Baltic States. But what are the chances of Russia actually invading the Baltic States?
As far as Richard Shirreff is concerned, this mistrust is uncalled for, but NATO does have to make it clear to Russia that any Russian intervention in the Baltic States will come at a price. For if NATO proves unable to protect the countries on the Baltic Sea by deterring the Russians, that is, in his opinion, what will happen.
Should Putin invade the Baltic States to ‘protect’ the Russian minorities there, NATO is currently unable to do anything about it, according to Shirreff. “Even if the Baltic States put up a huge fight, they will not be able to withstand the large Russian army. Nor will NATO. Russia listens to power, and despises weakness. And NATO is weak.”
Alexander Grushko, on the other hand, sees no reason for Russia to invade the Baltic States. He does, however, sees reason for a substantial upscaling of the troops on the Russian border in response to the exercises and troop building by NATO. “If the opponent positions a substantial military force, you have to counter it with the same military force. We know the logic of military planning, and that is not just the Russian logic.” Grushko says that he regrets the tension and would rather see Russia work together with the West to focus on the joint problems, such as IS, Syria and Libya.