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Detering Russia

Bernd Riegert / dbJune 14, 2016

NATO has started a military build-up in Eastern Europe aimed at deterring Russia. The troops pose no threat to Moscow, but they are a reassurance for the Baltic region. DW's Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

Polen Soldaten stehen bei Brückenbaustelle während NATO Anaconda-16 Übung in Chelmno
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Zmijewski

NATO is reinforcing its military presence on its eastern flank; in particular, in the Baltic states and Poland. The move is a reaction by the alliance's defense ministers to a threat they perceive emanating from Russia in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea and constant large-scale military exercises on the Ukrainian border. At a meeting in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called it the "biggest reinforcement of collective defense since the Cold War."

High profile on the flanks

The alliance plans to announce the official plans before the upcoming summit in early July in Warsaw. It appears that four multinational NATO combat battalions are to be deployed in the Baltic States and Poland. Each battalion could be 800 to 1,000-man strong, according to US NATO Ambassador Douglas Lute. Germany, the US and Britain would each lead a battalion.

NATO is still looking for a country to head the fourth battalion, which is to be stationed in Poland; the US is trying to convince Canada to take over, since many European NATO member states are feigning a lack of capacities. Spain and Italy would prefer to concentrate on NATO's southern flank - that is, curbing illegal immigration. France has been holding off because the country's socialist government is fiercely opposed to the national conservative leadership in Warsaw, NATO diplomats say.

The alliance also plans to reinforce its presence on the Black Sea; in particular, in Romania.

Belgien Jens Stoltenberg bei der Pressekonferenz der NATO
Stoltenberg called the plans the 'biggest reinforcement since the Cold War'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Hoslet

Baltic States press for NATO air defenses

But the Baltic states feel the rotating combat troops NATO plans to deploy aren't enough. Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas demands an improved and joint anti-aircraft shield to counter possible Russian attacks. "We are in discussions now with the Estonians, the Latvians and the Poles over how we can create some kind of regional air defense system," Olekas said. So far, NATO has relied on what is known as air policing: NATO fighter jets stationed in the Baltics take off only if Russian jets enter Allied airspace. They are not on a combat mission, and are in no position to prevent a larger Russian air attack.

The up to 4,000 soldiers to be deployed on the eastern flank are in addition to the rapid deployment forces NATO agreed on at the last summit two years ago in Wales. The rapid response troops encompass 40,000 soldiers who could be deployed on NATO's eastern flank within just a short period of time. Poland is currently hosting a large-scale NATO military training exercise that includes practicing the relocation of large numbers of troops.

The rapid response troops include six logistics bases NATO is setting up in the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, designed to house equipment and munitions. Furthermore, NATO's largest partner state, the US, has announced the deployment of an additional tank brigade of 4,200 soldiers and 250 tanks to Europe beginning in 2017.

NATO Luftpatrouille Baltikum Baltic Air Policing Mission
NATO air policing mission over the BalticImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kaminski

None of the additional NATO troops are to be stationed permanently in barracks on the soil of the former Soviet Warsaw Pact states, but are set to rotate every few months. It's a canny move designed to satisfy the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act that rules out the permanent deployment of "substantial" combat troops in the vicinity of Russia.

"Our focus will expand from assurance to deterrence," US General Philip Breedlove, the former NATO supreme allied commander, said in March in Latvia.

From Russia, but not with love

In reaction to NATO's new plans, Andrei Kelin of the Russian foreign ministry said last month that Moscow is worried about the increase of troops. "I fear that calls for retaliatory action," he said.

Russia's Defense Ministry has repeatedly announced plans to deploy three new divisions with 10,000 soldiers each and five nuclear armed regiments to the country's western military region by the end of the year. Even as NATO defense ministers were meeting in Brussels, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a revision of the operational readiness of the country's reserve troops. According to Moscow, the timing was a mere coincidence.