There has always been a lot of talk about Russia everywhere in the world but especially in Eastern Europe. During communism, USSR’s dominance was the explanation of this “fad,” public opinion in the occupied states of Eastern Europe going a long way from “the Americans are coming” of the immediately post-war years to the mass uprising against communism after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
At the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet communism, the questions did not abate however, explanations for these events – deemed impossible just shortly before they took place – being sought. And today, particularly after the annexation of Crimea and the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, in Donbass, there is once again just as much talk, if not more, about Russia. The themes are diverse: why did Russia occupy Crimea?; why did Russia start becoming increasingly militarily assertive in Eastern Europe?; Why did Russia intervene in Syria?; Why does it trigger veritable gas wars?; Why does it change its pipeline strategy so frequently and contradictorily?; Does Russia interfere in Western elections (U.S., France etc.) and if yes, why?; Why did Russia start to stake very much – in contrast to the past – on right-wing parties in the West? Etc. etc.
In the last two weeks, talks about Russia in Eastern Europe have been focusing on the presence of NATO forces in the region, on the possibility of a Russian deal with the U.S. (a kind of Yalta 1945) and particularly on the goals of Russia’s actions in which the use of force or the threat of using force is a frequent fact. Let’s briefly analyse them, in turn.
In these conditions, the presence of NATO military forces in the region is deemed a good omen by regional states located in the immediate vicinity of the former Soviet space, but also by Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus or even farther away in the Caucasus.
It’s symptomatic that, albeit insignificant in contrast to the Russian forces facing it, NATO’s military presence in the region is considered useful and the hope is expressed that it will be augmented, but especially that it will be permanent. According to the decisions of the NATO Summits in 2014 and 2016, forces amounting to one battalion were deployed in the three Baltic States, one brigade was deployed in Poland and a multinational division is being set up in Romania, with the contribution of the allies, and an allied naval taskforce tends to be formed in the Black Sea (through frequent visits of allied warships).
Let us also point out that the reinstatement of conscription has been decided in Sweden, and measures to strengthen defence forces are being taken in Finland. Hence, an unprecedented military effervescence in this troubled region. The East Europeans’ fear – at least of those of them who are NATO members – that the alliance will follow the policy that new American President D. Trump announced, has been partially eased ever since mid-February 2017, when U.S. Vice President Pence gave assurances to those states at the global security conference in Munich. He said that he conveys Trump’s message of “reassurance – the United States of America strongly supports NATO and we will be unwavering in our commitment to this transatlantic alliance,” that it will respond to Russia’s attempt “to redraw international borders” in Europe.
On 8 March 2017, before the U.S. Senate’s Armed Forces Committee, the ambassadors of Poland and Lithuania were firm in positively assessing NATO’s military presence in their states. Thus, Polish ambassador P. Wilczek said that the US-led NATO forces deployed to the region “should have a long-term character,” that “a long-term American commitment… is absolutely essential.” It’s interesting to note the fact that Russia considers the deployment of NATO troops near its borders a violation of the NATO – Russia treaty of 1997. So, we have to note that, on one hand, the West is deploying deterrent forces in Eastern Europe, which for Russia represents a direct threat according to its own recently adopted military doctrine. This may seem to also explain the transformation of both the Kaliningrad exclave and of Crimea into veritable Russian military arsenals. A necessary nuance must be introduced here: in both troop concentrations mentioned, Kaliningrad and Crimea, Russia has deployed capabilities that are far more efficient than what would be required to stop a potential enemy advance or to attack the immediate neighbours which host NATO forces. This calls for a simple question: what is the objective of the Russian deployment of Kalibr missiles (maximum range 6,000 km) or of modernised Iskander missiles (range of over 700 km)? It’s obvious that, for hitting targets in neighbouring states – the so-called “security belt” – these capabilities are excessive, being probably intended to thus offer signals to the U.S. competitor or to the great European powers.
Does the possibility of a future great deal with Russia exist, or has the deal been already reached? The question seems to have a flaw – namely there is already a deal but deterrent troops are being deployed, which seems nonsensical. The flaw is only apparent because it reflects the wide debate on this topic not just in Eastern Europe but also in the United States.
In Washington, the new President D. Trump, who is closing in on his second month in office, is subjected to a veritable process of indictment for having had illegal ties with Russia during the presidential elections of 2016. In these conditions, when his main national security adviser M. Flynn had to resign for having had illegal phone conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Trump nuanced his previous statements on the need for a deal with Russia. Especially since he has been, in recent days, under the scrutiny of public opinion because of the presumption that his phone conversations were wiretapped before he took office, although their contents are unknown.
In these conditions, Trump’s reactions in these conditions are drawn up along two lines: accusing President B. Obama of resorting to the wiretapping illegality, and, on the other hand, nuancing his stance toward Russia. Of course, one has to mention his action to have his sympathisers close ranks and launch a PR offensive concerning the country’s economic situation since he took office (a great number of jobs created, among other things). So, is Trump’s reconsideration of a deal with Russia final or are we dealing with a tactical move on his part in order to overcome the embarrassing moment of possible leaks from the conversations recorded in December 2016 (could they include the signs of a big deal already drawn with Russia?)?
The third large compartment of talks about Russia in Eastern Europe is represented by the attempt to identify the goals Russia is after. Recent developments have rekindled this debate, in which several background directions are outlined. Russia allegedly seeks to recover its lost empire, in other words to return to the situation registered prior to the USSR’s collapse in Eastern (and Central) Europe, namely approximately on the territory of the former Warsaw Pact.
Another direction consists of the assertion that Russia has become so militarily assertive in order to force the West to dialogue and agreement in a great Yalta-like deal. Finally, another thesis is that, dissatisfied with the strategic balance in Europe, Russia is trying to become once more a major player in the continental power landscape. The violation of the 1987 treaty is part of this last line of interpretation, and fresh news outline that such a fact occurred.
This is a different story, but it defines Russia’s current position toward the West and must be detailed. The treaty concerned, signed in 1987, hastened the end of the Cold War and represented the backbone of the global strategic balance, and its violation challenges its existence.