Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
In 2014, internal divisions in Ukraine led first to the toppling of the Yanukovych government and then to an open conflict fueled by unofficial intervention. Though not entirely over ethnicity and language, these factors undeniably affected the dividing lines. The largely Russian speaking and politically pro-Russian east and south of Ukraine confronted the pro-Western, Ukrainian-speaking majority to the west of the country that swept into power after Yanukovych’s departure. In order to protect strategic interests and national compatriots, the Russian Federation responded by annexing the Crimean peninsula and seemed ready to do the same for the Donbas region of Ukraine. Though this ultimately did not come to pass, former Soviet member-states feared violations of their territorial sovereignty.
Naturally, countries with similar internal divisions (such as Moldova) have the most concern. The Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, with Russian populations of approximately 25% of their national totals, have the largest potential for instability. As a means of reassuring these NATO allies, the United States initiated a new series of troop deployments to these countries to hedge against any emergent threats. In response, Russia increased their activity in the Baltic Kaliningrad Oblast and is increasing ties with their security partners in the wider, post-Soviet region.
In August 2014, the US announced that 600 soldiers from the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division of the US Army would rotate to the Baltic states and Poland. The deployment of this “Ironhorse” Armored Cavalry Unit is likely more symbolic than strategic.
This armored cavalry deployment is the latest of several deployments made to Estonia in recent months. In April, the 173rd Airborne Brigade conducted unscheduled training with the Estonian Army and in May the country hosted NATO war games involving over 6,000 troops.
In September, Estonia President Toomas Hendrik Ilves called for a permanent NATO base to be established in his country. This was followed by the sale of CV90 infantry fighting vehicles to Estonia from the Netherlands in October.
Like Estonia, NATO activity has increased in Latvia in response to the new regional environment. In May, US troops participated in Latvia’s Independence Day parade in a public show of support and in September, the United States sold four tanks, 12 infantry combat vehicles and sent 150 troops to Latvia. Like neighboring Estonia, Latvia has also called for permanent NATO bases in Eastern Europe. In October, the country hosted Operation Silver Arrow outside Riga, which included 2,100 personnel from Latvia, Estonia, Greece, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
In response to this military build-up on their border, Russia has expanded their military presence in the Kaliningrad Oblast. Recent military drills, including a simulated sea-borne invasion complete with advanced UAV platforms, were conducted concurrently with Operation Saber Strike, a Baltic Sea war-game which included troops from Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Great Britain, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and the US.
It is likely that such developments will continue so long as the NATO build-up in Estonia and Latvia endures. Russian diplomats have made it clear that they are willing to expend valuable capital to protect the interests of ethnic/cultural Russians in the Baltic States, many of whom are denied citizenship and the right to vote in their countries.
Western Opposition to NATO Involvement
Meanwhile, criticism of recent NATO developments has been seen in most core member-states. Prominent American conservatives see the moves as and contrary to long-term US interests and protests in Germany and France go even further, with many now expressing sympathies for the Donetsk separatists. Leading politicians in France, the United Kingdom, and Hungary have criticized the EU’s handling of the Ukrainian crisis, reflecting Eurosceptic trends across the continent.
Future Moves and Countermoves
Given the NATO-member status of the Baltic States, Russia will show no direct military aggression towards them. A Crimea scenario is highly unlikely. It is likely that symbolic deployments by the United States and other NATO members will continue as a means of reassuring their new allies, and Russian drills in Kaliningrad will continue in a similar fashion. The establishment of a permanent NATO base in the Baltics is highly unlikely and would contravene a 1997 NATO-Russian Founding Act.
It is highly likely that the US-Poland partnership will continue to deepen, as Russia intensifies overtures to Serbia. The peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian Crisis or entrance into frozen conflict status will likely accompany Eastern Europe stabilization amid a new status quo. Moscow is busily pursuing economic relationships with partners to her east in an effort to minimize the damage of EU sanctions. In the long-term, Russia is likely to continue on the path of Eurasian economic integration, choosing closer ties with the rising Asian economies over the troubled Eurozone.