On the same day that two Russian warships entered the Baltic Sea en route for the Mediterranean, Britain’s government said that it would send fighter jets to Romania next year while the U.S. said it will send troops, artillery, and tanks to Poland in the largest NATO military build-up along the Russian border since the Cold War.
The U.S. and Britain were joined by Germany, Canada, and other NATO allies who pledged their support for the build-up during a ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Wednesday.
According to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, these actions, which are sure to stoke East-West tensions, are a response to the estimated 330,000 Russian troops assembled near Russia’s western military flank outside Moscow.
“This month alone, Russia has deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad and suspended a weapons-grade plutonium agreement with the United States,” said Stoltenberg. Those missiles could potentially hit targets in Poland or the Baltic states. NATO officials declined to state whether Russia had moved nuclear warheads to Kaliningrad.
Stoltenberg went on to accuse Russia of continuing its support for rebels in Ukraine, which it officially denies. He also denied that NATO was going too far in its actions, which are sure to increase the feeling in Moscow that NATO is an encroaching and menacing force for Russia’s neighboring states.
Retaliatory sanctions for the annexation of Crimea have also provoked hostility in the Kremlin towards NATO and the West in recent years. Additionally, the U.S. has stated with “certainty” that the Kremlin was behind a cyberattack with targeted the Democratic Party; Washington has indicated that it may engage in retaliatory cyberattacks against Moscow.
Although NATO actions often further inflame tensions between Russia and the West, they are beholden to positions from which it is politically difficult to abstain. In July, NATO leaders promised to deter Russian encroachment in ex-Soviet European states in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, which brought Russian military action uncomfortably close to other Baltic and eastern European states.
NATO plans to establish four battle groups composed of 4,000 soldiers total by nearly next year. A 40,000-strong secondary force will be ready for rapid-reaction scenarios. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced a “battle-ready battalion task force” of roughly 900 soldiers that would be sent to eastern Poland as part of this commitment.
“It’s a major sign of the U.S. commitment to strengthening deterrence here,” said Carter.
Another force, equipped with heavy equipment including tanks, would be able to move throughout eastern Europe. The units would be in force by June.
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said that in May, Britain will send an 800-strong battalion to Estonia with French and Danish support. The U.K. will also send aircraft to Romania to support Turkey in its Black Sea operations. Such cooperation is usually only conducted between E.U. member states.
“Although we are leaving the European Union, we will be doing more to help secure the eastern and southern flanks of NATO,” Secretary Fallon said.
In addition to the U.S. and Britain, commitments were made by NATO allies Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, and Croatia. Germany will send 400 to 600 troops to Lithuania.
Stoltenberg called the commitment by NATO member states “a clear demonstration of our transatlantic bond”, referring to the U.S.-NATO relationship.
The build-up’s announcement coincided with a shake-up over whether Spain would allow Russian ships to stop and refuel during their move from northern Russia to the Mediterranean. From their destination port off the Syrian coast, the battalion, which includes three aircraft carrier, would likely pummel the civilian population of eastern Aleppo with the fighter bombers it is carrying.
The battalion passed through the North Sea and the English Channel before reaching in Spain in what has been dubbed a strategic show of military might by the Kremlin, who wish to show their ability to rapidly mobilize military forces in a way that probably exceeds what is of practical value to their mission in Syria.
The dispute was suddenly resolved when Russia decided to withdraw its request for refueling in Ceuta, a city in the Spanish enclave at the tip of North Africa, after NATO allies said that the naval fleet could be used to strike civilian targets in Syria.